Posts Tagged ‘Expressing permission in Chinese’

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.