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When Not to Use 了 When Talking About The Past

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Do Chinese people say the particle (le) every time when they are talking about something that’s happened in the past?

First, let’s do a small exercise designed to show when and when not to use (le) after the verb. Please complete the following paragraph by choosing whether or not to add (le) after the verb in brackets.

  • 昨天我____(去)我的朋友家。我们一起____(做)很多好吃的菜。他____(说)他非常喜欢中国菜,可是不知道怎么做。我_____(告诉)他,下次我会教他。
    Zuótiān wǒ ____(qù) wǒ de péngyǒu jiā. Wǒmen yìqǐ ____(zuò) hěnduō hǎochī de cài. Tā ____(shuō) tā fēicháng xǐhuan Zhōngguócài, kěshì bù zhīdào zěnme zuò. Wǒ _____(gàosu) tā, xiàcì wǒ huì jiào tā.
    I went to my friend’s house yesterday. We had a lot of great food together. He said he likes Chinese food very much, but he doesn’t know how to make it. I told him I’d teach him next time.
  • 以前我在中国____(住)的时候,____(有)很多中国朋友,他们____(觉得)我是个很有意思的人,____(喜欢)跟我聊天,所以常常____(请)我去他们的家。他们也____(教)我很多中国菜。
    Yǐqián wǒ zài Zhōngguó____ (zhù) de shíhòu, ____(yǒu) hěnduō Zhōngguó péngyǒu, tāmen ____(juéde) wǒ shì gè hěn yǒuyìsi de rén, ____(xǐhuan) gēn wǒ liáotiān, suǒyǐ chángcháng (qǐng) wǒ qù tāmen de jiā. Tāmen yě ____(jiào) wǒ hěnduō Zhōngguócài.
    I used to live in China, there I made many Chinese friends, they thought I was a very interesting person, they liked to chat with me, so they often invited me to their home. They also taught me a lot about Chinese food.

Many students consider the particle (le) as a marker for the past tense. Sometimes even teachers say this in order to make things simple for students. The grammar of Chinese, however, is not as strict as most languages in the world. For Chinese, there is no “tense”, let alone “past tense”.

We use (le) to stress that an action has happened already. The truth is, though, we don’t always say (le) when we are talking about something in the past. Here are some common exceptions.

1. 有 (yǒu)

If you want to say “When I was in university, I had many books” in Chinese, you should say:

在大学的时候,我有很多书。
Zài dàxué de shíhou, wǒ yǒu hěnduō shū.
When I was in university, I had many books.

Here, you’ll notice, we don’t say 有了(yǒule).

You may wonder how, if there is no time clause in the sentence, will people know that this refers to the past and not the present? This is ambiguous sometimes. But, in a real conversation, you will have the context to know.

For example, when you and your friend are talking about your life ten years ago, and your friend asks you, “How could you buy such a big house?”, you may want to say, “Because I had a lot of money”. In Chinese, you would simply say:

因为我有很多钱。
Yīnwèi wǒ yǒu hěnduō qián.
Because I had a lot of money.

If you want to imply that this is no longer the case, you can add 那时 (nàshí) or other similar words. We will often say something like:

因为那时我有很多钱。
Yīnwèi nàshí wǒ yǒu hěnduō qián.

However, we cannot confidently say that all sentences including 有 (yǒu) are past tense, and that we don’t need to use (le) for such sentences. You can use some adverb or time clause to express that it is about the past and not the present. The reason, I think, is that 有 (yǒu) almost is ‘a state’ rather than ‘an action’.

2. 想 (xiǎng), 觉得 (juéde), 认为 (rènwéi)

When describing an experience, you may want to say something like “I thought he was not at home, so I drove to another place”.

In Chinese, you would say:

我想他不在家,所以我开车去了另一个地方。
Wǒ xiǎng tā bú zài jiā, suǒyǐ wǒ kāichē qùle lìngyíge dìfang.
I thought he was not at home, so I drove to another place.

When it comes to verbs like 想 (xiǎng), 觉得 (juéde), 认为 (rènwéi), all of which conveys an opinion, we don’t use (le).

