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Comparing "bu" and "mei"

Both 不 (bù) and 没 (méi) can be placed in front of a verb or adjective to negate its meaning. However, 不 (bù) and 没 (méi) are not usually interchangeable, so it's important to learn when you must use 不 (bù) as opposed to 没 (méi), and vice versa.

不 is for negating in the present and future

不 (bù) is generally used to negate an action that you do not want to do or do not intend to do (in the future). So expressing things like "I don't want to go" or "I'm not going" would be uses of 不 (bù).

Structure

Subject + 不 + Verb

Examples

Whether it's "don't wanna do it" or "not gonna do it," use 不 (bù):

  • 我 今天 晚上 吃 饭 。 Wǒ jīntiān wǎnshang chī fàn. I am not eating tonight.
  • 我 今天 晚上 想 吃 饭 。 Wǒ jīntiān wǎnshang xiǎng chī fàn. Tonight I don't want to eat.
  • 去 公园 。 qù gōngyuán. He's not going to the park.
  • 要 去 公园 。 yào qù gōngyuán. He doesn't want to go to the park.
  • 老板 今天 来 公司 。 Lǎobǎn jīntiān lái gōngsī. The boss won't come to work today.
  • 我 现在 知道 。 Wǒ xiànzài zhīdao. I don't know right now.
  • 我 知道 明天 下雨 。 Wǒ zhīdao míngtiān xiàyǔ. I know it's not going to rain tomorrow.
  • 想 跟 他 一起 去 。 xiǎng gēn tā yīqǐ qù. I don't want to go with him.
  • 下 个 星期 我们 去 北京 , 我们 去 上海 。 Xià gè xīngqī wǒmen qù Běijīng, wǒmen qù Shànghǎi. Next week we won't go to Beijing, we will go to Shanghai.
  • 很 多 孩子 要 很 便宜 的 东西 。 Hěn duō háizi yào hěn piányi de dōngxī. Many children don't want very cheap things.

不 is used to negate habitual actions

不 (bù) can be used to negate habitual actions, to express what you just aren't in the habit of doing, such as eating meat, or watching TV, or drinking alcohol. This is simply done by placing 不 (bù) in front of the verb.

Structure

Subject + 不 + Verb + Object

Examples

  • 吃 肉 。 chī ròu. I don't eat meat.
  • 看 电视 。 kàn diànshì. I don't watch TV.
  • 喝 酒 。 hē jiǔ. I don't drink alcohol.
  • 我 奶奶 用 手机 。 Wǒ nǎinai yòng shǒujī. My grandma doesn't use a cellphone.
  • 看 韩国 电影 。 kàn Hánguó diànyǐng. I don't watch Korean movies.
  • 喜欢 说话 。 xǐhuan shuōhuà. He doesn't like to speak.
  • 在 中国 , 我们 说 英文 。 Zài Zhōngguó, wǒmen shuō Yīngwén. In China, we don't speak english.
  • 这 个 国家 的 人 洗手 吗 ? Zhè ge guójiā de rén xǐshǒu ma? Don't the people in this country wash their hands?
  • 他 从 来 说 别人 的 坏话 。 Tā cónglái shuō biérén de huài huà. He never talks badly of people.
  • 用 手机 看书。 yòng shǒujī kànshū. I don't use my phone to read books.

Please note that, while it is grammatically correct to use 没 (méi) in all the sentences above, 没 (méi) does not negate any habitual actions. The sentences above, if they contained 没 (méi) instead of 不 (bù), would express that the speaker didn't do the named activity (at one particular point in the past). So it would not be about habitual actions.

不 is normally used with adjectives

When it comes to a simple negation of an adjective (such as "not cold"), use 不 (bù).

Structure

不 + Adj

Examples

  • 面包 好吃 。 Miànbāo hǎochī. Bread is not good to eat.
  • 超市 远 。 Chāoshì yuǎn. The supermarket is not far away.
  • 今天 冷 。 Jīntiān lěng. Today it isn't cold.
  • 高兴 。 gāoxìng. I am not happy.
  • 漂亮 。 piàoliang. She is not pretty.
  • 你的 女朋友 难看 。 Nǐ de nǚpéngyou nánkàn. Your girlfriend is not ugly.
  • 我们 饿 。 Wǒmen è. We're not hungry.
  • 胖 。 pàng. You are not fat.
  • 我 觉得 Starbucks 的 咖啡 贵 。 Wǒ juéde Starbucks de kāfēi guì. I think the coffee at Starbucks isn't expensive.
  • 北京 的 夏天 长。 Běijīng de xiàtiān cháng. The summer in Beijing is not long.

