The three “can” words in Chinese (会, 能, 可以)

In English, the word “can” has several senses, in Chinese some of those senses have actually been “mapped” into separate words. This article and video explain the three senses in Chinese and shows examples of how to use them correctly

Something interesting about comparing various languages is that in some languages one word is mapped into several words in a different language. Often this is a result of the word having several senses in the one language that are all “melded” together. In English we have the word “can” and use it all the time, but “can” actually has different senses that we are often not even aware of, using them interchangeably.

three cans

This diagram shows the three senses of “can” in Chinese and some overlap between them, these will be explained below:

会 (Huì) — “can” in a physical sense
The first one is 会 (Huì) which means “can” but only for physical or mental abilities. Here are some examples to illustrate:

我会讲中文 (Wǒ huì jiǎng zhōngwén) “I can speak Chinese”
我会读拼音 (Wǒ huì dú pīnyīn) “I can read pinyin”
你会游泳吗? (Nǐ huì yóuyǒng ma?) “Can you swim?”
会跑步的人一般时很健康 (Huì pǎobù de rén yìbān shí hěn jiànkāng) “People who can run are usually very healthy”

As you can tell from those sentences they are all referring to physical or mental abilities.

能 (Néng) “can” by circumstances
The second one is 能 (Néng) which means “can” but it refers to being able to do something as a result of correct circumstances, here are some examples below:

你今天能来我家吗? (Nǐ jīntiān néng lái wǒjiā ma?) “Can you come to my house today?”
你能不能帮我看一下新闻? (Nǐ néng bùnéng bāng wǒ kàn yīxià xīnwén?) “Can you help by watching the news for a bit?” (I.E tell me afterwards)

As you can tell, these examples are not talking about a physical ability, obviously you can come to my house in a physical sense, we all have that physical ability, but this is about circumstances, do your circumstances allow for you to come to my house?

可以 (Kěyǐ) “Can” by permission (or “may”)
可以 (Kěyǐ) means “can” but referring to having permission to do something, not physical ability or circumstances that allow something to happen. Here are some examples:

我妈说我不可以打游戏 (Wǒ mā shuō wǒ bù kěyǐ dǎ yóuxì) “My mom said I can’t play games”
我们因该不可以这么早去滑冰 (Wǒmen yīn gāi bù kěyǐ zhème zǎo qù huábīng) “we probably can’t go ice skating so early”
我可以跟你说一下话吗? (Wǒ kěyǐ gēn nǐ shuō yīxià huà ma?) “Can/May I have a word with you?”

As you can tell, these are not about physical ability or circumstances, but permission, another sense of “can”. In English this can also be “may”, or a sense of the word “may”

These are not absolute
Although these are the meanings of those three senses they do have some overlap and there are circumstances in which you could interchange them without any major effect on the meaning of a sentence. Here are some examples of interchangeable sentences:

你能帮我一下吗? (Nǐ néng bāng wǒ yīxià ma?) /
你可以帮我一下吗? (Nǐ kěyǐ bāng wǒ yīxià ma?)
“can you help me for a bit?”

我能说中文 (Wǒ néng shuō zhōngwén) /
我会说中文 (Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén)
“I can speak Chinese”

But again there may be some interchangeable area but for the most part they are independent and have different meanings.

Hope this helps you, feel free to comment below

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2 Responses

  1. Sarah says:

    Very Helpful – Many Thanks for taking the time to put this up.

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