One of the particularly difficult aspects of learning another language is that it may recognize distinctions between concepts that your native language ignores. This means that it is important to think about the idea you are trying to communicate rather than the particular words your native language uses to communicate that idea. Different languages may use different words!
This article covers the usage of 會/会 (huì), 能 (néng), and 可以 (Kěyǐ), three words that all translate to "can" in English. (We'll also discuss the "potential complement" as a somewhat-related bonus.)
Overview: Different Flavors of "Can"
會/会, 能, and 可以 all translate to can, but they are not interchangeable. Each one carries a specific nuance and is used to express different things.
- 會/会 (huì) is used for learned abilities – things that you can initially not know how to do, then after a period of study, become able to do
- 能 (néng) is used for innate capability/possibility – circumstances, physical or otherwise, make it possible to do something
- 可以 (Kěyǐ) is used for permission – things that require someone else's approval or consent in order to do
This is a bit of an oversimplification, and in practice, the lines often get blurred. While 會/会, 能, and 可以 are not interchangeable, changing 會/会 to 能 or 可以 wouldn't necessarily result in a nonsensical sentence. It would simply change the nuance of what you are communicating, and in certain situations, that may result in misunderstandings. Further complicating things, usage of these three words can vary across regions.
In the following sections we'll explore these nuances by translating two English sentences – he can eat and I can't swim – and then discussing what sort of nuance is lent to each translation by choosing to use 會/会, 能, or 可以.
會/会 (huì) – Learned Ability
會/会 (huì) is used to show that a given ability has been learned – through study, practice, or some sort of effort, somebody has obtained the ability to do something.
- 他真會吃! (Tā zhēn huì chī) – He can really eat!
Because 會/会 (huì) communicates that something is a learned ability, this sentence gives the impression that someone knows a lot about food and food culture. They don't just eat Thai food, they're a connoisseur of Thai food. They can make nuanced judgments about quality, taste, texture, and so forth.
- 我不會游泳。(Wǒ bú huì yóuyǒng) – I can't swim.
Humans are not born capable of swimming, so this statement is much more neutral: I can't swim, and it's because I never learned how to swim. If you dropped me in a pool, I'd flounder and sink. I'm not physically incapable of swimming – I could learn to swim – but, as of the moment, I don't know how to swim.
Here are a few more examples. Again, notice what sort of action the below things are: Chinese, dancing and driving are all skills that must be learned.
|Can you speak Chinese?
|Nǐ huì shuō Zhōngwén ma？
|Grandma can (knows how) to dance!
|Nǎinai huì tiàowǔ ne！
|I can drive (a car).
|Wǒ huì kāichē.
Note: 會/会 (huì) has a second meaning: it is also used to make objective speculations about the future. When used in this way, it often gets translated to will. That's beyond the scope of this post, but keep it in the back of your mind.
能 (néng) – Innate Capabilities
能 (néng) indicates that, due to certain conditions (which may or may not be stated), something is or isn't possible. As it concerns the conditions that allow or prevent something from happening, if those conditions change, then the outcome might change, too.
- 他真能吃！(Tā zhēn néng chī!) – He can really eat!
This is talking about physical capability: somebody is capable of eating a lot. Two hot dogs is enough for me, personally, but some competitive eaters are capable of eating more than 70 hot dogs in one sitting. The conditions at play here are stomach size and hunger response.
- 我不能游泳。(Wǒ bùnéng yóuyǒng.) – I can't swim.
This is communicating that, due to some circumstances, a person is not able to swim. They may know how to swim, but they currently cannot swim. Maybe they're sick and thus too weak to swim. Maybe they've just gotten a tattoo and can not swim until the tattoo heals. What's important is that when these conditions change – when the person's health recovers or their tattoo heals – they will once again be able to swim.
Here are a few more examples:
|Humans can't fly.
|Rén bùnéng fēi.
|Humans don't have wings!
|Can you forgive me?
|Nǐ néng yuánliàng wǒ ma?
|Whether I'll be forgiven depends on what I did.
|I can't eat anymore.
|Wǒ bùnéng zài chīle.
|I'm too full to continue eating.
Note: In practice, 不能 and 不可以 get used quite interchangeably. You might hear either of the following sentences, for example:
- 你好，這裡不可以抽煙。(Nǐ hǎo, zhèlǐ bù kěyǐ chōuyān.)
- 你好，這里不能抽烟。(Nǐ hǎo, zhèlǐ bùnéng chōuyān.)
The 不可以 variant sounds more polite, but both mean you can't smoke here.
可以 (kěyǐ) – Permission
可以 (kěyǐ) is used when authority comes into play – someone has or hasn't received authorization/permission to do something. Note that this only concerns permission and does not take extraneous factors/conditions into account.
