Do Chinese people say the particle 了 (le) after the verb every time when we are talking about some action that’s happened in the past?
 

First, let's have a short quiz about when to use 了(le) after the verb. Please complete the following paragraph by choosing whether to add 了(le) or not 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。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。

 

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 jiāo tā. 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 ____(jiāo) wǒ hěnduō Zhōngguócài.

 

Many students consider the particle 了(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 了(le) to stress that an action has happened already. The truth is, though, we don't always say 了(le) when we are talking about one action in the past. Here are some common exceptions.

1. Some Special Verbs 

For some verbs which refer to a real action, commonly you need to add 了(le) after it. But for some special ones, you don't need. 

 

1)有(yǒu)

For us, 有(yǒu) is kind of state, not a real action. eg:

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.

A:(十年前)你为什么买得起那么贵的房子?

(Shí nián qián) Nǐ wèishénme mǎi de qǐ nàme guì de fángzi?

 (Ten years ago) Why could you afford such an expensive house?

B: 因为那时我有很多钱。

Yīnwèi nàshí wǒ yǒu hěnduō qián.

Because at that time I had a lot of money.

2) 想(xiǎng), 觉得(juéde), 认为(rènwéi)
When it comes to verbs which conveys an opinion, like 想 (xiǎng), 觉得 (juéde), 认为 (rènwéi), we don't use 了(le). eg:

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. 


Sometimes you may see 想了(xiǎngle),such as  
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 think hard with your brain, so we can say 想了(xiǎngle).

 

3) 喜欢(xǐhuan), 爱(ǎi), 讨厌(tǎoyàn), 担心(dānxīn)
For verbs which indicate our emotions, also we don’t use 了(le), such as 喜欢(xǐhuan, to like), 爱(ǎi, to love), 讨厌(tǎoyàn, to hate), 担心(dānxīn to worry). eg:

那时候我很喜欢打篮球。

Nà shíhou wǒ hěn xǐhuan dǎ lánqiú.

At 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 了(le)?


Sometimes you should use 了(le), like:

其实昨天你告诉他了。

Qíshí zuótiān nǐ gàosu tā le.

Actually yesterday you told him.


However, when you quote the words in your sentence, we don't say 了(le):
 

他说这个对他很重要。

Tā shuō zhège duì tā hěn zhòngyào.

He said this is very important for him. ​

2. In the Structure of "... 的时候(…de shíhou)"

When a verb was used in a past time clause like ... 的时候(…de shíhou), there is no 了(le) after it. eg:

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.

3. After Adverbs like 常常(chángcháng) 很少(hěnshǎo) 每天(měitiān)
When you are describing a habit or situation in the past, not a one-time action, we also don’t say 了. eg:

 

过去我常常晚上洗澡,现在喜欢早上洗。
Guòqù wǒ chángcháng wǎnshàng xǐzǎo, xiànzài xǐhuan zǎoshàng xǐ.
In the past, I often too a shower at night, and now I like to do it in the morning.

在美国的时候,他每天都去教堂。
Zài Měiguó de shíhou, tā měitiān dōu qù jiàotáng.

When in US, he went to the church every day.

These are three common situations in which 了(le) is unnecessary for referring to things in the past tense. Maybe you are wondering, if there is no 了(le), how could people know, I'm talking about the past not the present? For a single sentence without any context, it is truly ambiguous for the readers. But in a real conversation, you will have the context to know. If you want to emphasize that this is no longer the case, you can add 那时 (nàshí) or other similar words in the sentence.

 

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。以前我在中国住的时候,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。

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. 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.

When Do We Not Say 了(le) Even Though We're Talking About the Past?

> Original > When Do We Not Say 了