Many of our Chinese language students are confused by the difference between 过 (guò) and 了 (le). Both of them can be placed after a verb to indicate that something has happened. However, their meanings are very different. Let’s look at this Chinese grammar point.
过 guo: past experience
“过 guo” is used to express an action that was done in the past, emphasizing the experience of the action. It means someone has experienced something before. In English, the equivalent would simply be “have” + a verb.
Subject + Verb + 过(guo) + Object
- Wǒ qù guò Zhōngguó.
- I have been to China.
- Nǐ kàn guò zhè běn shū ma?
- Have you ever read this book before?
We use “没 (méi)” to negate the sentence.
Subject + 没(méi)+Verb+过(guo)+Object
- Tā méi lái guò Shànghǎi.
- He has never been to Shanghai before.
- Wǒ méi tīng guò tā de gē.
- I have never listened to his song before.
了 le: Completion of an Action
“le” has a lot of meanings, one of the most common ones is to emphasize the completion of an action.
Subject + Verb + 了 + Object
- Wǒmen chī le Sìchuān cài.
- We ate Sichuan cuisine.
- Zuòtiān tā mǎi le yì běn shū.
- Yesterday he bought a book.
When indicating completion, 了 (le) can sometimes go after the object.
Subject + Verb + Object + 了
- Tā qù Běijīng le.
- He went to Beijing.
- Zuótiān wǒ zài fàndiàn kànjian Wáng lǎoshī le.
- Yesterday I saw teacher Wang at a restaurant.
We use “没 (méi)“ to negate the sentence. A very important point: more on that here in how to use 了le.
Subject + 没 (méi) + Verb + Object
- Zuótiān tā méi mǎi shū.
- Yesterday he didn’t buy any book.
- Tā méi qù Běijīng.
- He didn’t go to Beijing.
“了” is used to express whether the action is complete, it doesn’t always indicate past tense. Want to know how to use it for a future action? Read our previous blog: 了(le) = Past Tense? A Common Stereotype in Learning Chinese
Use “过” and “了” at the same time
The tricky part is: 过 and 了 can be used at the same time! The structure is:
Verb + 过 + (Object) + 了
We use this structure to emphasize that an action is already done.
- A: 我们要去吃饭，你来吗？
- A: Wǒmen yào qù chīfàn, nǐ lái ma?
B: Nǐmen qù ba. Wǒ chī guò le.
- A: We’re going to go eat, do you want to come along?
B: You guys go. I’ve already eaten.
- A: 别忘了给她打电话。
- A: Bié wàng le gěi tā dǎ diànhuà.
B: Wǒ gěi tā dǎ guò diànhuà le.
- A: Don’t forget to call her.
B: I’ve already called her.
We hope that clarifies the difference between 过 (guò) and 了 (le)!