- 他可以吃！(Tā kěyǐ chī) – He is allowed to eat [this]!
Someone has received permission to eat something. Perhaps there's a bowl of candy on a receptionist's desk, and the receptionist is letting a mother know that her kid can take a piece of candy.
- 我不可以游泳。Wǒ bù kěyǐ yóuyǒng. – I can't swim
Someone has forbidden me from swimming. Perhaps I received a serious penalty during a swimming competition and was banned from competing for the rest of the season. This doesn't say that I don't know how to swim, only that I'm not currently allowed to do so.
|Teacher, may I go to the restroom?
|Lǎoshī，wǒ kěyǐ shàng xǐshǒujiān ma?
|You're requesting permission from the teacher.
|I can't tell you.
|Wǒ bù kěyǐ gàosù nǐ.
|I've been asked not to tell you / think it isn't OK to tell you.
|After you are 20 years old, you can smoke.
|Èrshí suì yǐhòu kěyǐ chōuyān.
|In Taiwan, smoking becomes legal at 20 years of age.
Bonus: The "Potential" Verb Complement
Unlike English, Mandarin makes a distinction between (a) whether an action can occur in the first place and (b) or whether a given action can be "achieved" as intended. We've got a separate post that covers verbal complements and how they're used, so refer to that post for more information on the nuts and bolts behind the grammatical structure.
In context of this post, two things are important to understand:
- As discussed 能 and 可以 indicate that conditions allow or prevent something from happening
- The potential complement is used to express that a given action cannot be fully carried out to its logical conclusion / that the desired result of the action cannot be achieved
It's a bit easier to see how this plays out when sentences are compared side to side:
|We can't open that door.
Depending on the context, this could mean that (a) someone isn't allowed to open the door [permission] or (b) the door is stuck and won't open properly [circumstance].
|Nà shàn mén wǒmen bùnéng kāi
This would be awkward to say, but if you did, it would mean something like there are a series of 10 doors, and you won't be able to get to the last one to open it.
|Nà shàn mén wǒmen kāi bú dào
|You can't buy (that) in Taiwan.
Again, this indicates that (a) something is illegal to buy, or (b) there's a circumstantional reason it isn't able to be bought right now
|Nàgè dōngxī nǐ zài táiwān bùnéng mǎi
This adds a nuance that something can't be found in Taiwan: even if you go out trying to buy it, you won't get the opportunity to buy it
|Nàgè dōngxī nǐ zài táiwān mǎi bú dào
So, in a very general sense, notice that when we use 不能 or 不可以, the action cannot even be started in the first place. When we use the 不到 structure, on the other hand, an action cannot be fully realized: you can't open all 10 of those doors doors.
Note: We mentioned up above that the lines between 會/会, 能, and 可以 often get blurred. You might expect to need to use 不可以 to communicate that a door is not allowed to be opened, but you'll often hear 不能 used in this situation (as we did in the above example sentence), too. You'll get a better feel for these blurry lines as you spend more time in Mandarin, so for now, just keep it in the back of your mind.
As a final structural note, potential complements come in pairs. One indicates that the result of an action is able to be achieved, the other that it isn't.
|I can't understand (I hear the words, but I don't understand what they mean).
|I can understand (I see the words, and I know what they mean).
|Can you finish eating that?
|Nǐ chīdewán ma？
|You can't/won't be able to finish eating that。
I think this third example sentence is particularly revealing. Notice how it concerns whether or not you can finish eating – it's implied that you'll be able to start eating the meal, but you might not be able to "complete" or "achieve" the action of having eaten the entire plate of food. The same sort of logic is at play behind all of these constructions. You can start an action, but that action can't/won't be carried out to its logical conclusion.
Now that you've learned about the usage of 會/会, 能, and 可以, let's take things one small step further.
I know how to drive, so I 會/会 drive a car. However:
- I do not have a Taiwanese driver's license. As such, I 不可以 drive here in Taiwan, even though I 會/会 drive a car.
- If I were to get so sick that I could hardly stand up, then during that time I 不能 drive a car, even though the fact that I 會/会 drive wouldn't changed.
If you master 會/会 (huì), 能 (néng), and 可以 (kěyǐ), you become simultaneously able and unable to do something!
- How to Say "Yes" (and "No") in Mandarin Chinese
- How to Address Family Members in Chinese
- How to Express Affection in Chinese: from "You're Pretty" to "Will You Marry Me?"
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Note from Glossika: If you'd like a more practical introduction to Mandarin grammar, we strongly recommend checking out the Get Speaking Mandarin course from Outlier Linguistics. In the course, you'll learn to differentiate these words for "can" by learning them in the context of practical sentences.