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Top 10 Most Common Chinese mistakes made by English Speakers: #8


Hi, it's Yangyang, hope you are doing well! 

This is the third in a series of posts on the most common mistakes English speakers make when speaking Chinese.

In my years of teaching Chinese, I have come to notice that English speakers tend to make similar mistakes over and over again. Today, I am going to tell you the most common mistake #8.

The goal here is to become aware of these mistakes to help you avoid making them in the first place! 

Mistake #8: Using "le (了)" to indicate past tense for all verbs 

Chinese is very loosely structured around tense. The easiest way to indicate tense is to use a time marker.

For example, to say "I will go to China tomorrow", you can simply say "I tomorrow go to China." Adding "tomorrow" makes the sentence future tense.

If you want to say "I watched a movie yesterday", you can simply say "I yesterday watch a movie". "Yesterday" makes the sentence past tense.

There's another way of expressing completion of an action, and that is to use the particle "le (了)" as the suffix "-ed" as in "danced", "used" etc. 

"le (了)" emphasizes that the action has been completed and can be used in any tense. 

1. “le (了)” is NOT equivalent to past tense.

In other words, don’t treat “le (了)” as the suffix “-ed” as in “danced,” “used,” etc.

“le (了)” emphasizes that the action has been completed and can be used in any tense.

2. Since only action verbs can be marked as complete, "le (了)" can only be used with action verbs to indicate past tense.

Remember, you CANNOT use "le (了)" to indicate past tense for adjectival verbs and stative verbs.

For adjectival verbs or stative verbs, you need to use a past time marker such as "before/previously – yǐqián (以前)" to indicate the past.

The following is a list of common adjectival verbs, stative verbs and action verbs.


Adjectival Verbs (functioning as verbs in Chinese)

Good – hǎo

Pretty – piào liang

Handsome – shuài

Adorable – kě ài

Smart – cōng míng

Early – zǎo

Late – wǎn

Tall/high – gāo

Big – dà

Small – xiǎo

Stative Verbs (showing a state, not an action, the way things ARE)

To be – shì

To have – yǒu

To like – xǐ huān

To think / to feel (expressing an opinion) – jué de

To know – zhī dào

To understand – míng bái

To feel (physical or emotional)– gǎn jué

To love – ài

To want – yào

To want to (do something) – xiǎng

Action Verbs (relating to a process instead of a state)

To read – kàn (shū)

To watch – kàn

To cook – zuò (fàn)

To dance – tiào (wǔ)

To sing – chàng (gē)

To go – qù

To sleep – shuì (jiào)

To return to – huí

To buy – mǎi

To say – shuō

The following list summarizes how to indicate past tense for adjectival verbs, stative verbs and action verbs.


Adjectival verbs – Adding a past time marker “previously or before”

She was beautiful. (lit. She before beautiful.)
yǐ qián hěn piào lianɡ。 

Stative verbs – Adding a past time marker “previously or before”

Mary was John’s girlfriend. (lit. Mary before is John’s girlfriend.)
Mary yǐ qián shì John de nǚ pénɡ you。

I was a teacher before. (lit. I before am teacher.)
yǐ qián shì lǎo shī。 
以前是老师。/ 我以前是老師。

I had lots of money. (lit. I before have lots of money.)
yǐ qián yǒu hěn duō qián。 
以前有很多钱。/ 我以前有很多錢。

Action verbs – Adding “le”

I ate three hamburgers.
chī le sān ɡe hàn bǎo bāo。 
吃了三个汉堡包。/ 我吃了三個漢堡包。

He went home.
huí jiā le

I bought lots of stuff.
mǎi le hěn duō dōnɡ xi。 
买了很多东西。/ 我買了很多東西。

If a stative verb or adjectival verb is followed by "le (了)", the meaning is "change of status" rather than "completeness of an action". 


Adjectival verbs

She is no longer beautiful.
tā bú piào lianɡ le。 

I am tired now. (lit. I tired le)
wǒ lèi le。 

Stative verbs

I don’t love you anymore.
wǒ bú ài nǐ le。
我不爱你。/ 我不愛你

She is a mother now. (lit. She is mother le.)
tā shì mā ma le。 
她是妈妈。/ 她是媽媽

Now I understand. (lit. I understand le.)
wǒ mínɡ bái le。 

Alright, I hope this helps you understand how to use "le (了)" to indicate past tense.

Please leave any questions you have in the comments section below and I will get back to you with an answer asap!   

Also, I'd love to see you use the comments section to practice forming some sentences with what we just learned, show me what you can do!

Top 10 Most Common Mistakes: #7 coming next week ^_^