le redux

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyNo, I’m not switching to French. I just wanted to get back to the matter of the particle le (了), which was discussed previously in How to write verbs in Hanyu Pinyin. Le is so frequently used that it deserves its own section.

Because today’s selection on this from Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography is just a few pages long, for this post I typed out all of it — other than most Chinese characters, which can be seen in the PDF of the original: Tense-Marking Particles (le/了) (240 KB PDF).


9.2. Tense-Marking Particles

Tense-marking particles have already been discussed in some detail in Chapter 5, Verbs. It was noted there that the tense markers zhe (indicating an action in progress) and guo (indicating a past experience) are always written as a single unit with the verb they follow. The particle le 了 (indicating a completed action) is sometimes, but not always, written as a single unit with its verb. This is because le, unlike zhe and guo, may be separated from its verb by other elements; and also because le itself can act as a mood particle as well as a tense particle. (For details on le as a mood particle, see Section 3 of chapter 9.)

This section is devoted to a discussion of orthography specifically as it relates to the tense particle le. Three rules are laid out to help the student master the written forms of this particle.

  1. When le occurs in the middle of a sentence or phrase, and immediately follows a verb or verb construction written as a single unit, le is written together with that verb or verb construction:
    • kànle yī chǎng diànyǐng (saw a movie)
    • tǎolùnle xǔduō wèntí (discussed many issues)
    • chīwánle píngguǒ he xiāngjiāo (finished off the apples and bananas)
    • dǎsǐle sān zhī tùzi (shot three rabbits)
  2. When le occurs in the middle of a sentence or phrase, and follows a verb phrase written as two or more units, then le is written separately:
    • zǒu jìnlai le yī wèi jiāngjūn (a general came in)
    • shōushi hǎo le zìjǐ de xíngli (gathered up one’s luggage)
    • dǎsǎo gānjìng le zhè jiān shūfáng (cleaned up the study)
    • yánjiū bìng jiějué le huánjìng wūrǎn de wèntí (researched and solved the problem of environmental pollution)
      • Note that le here applies to both verbs, so that the meaning is equivalent to yánjiūle bìng jiějuéle.
  3. When le occurs at the end of a phrase or sentence (that is, immediately before any form of punctuation), it is written separately from other elements:
    • Xiàtiān lái le. (Summer is here.)
    • Wǒmen fàngle jià le. (Our vacation has begun.)
    • Kělián de xiǎoyáng, bèi láng gěi chīdiào le. (The poor little lamb was eaten up by the wolf.)
    • Tiān kuài liàng le, wǒmen gāi dòngshēn le. (It’s almost dawn; we should get moving.)
    • Hǎo le, hǎo le, nímen zài bùyào zhēnglùn le. (All right, stop arguing, all of you.)
    • Nǐ bù shì chīguo fàn le ma? (Haven’t you eaten already?)
      • Note that le is here treated as if it occupied the sentence-final position, despite the presence of another particle (ma) following it.


OK, it’s me again. In closing I want to draw attention to that final note, because it’s important: If le is followed by ma, le is still treated as if it came at the end of the sentence and thus is written separately from its verb.

3 thoughts on “le redux

  1. Here’s a slightly off-topic and perhaps silly question: most of these articles about how to write in Hanyu Pinyin seem to have to do with the presence or absence of spaces between syllables. So would all these rules also be equally applicable to writing Chinese characters with spaces?

    For example if


    is spaced this way in pinyin,

    Wǒ xuéguo liǎng nián Yīngyǔ, dànshì méi xuéguo Rìyǔ.

    using the same rules, it can also be written this way:

    我 學過 兩 年 英語, 但是 沒 學過 日語.

    making it a lot more readable (to this beginner at least!). Spaces are no doubt more necessary in pinyin than with characters, since pinyin text is usually more ambiguous than text in characters, but still.


    Is “spaced characters” writing used at all by native Chinese speakers? I know it’s used in some Chinese-learning textbooks, but is it used elsewhere?

    Other forms of Western-style punctuation (,.:;”…) are commonly used in newspapers, so why not spaces?
    e.g. http://www.bjd.com.cn/ztxw/200904/t20090430_517571.htm

  2. Hi, Kai. Nice to see you back in the comments.

    Signage would be a great place to start with word spacing in Chinese-character texts. It would certainly make more sense than the forced justification I often see in which large spaces are inserted between individual characters in order to force a line to meet a designated length.

    But I don’t recall ever having seen word-spaced texts in Hanzi. I’d certainly love to.

    I have a vague memory of someone (Y.R. Chao? Hu Shih?) calling for texts to be written that way. I haven’t found the quotation yet, though.

    Spacing of another sort, however, is common in headlines and subtitles, where spaces between phrases generally serve as a form of punctuation (usually as strong as an em-dash in English but sometimes as weak as a comma).

    Your point about other forms of Western-style punctuation is on target. I certainly don’t hear too many calls from the cultural purists — “Hanzi, and only Hanzi, always and forever!”, “Pinyin would kill Chinese culture!”, etc. — about how the use of periods, etc., must be abolished in order to preserve the “purity of the language.”

  3. Pingback: Pinyin news » Spreading the good news

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