Comparing Differences Between “了(le)” and “过(guo)”

“了” and “过” are two frequently used particles in Chinese, but most learners confuse them. So what are the similarities and differences between them? Being more familiar with these details will help you use them correctly.

Similarities

1. Both can be used after a verb.

Subj. + Verb + 了/过 + Obj.

  • 我  吃 那个 苹果。

wǒ chī le nàgè píngguǒ

I ate that apple.

  • 我  吃 那种 苹果。

wǒ chī guò nàzhǒng píngguǒ

I have eaten that type of apple.

2. Both can indicate a completed action. 

In some situations, “了” and “过” are interchangeable. To emphasize a specific action.

  • 妈妈  吃  饭  才  开始  工作。

māmā chīle fàn cái kāishǐ gōngzuò.

Mom started working only after she’d eaten.

  • 妈妈 吃饭  才  开始 工作。

māmā chīguò fàn cái kāishǐ gōngzuò

Mom started working only after she’d eaten.

 

Differences Between “了(le)” and “过(guo)”

1.  Word Order

“了” can appear either after a verb or at the end of a sentence. It suggests that at a certain time something occurred, or action was completed, or a certain change took place.

  • 我  认识  一个  漂亮  姑娘。

wǒ rènshíle yīgè piàoliang gūniang

I met a pretty girl.

⚠ The action “met” was completed at a certain time which depends on the context.

Subj. + 是 + Obj +了.

  • 他  是  老师

tā shì lǎo shīle

He is a teacher now.

⚠ He was not a teacher before. His status has changed.

“过”  is only put after a verb in a complete sentence.

  • 你  学中文 吗?

nǐ xuéguò zhōngwén ma

Have you ever learned Chinese?

  • 我  吃中国 菜。

wǒ chīguò zhōngguó cài

I’ve eaten Chinese food before.

2. With or without a specific time

“过” calls attention to the fact that someone has had an experience. It talks about whether something has ever happened or whether it has been experienced, without a specific time.

When “了” is used after a verb, it generally signifies the realization or completion of an action. There is usually a time phrase in the sentence.

  • 我  看这个 电影。

wǒ kànguò zhège diànyǐng

I have seen this movie. (suggest: So we can talk about the movie)

(Emphasis is on the experience of seeing a movie. )

  • 昨天 上午 我  看这个 电影。

zuótiān shàngwǔ wǒ kànle zhège diànyǐng

I saw this movie yesterday morning. (suggest: I don’t need to see it again)

(Emphasis is on the completion of an action.)

  • 我  去  中国。

wǒ qùguò zhōngguó

I have been to China.

(The action has been done before at least once and I am not in China anymore)

  • 去年 夏天 我  去  中国。

qùnián xiàtiān wǒ qùle zhōngguó

I went to China last summer.

(The action [went] was completed, and I am probably still in China now.)

  • 我  坐  两  次  过山车。

wǒ zuòguò liǎng cì guòshānchē

I have ridden a rollercoaster twice (in my whole life).

(This event has occurred two times in the past, without specifying a time frame.)

  • 那天 我  坐两  次  过山车。

nèitiān wǒ zuòle liǎng cì guòshānchē

I rode the rollercoaster twice that day.

(The event was completed twice in a specific time period that must be clear from the context.)

le and guo

3. Different Function

Bear in mind that “verb +了” is not the same as the past tense in English, it can be used in the past, the present, or the future. While “verb +过” can only be used in the past tense.

Past

  • 去年  夏天,他们  有  一个  孩子。

qùnián xiàtiān, tāmen yǒule yīgè háizi

Last summer, they had a child. 

Present

  • 现在,他们  有  一个  孩子。

xiànzài, tāmen yǒule yīgè háizi

Now, they have a child.

Future

  • 我们  以后 有  孩子  ,就  没有  这么  多  自由  时间了。

wǒmen yǐhòu yǒule hái zǐ , jiù méiyǒu zhème duō zìyóu shíjiānle

If we have a child, we won’t have as much spare time.

3. Only use 过 in a negative sentence

 “了” can’t be used in a negative sentence with “没 méi”.

Subj. + 没 + Verb + 了 + Obj. ❌

  • 我  没  学了 汉语。❌

wǒ méi xuéle hànyǔ

  • 我  没  学  汉语。    ✔

wǒ méi xué hànyǔ

I didn’t learn Chinese. (But learn something else in the past)

“过” can be used with “没” together to indicate some event or action has not been experienced in the past.

Subj. + 没 + Verb + 过 + Obj. ✔

  • 我  没  学汉语。

wǒ méi xuéguò hànyǔ

I have never learned Chinese before.

  • 我  没   想   这  个  问题。

wǒ méi xiǎngguò zhè gè wèntí

I’ve never thought about this question before.

How to use “过” with “了”

The pattern with an object: Verb + 过 + Obj. + 了

  • 妈妈  看  房子。/ 妈妈  已经  看过  房子

māmā kànguò fángzile / māmā yǐjīng kànguò fángzile

Mom has already seen the house.

  • 我  看  医生。/ 我  已经  看  医生

wǒ kànguò yīshēngle / wǒ yǐjīng kànguò yīshēngle

I have already brushed my teeth.

You’ll notice that the meaning of “过了”, to some extent, is equivalent to that of “过”. The little difference is “过了” emphasizes that the completed action has no need to be done again.

Sometimes the object can be ommitted:  Verb + 过 + 了

  • 我们  看过了。/ 我们 已经 看过了

wǒmen kànguòle / wǒmen yǐjīng kànguòle

We’ve already seen it.

  • 他  玩过了。/ 他  已经 玩过了

tā wánguòle / tā yǐjīng wánguòle

He has already played.

How to ask questions using “过了”

le-and-guo

Obviously, the answer is NO! They use “过” with “了” to describe daily routines as well, such as having dinner, brushing teeth, washing face, and so on. When you want to ask questions about it, the following pattern is used.

Subj. + Verb + 过 + Obj + 了 + 吗?

  • A:你  吃   早餐  吗?/ 你  已经  吃过  早餐了  吗?

nǐ chīguò zǎocānle ma / nǐ yǐjīng chīguò zǎocānle ma

Have you already eaten breakfast?

B:我  吃过。/ 我   已经  吃过了

wǒ chīguòle / wǒ yǐjīng chīguòle

I have already eaten.

  • A:你   刷  牙  吗?/ 你  已经  刷  牙  吗?

nǐ shuāguò yále ma / nǐ yǐjīng shuāguò yále ma

Have you already brushed your teeth?

B:我  刷了。/ 我  已经  刷过了

wǒ shuāguòle / wǒ yǐjīng shuāguòle

I have already brushed.

Compare the following two examples:

  • 你  吃早餐吗? ❌

nǐ chīguò zǎocān ma

Have you ever eaten breakfast?

  • 你  学汉语吗? ✔

nǐ xuéguò hànyǔ ma

Have you ever learned Chinese?

⚠ Note: “verb+过” focuses on the experience that occurred in the past, but can not be used to describe daily routines.

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