不 is used to ask questions

There are couple ways to use 不 (bù) to ask questions. One such way is through affirmative-negative questions. This is done by stating a verb and then immediately repeating that verb in a negative state (with 不 (bù)):

Structure

Subject + Verb + 不 + Verb + Object


Examples

  • 是 不 是 我的 老师 ?shì bù shì wǒ de lǎoshī? Are you my teacher or not?
  • 今天 你 来 不 来Jīntiān nǐ lái bù lái? Are you coming today? (Literally: Today you come-not come?)
  • 喜 不 喜欢 吃 中国菜?Nǐ xǐ bù xǐhuan chī Zhōngguó cài?Do you like to Chinese food? (Literally: Do you like-not like Chinese food?)
  • 你 在 这里 , 想 不 想 妈妈 ? Nǐ zài zhèlǐ, xiǎng bù xiǎng māma? You are here, do you miss your mom or not?
  • 我们 去 不 去 北京 ? Wǒmen qù bù qù Běijīng? Are we going to Beijing or not?
  • 喝 不 喝 茶 ? hē bù hē chá? Do you drink tea or not?
  • 爱 不 爱 我 ? ài bù ài wǒ? Do you love me or not?
  • 吃 不 吃 冰淇淋 ? Chī bù chī bīngqílín? Do you eat ice cream or not?
  • 你 今天 上 不 上 课 ? Nǐ jīntiān shàng bù shàng kè? Did you go to class today or not?
  • 买 不 买mǎi bù mǎi? Are you buying or not?

不 (bù) can also be used to form tag questions. Tag questions use the positive-negative question form, but are placed at the end of the sentence. Tag questions are used to seek approval or acceptance for a statement, very similar to the English "OK?" or "right?" You can't use 没 (mèi) for this.

  • 我们 去 吃饭,好 不 好 Wǒmen qù chīfàn, hǎo bù hǎo?Let's go eat, is that OK?
  • 你 是 我的 同学,对 不 对Nǐ shì wǒ de tóngxué, duì bù duì?You are my classmate, right?
  • 我们 喝 水,好 没 好Wǒmen hē shuǐ, hǎo méi hǎo.Let's drink water, OK does not have OK?
  • 你 得 上 课,对 没 对Nǐ děi shàngkè, duì méi duì.You should go to class, right not have right?

没 is used to negate past actions

没 (méi) and 没有 (méiyǒu) can both be used to negate actions that occurred in the past, or to say that something has not happened yet.

Structure

Subject + 没(有) + Verb + Object

Examples

  • 没有 打 电话 给 我。méiyǒu dǎ diànhuà gěi wǒ.He did not give me a call.
  • 去 上课。méi qù shàngkè.He did not go to class.
  • 我 昨天 喝 酒。Wǒ zuótiān méi hē jiǔ.I did not drink wine yesterday.
  • 妈妈 没有 做 晚饭。Māma méiyǒu zuò wǎnfàn.Mom did not cook dinner.
  • 老师 给 我 作业 。 Lǎoshī méi gěi wǒ zuòyè.The teacher didn't give me any homework.
  • 我 昨天 喝 酒 。Wǒ zuótiān hē jiǔ.I not drink wine yesterday.
  • 你 昨晚 回 家 吗? Nǐ zuówǎn huíjiā ma?Did you not come home last night?
  • 我 上个 周末 跟 他 见面。Wǒ shànggè zhōumò gēn tā jiànmiàn .I didn't see him last weekend .
  • 上周 我们 开会。Shàngzhōu wǒmen kāihuì .We didn't have a meeting last week.
  • 上个月 你 去 北京 吗? Shànggèyuè nǐ qù Běijīng ?Did you not go to Beijing last month?

There are a few things worth noting in these examples. For one, it is still grammatically correct to leave out the 有 (méiyǒu) in the sentences using 没有 (méiyǒu). Also, the sentence using 不 (bù) would be grammatically correct, if not for the 昨天 (zuótiān) ("yesterday") telling us that it is definitely the past we're talking about. That incorrect sentence using 不 (bù) would translate into: "I don't drink wine yesterday" as opposed to "I didn't drink wine yesterday."

Only 没 is used to negate 有

没 (méi) can be used to negate the verb 有 (yǒu) ("to have") to mean "do not have." You can only use 没 (méi) to convey this meaning. It is grammatically incorrect to use 不 (bù) to negate 有 (yǒu).

