There are numerous uses of 了 in Mandarin Chinese. And they’re often hard to interpret, let alone use! In this article, I will focus on five uses of 了 to express some sort of emphasis, which are not related to the past tense that 了 is commonly associated with.
These uses of 了 can catch beginners off guard: “Why the heck is there a 了 there?“ “Do I really need a 了 here?”. I will analyze the instances where 了 is used in expressions for emphasis and hopefully you can also observe the common theme.
As a native speaker, 了 is a word I rarely think about! I just know when to use it and when not to use it. I have challenged myself to summarize and explain uses of 了 and hopefully I can help non-native speakers use it! In a series of articles I want to break down all uses of 了 in Peppa Pig episodes I’ve written so far.
This post is inspired by Kees’ long email full of questions about my explanations of 了 in show notes. I agree that they’re not perfect (they may never be, 了 is pretty hard). As I write more about 了, I plan to go back and revise some of my explanations. I very much appreciate the questions!
太 + … + 了
This structure is super easy to identify and use for anybody. I’d call this the easiest use of 了 for emphasis. The middle part of 太 + … + 了 could be a few things. The most common one is 太 + adjective + 了 used to described something is REALLY adjective, or TOO adjective. There are many examples from Peppa Pig.
- 这个包裹太小了 S01E51 Part 1
- 太阳太毒了 S01E46 Part 1
- 哦，糟糕，乔治太小了接不住球 S01E46 Part 2
- 太棒了 S01E46 Part 4, S01E45 Part 6
- 爸爸，你们整理得实在是太慢了 S01E43 Part 5
- 太好了，看来我是这方面的专家 S01E07 Part 3
- 实在太好了 S01E07 Part 4
- 实在是太有意思了 S01E17 Part 4.
The following two cases are slightly harder:
- 这眼镜也太难找了 S01E09 Part 5 难找 is difficult to find, together it still acts as an adjective.
- 太感谢你了，斑马先生 S01E51 Part 1 太感谢 + people + 了, 太麻烦 + people + 了, are commonly used expression for thanks and apologies. I can’t think of any other verbs that are used this way off the top of my head for now. Let me know if you can think of any!
For all the cases above, it’s safe to always use 了. Occasionally, native speakers could drop the 了, when expressing strong, often negative emotions, 他太慢！太差！太阳太大！For beginners, I’d stick to always using 了 together with 太 and over time you may observe cases where 了 is dropped.
很 and 太 are often similar. However, it’s rare to use 很 together with 了. For example, you wouldn’t add a 了 to 实在很有意思, but you certainly will to 实在太有意思了！Note that: if you say something like “你已经做得很好了” You’ve already done well. The 很+了 combination could be deceiving, the 了 is more related to the past tense as indicated by 已经.
比 + adjective + 多 + 了
This structure is similar to 太…了, except it is used in comparisons. The 多 indicates the emphasis, meaning very much. I only found one example from Peppa Pig so far:
- 是的，蝴蝶的口器可比你的舌头长多了 S01E17 Part 1
In this sentence, you cannot add the 了 without the 多 there. 蝴蝶的口器可比你的舌头长了 is super awkward, 蝴蝶的口器可比你的舌头长 is fine.
In lieu of more examples from the show, I am making up a few easy examples.
- 这里的天气（可）比北京冷多了！The weather here is much colder than Beijing’s!
- 那家商场（可）比这家便宜多了！That shop is much cheaper than this one!
- 我（可）比他帅多了！I am way more handsome than him!
In all of the cases above, it’s okay to stop at the adjective, but you can’t have the adjective + 了 without the 多 in the middle. 可 is commonly used in this structure but it’s not necessary.
最喜欢 + … + 了
This is a very common and general phrase for describing somebody likes (dislikes) something or enjoys (hates) doing something very much.
It is not exclusively used to describe something is what you enjoy the MOST, even though 最 could give you the false impression of that. Used in the general sense (not necessarily “the most”), you should add a 了 at the end.
There are also cases where you wouldn’t use 了 at the end. For example, if you were to answer a question like “Red, white, green, which one do you like the most?” You could say 我最喜欢红色！ — Without the 了 here. (However, you can also use the 了 here. The expression with 了 is more general than without.)
Without the 了, the expression would take on the the literal meaning of “most” or 最. In most cases, such an expression would sound awkward. Think about things you’d say about enjoying doing very much, you rarely mean “the most” in the very narrow sense.
For example, 佩奇和乔治最爱吃巧克力蛋糕了 or Peppa and George love eating chocolate cakes. Well, I’m sure they love eating chocolate cakes very much, but I bet they also like other sweets.
Some examples from Peppa Pig:
- 佩奇和乔治最爱吃巧克力蛋糕了 [S01E04 Part 3]
- 乔治最喜欢恐龙了 [S01E51 Part 1]
- 佩奇和乔治最喜欢看妈妈在电脑前工作了 [S01E07 Part 1]
- 佩奇和乔治最喜欢去海边玩儿+了 [S01E46 Part 1]
- As I mentioned in the podcast, this sentence should really have a 了 at the end. It would sound unfinished if not.
只能 (or 只好)…了
This is an expression for “have no choice but…” or “out of desperation, can only do…”. There is a strong sense of reluctance. The emphasis on the “only” in 只能 or 只好.
There are two examples from Peppa Pig you can check out:
They are both pretty long sentences but the key is you should use 了 in combination with 只能 to emphasize on the extremeness of “have no other choice but to do something”.
Now, you may remember 只能看一会儿哦 from S01E03 Part 5 and wonder why there is no 了 here. 只能 in this sentence has slightly different meaning than “have no choice but”. It’s more like “you are only allowed to do this, technically, you don’t have to do this at all”.
I’m making up a few more examples:
- 没有红茶，我只好喝绿茶了。 There is no red tea, I can only drink green tea instead.
- 忘带钥匙，只能在大门口等着了。 I forgot my keys, so I can only wait in front of the front door.
- 他不会说中文，只能用英文问路了。He doesn’t speak Chinese, so he could only speak English to ask for direction.
- 找老婆好久没找到满意的，只好凑活了。Looked for a wife for a long time, but didn’t find anybody he’s satisfied with, so he can only make do with the one available.
就是 + noun + 了
This expression is akin to “This is exactly it!” “This is precisely it.” In the spoken language, you’d typically emphasize on 就是.
In Peppe Pig, I only found one example, perhaps because it’s not strictly necessary. In fact, I think it’s safer to not use 了 in these cases.
- 佩奇，乔治，这就是我们的新宠物了[S01E04 Part 2]
In S01E51 Part 6, there are several uses of 就是 + noun without the 了. I’d say 了 can be added to 这个就是我 and 而这个，就是真正的猪爸爸 but it’s not necessary.
I think the combination of 就 and 了 is tricky because it’s often related to other meanings of 了. Let’s consider this sentence:
- 选来选去，就是它了！After choosing for a while, I’ve set on this one!
- I think here the use of 了 is necessary, but it’s related to the action of having made a difficult choice (past tense related).
Do you have questions about any of the above or any other uses of 了 in general? Comment and ask away!