Beginner in Chinese?

Sign up to get a free basic Chinese course complete with MP3 audio, 
plus learning tips and video lessons! 

Chinese Character Bites – #5 – 了

Our character for today is 了

In simplified Chinese characters: 了
In traditional Chinese characters: 了
(It’s the same in both traditional and simplified Chinese characters)


Sometimes 了 can be pronounced le in a neutral tone,  and in some situations it can be pronounced liǎo in the 3rd tone.

What it means:

了 (le) is a grammatical particle that can perform a number of different functions, but here are a few of the most common uses:

a) It can indicate that a situation has changed, eg 下雨了 (it’s raining – it wasn’t raining before but it is now – the situation has changed)

b) It can indicate that a verb has been completed or happened in the past, eg 我去 (I go), 我去了 (I went).

c) Another common specific use is 太 + an adjective + 了, which means ‘so’ something or ‘very’ something, eg 太好了 (excellent, so great, very good).

了 (liǎo) is also often used as a grammatical particle. Literally, it means something like ‘to complete’ or ‘to finish’, so now it’s often used with a verb, eg 我吃不了 I can’t carry on eating (I eat, not finish)

了 liǎo is also sometimes used instead of the character 瞭 in 了解 (to understand), especially in simplified Chinese characters.

Let’s break it down:

There’s not much to break down with this one, and it has such a variety of grammatical uses, that to connect it with a meaning is difficult.

了 strictly speaking should be written with two strokes of the pen, one for the top of the character, and one for the bottom, but in practice a lot of people will write it with a single stroke, without lifting the pen off the page