The Strangest Chinese Character

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Oct 12, 2016 01:39
I’ve been correcting Chinese entries on Lang-8 off and on for a couple years, and I’ve noticed that, for non-native speakers of Chinese, the most difficult character to use is “了.” Very few Chinese learners here have a perfect command of this character.

Chinese, unlike many alphabetic languages, doesn’t have verb tenses. “了” can be used to indicate past and perfect tenses. However, there are many irregularities. The Chinese language is easier than many other languages in terms of tenses, but I guess that almost all the difficulty has fallen on the usage of words such as “了” and “过.”

From a linguistic point of view, Chinese is categorized as an analytical language, which means grammar isn’t strict, and thus the tenses can sometimes only be parsed within a specific context. The character "了" comes naturally to my fingers while I’m writing, but non-native speakers need grammatical rules to guide them. Therefore, I’ve referred to many resources in order to equip myself with thorough linguistic knowledge about the usage of “了,” but I still find it hard to explain. Whenever a paper tries to sort it out by giving a list of example sentences, I can always find an exception. None of the papers convinced me, so I gave up trying to explain it to non-native speakers here.

It’s interesting that “了” was rarely used in ancient Chinese, and purportedly this character didn’t carry out the aforementioned grammatical functions until a few hundred years ago, which is also an example of Mandarin drifting away from the extreme of analytical language and taking on some characteristics of synthetic languages.

The character isn’t easy to use for Chinese people either, because it sounds rather colloquial, and so in formal writing we avoid it as much as possible. One of the simplest ways of telling whether a native Chinese speaker’s writing level is high or not is that in rather formal writing involving ARGUMENTATION such as government reports, newspaper columns, and papers, people try to work around using “了” while keeping the grammar straight, which can be very tricky, and can only be achieved after an enormous amount of reading and writing.

As an aside, are there any distinctive features that can show a native English speaker’s writing is advanced?