Archive for the ‘Optative Verbs’ Category

In this article, I will discuss the difference between 可能[ke3 neng2] and 可以[ke3 yi3] when both of them are translated as “may”.

可能 and 可以 have brought confusion to foreign learners by their similar English translation. However, the meaning of these two words in Chinese is very different. I will introduce the differences by using several examples.

我可能去看电影。[wo3 ke3 neng2 qu4 kan4 dian4 ying3] I might go to watch the movie.

我可以去看电影。[wo3 ke3 yi3 qu4 kan4 dian4 ying3] I can go to watch the movie.

The first example has an indication that there is a possibility for me to watch the movie. In other words, I might go to watch the movie or I might not go to watch it (my attendance therefore depends on external factors like my mood or availability). In terms of the second example, it refers to the ability that I am permitted to go to  the movie (this permission might have come from the speaker’s mother or his overbearing spouse).

他可能生病了。[ta1 ke3 neng2 sheng1 bing4 le] He may be sick.

他可以请假。[ta1 ke3 yi3 qing3 jia4] He can ask for leave.

Sentence 3 has the meaning that he has possibility to be sick but it is just a guess. Sentence 4 shows that he is permitted to ask for leave.

Therefore,可能 indicates the possibility for an action however 可以 refers to the permission which is necessary for the activity to take place.



Can Sparky the Dog (right) eat all those hotdogs?In Chinese, there are three words for can: 可以 and .  Which one do we use to describe Sparky’s challenge?  Read on to find out…

In Chinese 会(huì) and 能(néng) both have the meaning of be able to/can do something and indicate possibilities. However, there are several differences between them.

In the sense of “can and be able to”, 会 indicates that people have gained the ability via learning. Sometimes 会 is more frequently used in the ability in terms of intelligence and physical vigour. For example:

她会说汉语 (She can speak Chinese)

他会游泳 (He can swim)

能 refers to inherent physical abilities: 她有眼睛,她能看(She has eyes so she is able to look at things)

In the sentence: 他能去电影院吗?(Is he able to go to the cinema?) there is a connotation of physical ability. That is to say, you are asking whether he is physically able (i.e.: healthy enough) to go there.  So, there could be some context or circumstance of sickness warranting the use of 能.

能 may also focus on people’s capacity and skill which has reached a certain degree. That is to say, if the ability is presented by concrete figures, 能 is more often used in this situation. For instance:

他一天能吃5个苹果 (He can eat five apples every day)

In the sense of “indicate possibility”, 会 has a subjective tendency, such as the phrase 我会想你的 (I will miss you). It indicates the action will definitely happen according to the subject’s perspective.

Compared with 会, 能 has a more objective trend and focuses on objective conditions (generally: time, climate, weather, and non-subjective actions). For example:

 时间还早,我能走路回家 (It is still very early, I can walk back)

Have a great weekend!

Michael and Jing