Le=Past tense? A Common Stereotype in Learning Chinese

Is “了” the mark of past tense in Chinese?

I know you must have faced the problem of how to use “了” correctly no matter you are a beginner or an intermediate learner. “了” is quite tricky because we could get so confused about the position of it and we never know exactly when we should use it. Maybe you have been told that when you describe something happened in the past, you have to use “了”, like the past time tense in English. But is that true? Let’s take a look at some examples ofV+了+(O)structure:

1. 昨天 下课 以后 我 去 和 同学 打 篮球 了。

   Zuótiān xiàkè yǐhòu wǒ qù hé tóngxué dá lánqiú le。

    Yesterday after class I played basketball with my classmates.

2. 上 个 星期 我 看 了 一部 特别 有意思 的 电影。

    Shàng gè xīngqī wǒ kān le yī bù tèbié yǒu yìsi de diànyǐng。

    Last week I watched a very interesting movie.

3. 明天 到 了 上海 我 要 先 去 见 我的 老师。

   Míngtiān dào le Shànghǎi wǒ yāo xiān qù jiàn wǒ de lǎoshī。

             Tomorrow when I arrive in Shanghai I will first go to see my teacher.

4. 今天 下 了 班 以后 你 打算 做 什么?

    Jīntiān xià le bān yǐhòu nǐ dǎsuàn zuò shénme?

    Today after work What are you going to do?

         Apparently, sentence 1 and 2 express what happened in the past. But both sentence 3 and 4 indicate something that will happen in the future, and we also use “了” under such condition. Therefore, we cannot take for granted that “了” is always used in the past. In sentence 3, “到了上海” only means this action or event has been accomplished, but doesn’t mean it happened in the past. This sentence clearly states that the action is going to happen in the future by telling us “明天”.  It’s the same in sentence 4 “下了班以后”.

         Normally, when the “了” is used in the sentence that expresses something is going to happen, there will be two verbs. “了” will be placed after the first verb, and the second verb is going to happen after the first one has been accomplished. So “了” in this case indicates the completion of the first action.

S + V1 了+(O) + V2

2 more examples:

  • 以后 才能 决定 要不要 跟 他的 公司 合作。

wǒ jiàn le tā yǐ hòu cái néng jué dìng yào bú yào gēn tā de gōng sī hé zuò 。

I have to meet him to decide if we are going to cooperate with his company.

S + V1 了+(O) + V2

           我  见了    他     决定       


  • 以后 给 你,你 别 担心。

wǒ gǎi le yǐ hòu fā gěi nǐ ,nǐ bié dān xīn 。

I will send it to you after I correct it. Don’t worry.

S + V1 了+(O) + V2

我  改了            发


         So now you should be more clear that “了” does not always equal to “-ed” in English, which means it’s actually not the mark of past tense in Chinese. It only indicates that something has been accomplished. It could be in the past, but could also be possible in the future.

Huang Pei now settled down in Shanghai, after teaching Chinese in colleges in Beijing and Boston. Her special interests include analyzing Chinese grammar, comparing culture differences and creating new teaching methods.