Do you notice what these five sentences have in common?
- Do you want to go to the movies? Yes!
- Have you been to Texas? Yes!
- Do you have a dollar? Yes!
- Do you like chocolate? Yes!
- Can I watch Game of Thrones? Yes!
If you said that the response to each one is yes, then you're right!
If you've been studying Chinese for awhile, you might have also noticed that each of these yeses will be translated into a different word: 要 (yào), 去过(qùguò), 有(yǒu), 喜欢(xǐhuān), and 可以(kěyǐ), respectively.
None of these words directly correspond to 是 (shì), which is what many phrasebooks will offer as a translation for the word "yes."
So how do you express yourself when answering a yes/no question?
Housekeeping: Affirmation and Negation in Linguistics
“Yes” and “no” are known more formally as an affirmation and a negation, fancy words indicating that you're responding positively or negatively to a question.
“Do you want to go to the store?”
- “Yes” (affirmation)
- “No” (negation)
These concepts themselves are pretty simple, but different languages approach them differently. So whereas English treats yes and no as catch-all words that can be used in response to pretty much any question or utterance, Chinese is a bit more involved.
Having said that, Chinese is a very consistent language, so you'll be well on your way if you can remember a few general guidelines.
(As a side note, this isn't just because Chinese is a "distant" language. Celtic languages like Irish, Gaelic, Manx, and Welsh (which you can learn for free on Glossika) and even Latin don’t use catch-all words like yes or no to handle affirmation and negation, either. This is just one part of a much bigger discussion that scholars literally write books about!)
So, How Do You Say Yes and No in Chinese?
1) To say "yes," simply repeat the verb in question
First, let’s look at affirmation.
On the simplest level, if you want to respond to a question with a "yes" in Chinese, you can simply take whatever verb a speaker featured in their question, and then repeat it in your answer.
If it helps, in certain situations, we sometimes use a similar structure in English:
- Person A: Are you going or not going?
- Person B: Going.
|你喜欢台湾吗？||你喜歡台灣嗎？||nǐ xǐhuān táiwān ma?||Do you like Taiwan?|
|喜欢||喜歡||xǐhuān||Like (Yes, I like it.)|
|你去过巴黎吗？||你去過巴黎嗎？||nǐ qùguò bālí ma?||Have you been to Paris?|
|去过||去過||qùguò||Have been (Yes, I've been there.)|
|你有车吗？||你有車嗎？||nǐ yǒu chē ma?||Do you have a car?|
|有||有||yǒu||Have (Yes, I have one.)|
|那块儿牛肉你吃不吃？||那塊牛肉你吃不吃？||nà kuài er niúròu nǐ chī bù chī? (no "er" for the traditional version)||Are you going to eat that piece of beef?|
|吃/我吃||吃/我吃||chī / wǒ chī||Eat / I eat (Yes, I'm going to eat it.)|
|那块牛肉你要不要吃？||那塊牛肉你要不要吃？||nà kuài niúròu nǐ yào búyào chī?||Are you going to eat that piece of beef?|
|要/我要||要/我要||yào / wǒ yào||Want/going to (Yes, I'm going to)|
And that’s it! All you have to do is repeat whichever verb is being used in a question.
Except… did you notice that the last example actually had two verbs? 要 and 吃. Which verb do you repeat in a situation like that?
The process is the same, but you have to think a little bit: What is the person actually asking?
Whoever asked the above question can see that you are not currently eating the piece of beef. They're not asking you a 吃 or 不吃 question (as in the second to last example), they're curious about your intentions. Are you going to eat it, or not? – And, perhaps, if not, can I eat it?
This in mind, you simply respond 要 if you're going to eat the piece of beef or 不要 if you aren't.
Here's another example to consider:
|有人在家吗？||有人在家嗎？||yǒurén zàijiā ma?||Is anyone home? (Lit. ‘have/exist people at home?’）|
|有||有||yǒu||Have/Exist (Yes, there are people at home.)|
The speaker here isn't asking a question of location, they're asking about the presence or lack of presence of people. As such, the response is 有.
Notice that we also recognize this distinction in English
- Question of presence – Is there anyone at home? No, there's not.
- Question of location – Where are you? Home.
2) To say "no," use 不/没有 and a verb
Negation involves one more step – you still repeat the verb, but you stick 不 (bù) and 没有 (méiyǒu) before it.
(There are a few other options for negation, such as 还/還 (hái) , 别/別 (bié), 无/無 (wú) or 非 (fēi), but they are used in specific situations and are beyond the scope of this article.)
For now, simply worry about the following:
- If you're talking about a past action, negating the word 有 or making a comparison, use 没有
- For pretty much everything else, use 不
|你看电视剧吗？||你看電視劇嗎？||nǐ kàn diànshìjù ma?||Do you watch TV dramas?|
|不看||不看||búkàn||Not watch (I don't watch them.)|
|你有车吗？||你有車嗎？||nǐ yǒu chē ma?||Do you have a car?|
|没有||没有||méiyǒu||Not have (I don't have one.)|
|你想学法语吗？||你想學法語嗎？||nǐ xiǎng xué fǎyǔ ma?||Do you want to study French?|
|不想||不想||bùxiǎng||Not want (No, I don't want to.)|
This last example is similar to those double-verb questions from above. The question isn't if you have studied French or if you're studying it right now, but rather about whether you "want" to study French.
|你未来会有车吗？||你未來會有車嗎？||nǐ wèilái huì yǒu chē ma?||Will you have a car in the future?|
|不会||不會||búxhuì||Will not (No, I will not.)|
This one's a bit tricky – we said that 没有 is the negative form of 有, after all. So why did we use 不?
