The good news is that there are no verb tenses in the Chinese language. Many other languages have imposing ranks of verb conjugations to indicate past, present, future, perfect, and so on, the degree of complexity varying with the language. With Chinese, there is only one sound/word, and character, for a given action (not counting synonyms, see notes below). The time factor is addressed by “time words” at the beginning of the sentence when necessary. However, there is a way to show that an action is completed. It is so simple as to seem almost silly. All that has to be done is add a “le” sound a the end of the sentence.
Learning to add these types of meaningful sounds at the end of Chinese sentences has been both fun and embarrassing for me. It is fun because it is a bit sing song. All of the “important” words, with distinct meaning, have already been said, then you go and add this sound that reminds me of singing “la la la.” Most of these ending meaning-indicator sounds are “neutral” tones, which basically means midrange tonally, but, most importantly, very short compared to the other tones for most of the main words. There is 嗎 (ma.) for questions, 吧 (ba.) for suggestions, and 了 (le.) for making it clear that something has been completely done.
It can feel embarrassing or awkward, because until one is used to it, it feels like adding an unnecessary sound. In English, we don’t have individual sounds that are important for understanding a sentence. Tone matters, but it is incorporated with the English words we are using, not isolated. The Chinese meaning-indicator sounds are like singing punctuation!
Upon reflection, though, English speaking parents should be jealous of this little Chinese trick. Sometimes, we just want to know if the kids are finally finished with something. The options in the English language can be frustrating to listen to, giving play to many excuses. In Chinese, they should know you are just listening for the 了 (le.), and leave it off at your own peril.
In my last Chinese lesson, we practiced quite a few sentences using this ending. My ear soon became adjusted to the sense of finality that it added to the sentence. For instance, if I say the Chinese sentence below, I suspect people are less likely to argue about my decision to be done eating.
(wo3) (yi3 jing1) (chi1 bao3) (le.)
(I) (already) (eat to fill) (indicating completed action)
I am already full.
If I complain to a friend about my husband, who didn’t need to buy his own drink, 「他把我的檸檬水喝完了！」the complete lack of hope for my refreshment is utterly apparent. （translation below)
(ta1) (ba3) [(wo3)(de.)] (ning2 meng2 shui3) (he1 wan2) (le.)
(he) (word to position direct object of sentence) [(I)(suffix making it an adjective, possessive in this sentence)] (lemonade/lemon water) (to drink to finish) (indicating completed action)
He has completely drunk my lemonade!
It is possible that he will later make me forget about my trouble
(ru2 guo3) (ta1) (song4) (hua1) (gei3) (wo3) (le.)。(yin1 wei4) (ta1) (zhi1 dao4) (wo3) (hen3) (xi3 huan1) (hua1)
(if, supposing) (he) (deliver, present, give) (flower) (give, for) (me) (indicating completed action). (because) (he) (knows, is aware) (I) (very) (like) (flower)
if he gives me flowers, because he knows I very much like flowers.
In the first Chinese phrase directly above, you may notice that the verbs occur earlier in the grammatical order, but the (le.) can go right after the verb or at the end of the sentence (or phrase if the sentence has more sections).
But the word order can be mixed up a tiny bit, and instead say
(ta1) (gei3) (wo3) (song4) (hua1) (le.)
(he) (give, for) (me) (present) (flower) (indicating completed action)
He brought me flowers.
A couple of more generic, but highly useful sentences would be
(wo3) (zuo4 wan2) (le.)
(I) (to do to finish) (indicating completed action)
I did it!
(wo3) (yong4 wan2) (le.)
(I) (to use to finish) (indicating completed action)
I used it up.
Since details are always useful, even in Chinese, you might find it useful to be able to tell a street merchant 「我的錢用完了。」(translation below)
[(wo3)(de.)] (qian2) (yong4 wan2) (le.)
[(my)] (money) (to use to finish) (indicating completed action)
My money is used up.
Something I often have to tell myself is
(jin1 tian1) [(wo3) (de.)] (shi2 jian1) (yong4 wan2) (le.)
(today) [(my)] (time) (to use to finish) (indicating completed action)
Today my time is used up.
There can be positive applications, such as
(wo3) (pao3 wan2) (le.) (ma3 la1 song1)
(I) (to run to finish) (indicating completed action) (marathon)
I finished running the marathon.
Even more positive is the wonderful and magical phrase:
(yong4 bu4 wan2) (le.)
(to use not to finish) (indicating completed action)
Cannot be used up.
Everyone would like to be able to say this about time and money.
And now I can say
(wo3) (xie3 wan2) (le.) (zhe4 pian1) (bu4 luo4 ge2)
(I) (to write to finish) (indicating completed action) (this + measure word for blog) (blog)
I have finished writing this blog post!
Notes on helpful things I learned or was reminded of while writing these sentences:
❶ Compound and doubling of words are very common in the Chinese language. Sometimes it is the combining of two different words to create a more descriptive one, such as in the word 喝完 (he1 wan2), which combines “to drink” with “to finish.” The word then means “to drink until finished.” Adding the 了(le.) at the ends verifies that this has been accomplished. 吃飽 (chi1 bao3) is an example of taking two similar words and combining them for emphasis. The word for “to eat” is put with the word “to eat until full” and makes a word that clearly means “to eat one’s fill.” Sometimes, the same word is repeated for emphasis and rhythm, like in the word 明明 (ming2 ming2). 明(ming2) means “light, clear, brilliant, day, dawn”. Doubling it means “very clear” or “obviously.”
❷ This 把 is also a “ba” sound-punctution word, but is written with a different character. It is used when the direct object (that is the noun receiving the action of the verb) is being put in front of the verb. For example, in English, we might say: He drank my drink. “My drink” is the direct object. If we say, “My drink he drank.” it might be awkward or archaic sounding, but you would probably know what was meant. If it was rearranged to say: “My drink has been drunk by him.” the “by” combined with the change in verb conjugation are serving a similar function to the Chinese “ba”.
❹ I find it fascinating that 花 (hua1) can be and is commonly used to mean either “flower” or “to spend,” a good example of how context makes the difference.