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 (?), 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/?) (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 ? (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 y? ch?ng diàny?ng (saw a movie)
    • t?olùnle x?du? wèntí (discussed many issues)
    • ch?wánle pínggu? he xi?ngji?o (finished off the apples and bananas)
    • d?s?le s?n zh? 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:
    • z?u jìnlai le y? wèi ji?ngj?n (a general came in)
    • sh?ushi h?o le zìj? de xíngli (gathered up one’s luggage)
    • d?s?o g?njìng le zhè ji?n sh?fáng (cleaned up the study)
    • yánji? bìng ji?jué le huánjìng w?r?n 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 yánji?le bìng ji?juéle.
  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:
    • Xiàti?n lái le. (Summer is here.)
    • W?men fàngle jià le. (Our vacation has begun.)
    • K?lián de xi?oyáng, bèi láng g?i ch?diào le. (The poor little lamb was eaten up by the wolf.)
    • Ti?n kuài liàng le, w?men g?i dòngsh?n le. (It’s almost dawn; we should get moving.)
    • H?o le, h?o le, nímen zài bùyào zh?nglùn le. (All right, stop arguing, all of you.)
    • N? bù shì ch?guo 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.

measure words

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyToday’s selection from the rules on how to write Pinyin deals with measure words (800 KB PDF).

Measure words are a pet peeve of many beginning Mandarin students. (“But teacher, why can’t we just use ge for everything?”) Many more advanced students, however, get a sort of perverse pleasure out of memorizing them. If you fall into the latter group, be sure to go through the PDF linked to above, as it supplies more than 100 measure words, along with sample usages.

Fortunately, although measure words themselves can be a real pain for non-native speakers to memorize, the rules for writing them are simple: in almost all cases they’re separate.

  • y? b?i chá (a cup of tea)
  • y? b?n sh? (a book)
  • y? ji?n fángzi (a house)
  • y? kuài qián (one yuan / one NT dollar)
  • y? liàng zìxíngch? (a bicycle)
  • y? piàn miànb?o (a slice of bread)
  • y? píng ji? (a bottle of wine)
  • y? tóu shu?niú (a water buffalo)
  • y? zh?ng zh? (a sheet of paper)
  • y? zh? g?nb? (a fountain pen)

I have some friends who are good at Pinyin who say that yi ge (but not liang ge, san ge, etc.) is an exception, that it should be written solid: yige. But I have yet to see this stated in the rules; and from what I’ve seen Yin Binyong writes them separate just like everything else. Of course, it’s possible I’ve overlooked something.

Slightly trickier are indefinite measure words.

There are only two indefinite measure words in Putonghua: xi? ? (some; a few) and di?nr ?? [or just plain ol’ di?n ?] (a little, a bit).

xi? ? indicates a fairly large number or amount. It can follow the numeral y? ? (one), a demonstrative pronoun zhè ? (this) or ? (that), or certain other modifiers. It is written as one unit with the component it follows:

  • y?xi? ?? (some);
  • zhèxi? ?? (these);
  • nàxi? ?? (those);
  • h?oxi? ?? (a lot of).

di?nr ?? indicates a small number or amount. It can follow the numeral y? ? (one), a demonstrative pronoun zhè ? (this) or ? (that), or certain other modifiers. It is written as one unit with the component it follows:

  • y?di?nr ??? (a bit, a little);
  • zhèdi?nr ??? (this bit, these few);
  • nàdi?nr ??? (that bit, those few).

When xi? or di?nr are preceded by a verb, however, they are written separately from it:

  • ch? xi? d?ngxi ???? (eat something);
  • xi? xi? wénzh?ng ???? (do some writing);
  • ch? di?nr d?ngxi ????? (eat a little something);
  • xi? di?nr wénzh?ng ????? (do a little writing).