- 没有 is primarily used with past actions; it can not be used when talking about the future
- 会/會 is one of the ways to say "will," creating the future tense, and it gets negated with 不
As such, the correct response is 不会/不會, not 没有.
“我未来没有车 / 我未來沒有車” is a non-sensical sentence that sounds something like “I will did not have a car."
Really quickly, here are a couple situations where 不 and 没有 are both grammatically correct, but carry different nuances:
|我的妈妈没有工作||我的媽媽沒有工作||wǒ de māmā méiyǒu gōngzuò||My mother doesn’t have a job (she does work, just not right now)|
|我的妈妈不工作||我的媽媽不工作||wǒ de māmā bù gōngzuò||My mother doesn’t work (she stays at home all day)|
|我不去图书馆||我不去圖書館||wǒ bù qù túshū guǎn||I don’t go to the library (talking in general - I never go to the library)|
|我没有去图书馆||我沒有去圖書館||wǒ méiyǒu qù túshū guǎn||I didn’t go to the library (talking about a specific instance - I didn't go to the library, I went to the movies)|
What about adjectives?
You're in luck! The exact same principles as above apply to sentences involving adjectives.
|你的男朋友很高吗？||你的男朋友很高嗎？||nǐ de nán péngyǒu hěn gāo ma?||Is your boyfriend tall?|
|他很高||他很高||tā hěn gāo||He is tall|
|他不高||他不高||tā bù gāo||He is not tall|
What if I Don’t Want to Say Yes or No in Chinese?
Now you've got the textbook explanation, but how often do you actually give such straightforward yes or no answers? In some situations it might seem unnaturally direct or even rude to respond as such.
Consider the following scenario:
Tom: Do you want to go to the movies?
Don't you feel bad for Tom? Most people wouldn't give such a direct answer. Instead, they might say not now, maybe later or I can’t, sorry.
Similarly, it could also be a bit awkward to simply state "yes." You'd more likely give an answer like sounds good, ok, sure, or why not?
The same goes for Chinese, too. Instead of applying the principles mentioned above, you can make use of fixed phrases or give a more fleshed out response.
|我们去看电影吧！||我們去看電影吧！||wǒmen qù kàn diànyǐng ba||Let’s go see a movie.|
|你喜欢吃凤爪吗？||你喜歡吃鳳爪嗎？||nǐ xǐhuān chī fèng zhuǎ ma?||Do you like to eat chicken feet?|
|还行吧||還行吧||hái xíng ba||It's okay/it's not bad.|
|你要去吃火锅吗？||你要去吃火鍋嗎？||nǐ yào qù chī huǒguō ma?||Do you want to go eat hotpot?|
|我没时间||我沒時間||wǒ méi shíjiān||I don’t have time.|
|可以帮我写作业吗？||可以幫我寫作業嗎？||kěyǐ bāng wǒ xiě zuòyè ma?||Can you help me with my homework?|
|现在不方便||現在不方便||xiànzài bù fāngbiàn||I can’t right now (Lit. “now not convenient”)|
Quickly Adjust to These New Sentence Patterns with Glossika
Imagine you’re learning to play a complicated piano sonata. If you simply sit down and play the sonata from beginning to end every day, you’ll won't progress as quickly as you could. Rather than playing the same 8 bars you already know by heart over and over again, you have to break the piece down into manageable chunks and focus on the specific areas you're struggling with.
The same is true of language learning: It's important to identify challenging speech patterns and then focus on them in isolation.
Of course, it's important to rehearse the entire sonata (and to have entire conversations), too, but that is much easier once you've reached a certain threshold of comfort and confidence. Once you're at a point where you don't need to worry about the individual parts, you can start focusing on how they fit together into the bigger picture – and that's where the music happens, so to speak.
Glossika excels at this initial "focus on the trouble-areas" stage. It breaks down languages into manageable sentences and sentences patterns, each one only marginally difficult than the previous one, then employs a spaced-repetition algorithm that ensures you spend more time studying what you struggle with and less time on what you've already got down.
All you have to do is log in each day, and Glossika will determine both what the numbers say you should review and which sentences will be easiest to pick up, given where you're currently at.
Glossika is also unique in that it has different options for a variety of different linguistic settings. Take just a few reps through Glossika Chinese (Beijing or Taiwan accent) and you’ll find yourself responding to questions fluently, accurately, and effortlessly.
In plain English, this means that you don't need to go to the trouble of figuring out how negation, affirmation and other complex grammatical patterns work. Just let the Glossika algorithm do its work, and you'll acquire these patterns naturally over time.
Try Glossika for free (no credit card required!) and breakthrough to fluency now!