Sometimes you may see 想了(xiǎngle), for example:

我想了一天,也不明白他为什么生气。
Wǒ xiǎngle yìtiān, yě bù míngbai tā wèishénme shēngqì.
I thought for a day, but still don’t understand why he was angry.

Here, 想 (xiǎng) is a real action, which means you thought hard with your brain. So, in this case, we can say 想了(xiǎngle)。

3. 喜欢 (xǐhuan), (ài), 讨厌 (tǎoyàn), 担心 (dānxīn)

For verbs that indicate emotions, we also don’t usually use (le). This includes such words as 喜欢 / xǐhuan (to like), 爱 / ài (to love), 讨厌 / tǎoyàn (to hate), and 担心 / dānxīn (to worry). When it comes to these verbs, we can use adverbs like 很 (hěn) and 非常 (fēicháng) to describe the degree of your emotion. So in Chinese, these function more like adjectives in a sentence.

Take, for example, the example below:

那时候我喜欢打篮球。
Nà shíhou wǒ xǐhuan dǎ lánqiú.
During that time, I liked playing basketball.

4. 说 (shuō), 告诉 (gàosu)

Here you may get confused. 说 (shuō) and 告诉 (gàosu) are real verbs and real actions, so why shouldn’t you follow them with (le)?

Sometimes, you should use (le), like in the following examples:

我已经跟你说了三遍了!
Wǒ yǐjīng gēn nǐ shuōle sānbiàn le!
I have said this to you three times!

Or

其实昨天你告诉他了。
Qíshí zuótiān nǐ gàosu tā le.
Actually you told him yesterday.

However, when you quote the words in your sentence, you should not use (le):

他说这个工作对他很重要。
Tā shuō zhège gōngzuò duì tā hěn zhòngyào.
He said this job is very important for him.

5. …的时候 (…de shíhou)

Another important exception is in a past time clause, for instance:

昨天我们吃晚饭的时候,他打破了 一个杯子。
Zuótiān women chī wǎnfàn de shíhou, tā dǎpò le yíge bēizi.
When we were having dinner last night, he broke a cup.

Here, we don’t say 吃了晚饭 (chīle wǎnfàn), since it is in a time clause. We only add (le) in the main clause of a sentence, not in the time clause.

These are the most common situations in which (le) is unnecessary for referring to things in the past tense.

QUIZ ANSWERS

Now, would you like to re-do the test at the beginning? Anything you want to correct? The answers are below.

  • 昨天我去了我的朋友家。我们一起做了很多好吃的菜。他他非常喜欢中国菜,可是不知道怎么做。我告诉他,下次我会教他。
    Zuótiān wǒ qùle wǒ de péngyǒu jiā. Wǒmen yìqǐ zuòle hěnduō hǎochī de cài. Tā shuō tā fēicháng xǐhuan Zhōngguócài, kěshì bù zhīdào zěnme zuò. Wǒ gàosu tā, xiàcì wǒ huì jiāo tā.
    I went to my friend’s house yesterday. We had a lot of great food together. He said he likes Chinese food very much, but he doesn’t know how to make it. I told him I’d teach him next time.
  • 以前我在中国的时候,很多中国朋友,他们觉得我是个很有意思的人,喜欢跟我聊天,所以常常我去他们的家。他们也教了我很多中国菜。
    Yǐqián wǒ zài Zhōngguó zhù de shíhòu, yǒu hěnduō Zhōngguó péngyǒu, tāmen juéde wǒ shì gè hěn yǒuyìsi de rén, xǐhuan gēn wǒ liáotiān, suǒyǐ chángcháng qǐng wǒ qù tāmen de jiā. Tāmen yě jiāole wǒ hěnduō Zhōngguócài.
    I used to live in China, there I made many Chinese friends, they thought I was a very interesting person, they liked to chat with me, so they often invited me to their home. They also taught me a lot about Chinese food.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and I wish you a great day to come!

Helen

Helen is a Professional Chinese Teacher, who lives in Tianjin, China. She has taught over 1.8k lessons on italki. Book a class with her today, just click on the banner* below and search for her name.

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