Chinese Grammar: Part 2 - Much to do about 了
Remember what we first learned about 了 and what it means when placed right after the verb? Correct, it indicates completed actions - see lesson. It’s now time to tackle what 了 means when it’s placed elsewhere in the sentence, and particularly at the end of the sentence. Ready?
了, the change of state signaler
了 is also used to show that a situation has changed. It is then placed at the end of the sentence.
S + V (+O)+了
When 了 is placed at the end of a sentence, it indicates that the current state of someone or something is different or has changed now from what it used to be. 了, in this case, implies a comparison with how it was before since it’s there to highlight a change in the situation.
It also can emphasize somebody/something has a new situation, in which case, you could think of the structure as new situation +了.
Let’s look at some examples so you can get a better idea of how this 了 works.
See how this 了 is always placed at the end of the sentence?
Change of state 了 likes stative verbs and adjectives
We saw together that the 了 that indicates completed actions couldn’t be used with verbs that describe states or are adjectives. Our Change of State 了 doesn’t have such restrictions. Therefore, if you see 了 following such a verb of state or an adjective, then you can be sure it’s there to indicate a change of state!
Examples with adjectives
Examples with verbs describing a state
了 is used to indicate what the situation is like now. You’ll often see it paired with 现在, 已经 or both, to show time has passed. This 了, as it indicates change, is also used a lot to talk about the weather, seasons and time.
Change of State 了 in a negative sentence
Remember how we said in the previous lesson that 了 couldn’t be used in a negative sentence? This is true in most cases: it makes no sense to use 了 to talk about something that wasn’t completed or a situation that hasn’t changed. Still, you can and will run into sentences that contain 了 with a negative verb or phrase. 了 then takes on a special meaning: “not any more”.
We told you 了 had many uses, right? What you just saw was Change of State 了. 了 is also used in some set phrases in Mandarin Chinese; which wouldn’t work without 了’s action. Let’s see what set phrases we’re talking about!
Set phrases with 了
了 is used in different types of set phrases; the main ones being those that indicate imminent action, and those that form “excessive” sentences. Let’s start with imminent action.
When you want to indicate something is about to happen, you can be sure you’ll be using 了, usually paired with 要 and / or 快. Here are the most common set phrases you’ll come across. They all convey a certain sense of urgency.
- 快(要)... 了 This set phrase means “just about to”, “soon”, “almost”. You’ll sometimes see it as 快要....了; it means the same. 快...了 is chiefly used with adjectives. You can add 要 when using this set phrase with verbs.
This set phrase means something is going to happen. It is mainly used with verbs. You might also run into 要 快... 了 which makes it sound a little more urgent.
For instance, to say I will be graduating next month
These set phrases are used to express the fact something is “very, really” something. They are used quite a lot in China and are often called “excessive”.
When you want to express your “excessive” emotions, you can use this pattern: start with an adverb such as 太 tài,可 ke_, add the adjective you wish to intensify, and finish off your excessiveness with 了and you’re done!
死 了 is another structure that uses 了to intensify an adjective. 死 means to die, so you can guess what kind of meaning it adds to the sentence! In English, we say “to death”, as in as you scared me to death. The Chinese say the exact same thing: 吓 死 我 了! You scared me to death. 死 了 can be paired with a lot of adjectives, mainly negative ones, such as being hungry, being hot, being bored, being tired, etc...
Cool, huh? As you see, in these set phrases, it’s simple: the 了 is automatic; so just remember to add it in these types of sentences and you’ll be good to go!
Almost there! We’ve covered most uses of 了 up to now. There’s one last thing we need to see together: what happens when you mix both 了s in a sentence. Yes, it happens: the 了that goes after a verb and the 了 that concludes a sentence can both appear in the same sentence. What for, you wonder? What do they mean?
Mixing both 了
When both 了 are mixed in a sentence, it is usually to bring emphasis to an action that has already taken place. It makes sense if you think about it: the first 了 will be indicating a completed action; and the second 了 at the end of the sentence, highlights the fact it has changed from previously. The double 了 therefore describe what has been completed up to now.
You’ll find that in sentences with double 了, an indication of an amount, whether a precise or a more imprecise amount (so much; too many) is present. 已经 is also often used in such sentences, as it also emphasizes the fact the action already happened.
Sometimes, it’s not entirely clear which 了 you’re facing, as both 了can merge into one in cases when both would end up next to each other, especially in short sentences. For instance: 我 来了 can either be: I have arrived, or I’ve now arrived.
Usually, however, there’ll be other words in the sentence to clue you in, or context to help you figure it all out, so don’t worry!
OK, let’s sum up the uses of 了you’ve seen so far:
How do you feel about 了? A little dazzled? It may seem like a handful at first, but if you keep in mind these different meanings and uses了 can have, you’ll soon be using it like a pro. So don’t be afraid the next time you see a 了！Just remember these rules, and you’ll be able to handle all the 了situations that come up. We’ll help. Let's start by practicing!
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