Chinese grammar:The difference between 能 & 会 in Chinese

Can(会) or Able(能) is an English word wher translating into Chinese can be tricky depending on the situation.

The differences between the two are very real, and become relatively simple with ample practice and real world exposure.

When you think about “can” in English, it *can* mean a lot of things. It can indicate your “learned” ability to do something (I can play the piano), your ability to complete an action based on circumstances (I can go tomorrow), or whether you are “allowed” to do something (can we smoke in here?)

We’ll take a look at both 会 and 能 separately, dive into some simple example sentences, and finish up with key takeaways.

1. 会- huì Definition: can, able, will

Ah, yes, the beloved 会. Conjuring up images of meetings, parties, and all other types of social gatherings, it is one of the most commonly encountered of all Chinese characters (number 18 on the Mandarin Poster). For the purposes of this piece, let’s put aside its “social” definitions (社会- shèhuì -society, 聚会- jù huì- party), and focus specifically on its contrast with 能.

The most common use of 会 is “can” or “able to”, specifically for learned knowledge. Use it for actions you know how to do because you acquired the skill as a result of study, not necessarily because you were born with an innate ability.

Examples:

Tā huì zuò fàn
他会做饭
He can cook
Wǒ bù huì shuō rì yǔ
我不会说日语
I can’t speak Japanese
Tā men dōu bù huì dǎ lán qiú
他们都不会打篮球
None of them can play basketball

会 is also commonly used to indicate “will”, or “will be”. As shown in the example sentences below, “I will…” or “it will” is typically “会…”

Examples:

míng tiān huì xià yǔ ma
明天会下雨吗?
Will it rain tomorrow?
nǐ huì qù ma?
你会去吗?
Will you go?
nǐ fàng xīn, míng tiān wǒ huì zhǔn shí lái
你放心, 明天我会准时来
Don’t worry, I’ll be on time tomorrow.

2. 能- néng Definition: Ability, capable of, able to

Use 能 to indicate physical ability to do something or complete a task. Considering the present circumstances, 能 indicates whether you are “capable” of completing the action based on the situation.

Examples:

wǒ míng tiān bù néng qù yóu yǒng
我明天不能去游泳
I can’t go swimming tomorrow
Tā yī cì néng hē 7 píng pí jiǔ
他一次能喝7平啤酒
He can drink 7 bottles of beer in one go
Nǐ néng bāng wǒ yī gè máng ma?
你能帮我一个忙?
Can you help me for a minute?

能 can also mean “be allowed to” or “may do”. In this case it is often interchangeable with 可以, but not with 会.

Examples:

zài shì nèi bù néng chōu yān
在室内不能抽烟
Smoking not allowed inside
wǒ néng cháng yī xià ma?
我能尝一下吗?
Can I have a try?

So…Remember this!

1. 我会喝酒, 但是现在不能. I am able to drink alcohol, but I cannot right now. Thus, I 会 drink, but right now, because of present circumstances (I have to drive later, I have an important meeting in the morning, my girlfriend will get angry), I 不能.

2. Use 能 when your physical ability to do something is dependent on the situation. Use 会 for learned ability, blind to present circumstance.

3. In addition to both meaning “can”, 会 means “will” or “will do”, wher 能 means “allowed to”.

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