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.

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.

  • yī bēi chá (a cup of tea)
  • yī běn shū (a book)
  • yī jiān fángzi (a house)
  • yī kuài qián (one yuan / one NT dollar)
  • yī liàng zìxíngchē (a bicycle)
  • yī piàn miànbāo (a slice of bread)
  • yī píng jiǔ (a bottle of wine)
  • yī tóu shuǐniú (a water buffalo)
  • yī zhāng zhǐ (a sheet of paper)
  • yī zhī gānbǐ (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: xiē 些 (some; a few) and diǎnr 点儿 [or just plain ol’ diǎn 点] (a little, a bit).

xiē indicates a fairly large number or amount. It can follow the numeral 一 (one), a demonstrative pronoun zhè 這 (this) or 那 (that), or certain other modifiers. It is written as one unit with the component it follows:

  • yīxiē 一些 (some);
  • zhèxiē 這些 (these);
  • nàxiē 那些 (those);
  • hǎoxiē 好些 (a lot of).

diǎnr 点儿 indicates a small number or amount. It can follow the numeral 一 (one), a demonstrative pronoun zhè 這 (this) or 那 (that), or certain other modifiers. It is written as one unit with the component it follows:

  • yīdiǎnr 一點兒 (a bit, a little);
  • zhèdiǎnr 這點兒 (this bit, these few);
  • nàdiǎnr 那點兒 (that bit, those few).

When xiē or diǎnr are preceded by a verb, however, they are written separately from it:

  • chī xiē dōngxi 吃些東西 (eat something);
  • xiě xiē wénzhāng 寫些文章 (do some writing);
  • chī diǎnr dōngxi 吃點兒東西 (eat a little something);
  • xiě diǎnr wénzhāng 寫點兒文章 (do a little writing).