Structure

Subject + 没有 + Object

Examples

  • 没有 钱。méiyǒu qián.I don't have money.
  • 不 有 钱。bù yǒu qián.I not have money.
  • 没有 女朋友。méiyǒu nǚpéngyou.He doesn't have a girlfriend.
  • 不 有 女朋友。bù yǒu nǚpéngyou.He not have girlfriend.
  • 我 妈妈 没有 iPhone。Wǒ māma méiyǒu iphone.My mom doesn't have an iPhone.
  • 我 妈妈 不 有 iPhone。 Wǒ māma bù yǒu iPhone. My mom doesn't have an iPhone.
  • 他 爸爸 没有 工作。Tā bàba méiyǒu gōngzuò.His dad doesn't have a job.
  • 他 爸爸 不 有 工作。Tā bàba bù yǒu gōngzuò. His dad doesn't have a job.
  • 他们 没有 孩子。Tāmen méiyǒu háizi.They don't have children.
  • 他们 不 有 孩子。Tāmen bù yǒu háizi. They don't have children .

There are times when you can leave out 有 (yǒu) entirely while still expressing 没有 (méiyǒu) (meaning "to not have" or "there is no"). One well-known example of this is 没办法 (méi bànfǎ) ("there is no way" [that's gonna happen]). Both 没 (méi) and 没有 (méiyǒu) are correct, however.

  • 办法 。 méi bànfǎ. I don't have a way.
  • 没有 办法 。 méiyǒu bànfǎ. I don't have a way.

(You can also use 没办法 (méi bànfǎ) to express other meanings.)

没 is used to make comparisons

没 (méi) or 没有 (méiyǒu) can be used to make simple comparisons meaning "not as... as...":

Structure

Noun 1 + 没有 + Noun 2 + Adjective

Examples

  • 我 的 钱 没有 他 的 钱 多。Wǒ de qián méiyǒu tā de qián duō.My money isn't as much as his. (Literally: "My money does not have his money many.")
  • 你 的 钱 不 有 他 的 钱 多。 Nǐ de qián bù yǒu tā de qián duō.My money not have much as his.
  • 没有 我 漂亮。méiyǒu wǒ piàoliang.You are not as beautiful as me. (Literally: You do not have my beautiful.)
  • 不 有 我 漂亮。bù yǒu wǒ piàoliang .You not have me beautiful.
  • 他 家 没有 你 家 远 。 Tā jiā méiyǒu nǐ jiā yuǎn.His place is not as far away as yours. (Literally: His place does not have yours far.)
  • 他家 不 有 你家 远。 Tā jiā bù yǒu nǐ jiā yuǎn. His place is not as far away as yours .
  • 你 妹妹 没有 你 聪明。 Nǐ mèimei méiyǒu nǐ cōngming.Your younger sister is not as smart as you. (Literally: Your younger sister doesn't have you smart.)
  • 你 妹妹 不 有 你 聪明。 Nǐ mèimei bù yǒu nǐ cōngming . Your younger sister is not as smart as you .
  • 上海 的 冬天 没有 北京 的 冬天 冷。 Shànghǎi de dōngtiān méiyǒu Běijīng de dōngtiān lěng .Winter in Shanghai is not as cold as in Beijing. (Literally: Winter in Shanghai doesn't have winter in Beijing cold.)
  • 上海 的 冬天 不 有 北京 的 冬天 冷。 Shànghǎi de dōngtiān bù yǒu Běijīng de dōngtiān lěng . Winter in Shanghai is not as cold as winter in Beijing.

You can only use 没 (méi) or 没有 (méiyǒu) for this purpose, and not 不 (bù).

不 is used almost exclusively with some verbs

Certain verbs just don't get negated by 没 (méi) or 没有 (méiyǒu) ever. These include the verbs 是 (shì) ("to be") and 在 (zài) ("to be (in a place)"), as well as some psychological verbs such as 知道 (zhīdào) ("to know") and 认识 (rènshi) ("to know (a person)"). For these verbs, it's best to just take them on a case-by-case basis. Being aware of their existence can save you a fair bit of confusion.

  • 他 以前 是 我的 朋友 。 Tā yǐqián shì wǒ de péngyou.He was not my friend before.
  • 他 以前 是 我的 朋友 。 Tā yǐqián méi shì wǒ de péngyou.He did not is my friend before.
  • 我 昨天 知道 他 要 来。 Wǒ zuótiān zhīdào tā yào lái. Yesterday I didn't know he was coming .
  • 我 昨天 知道 他 要来。 Wǒ zuótiān méi zhīdào tā yào lái.I did not have know he was coming yesterday.
  • 他 以前 认识 她 。 Tā yǐqián rènshi tā.He did not know her before.
  • 他 以前 认识 她 。 Tā yǐqián méi rènshi tā.He not have know her before.
  • 昨天 我 在 家 。 Zuótiān wǒ zài jiā. I was not home yesterday.
  • 昨天 我 在 家 。 (Use of 没 with 在 is technically incorrect, but you sometimes hear it.)Zuótiān wǒ méi zài jiā.I did not at home yesterday.

Note that in non-standard Mandarin you might encounter exceptions to this rule. It's still useful to know the rule!

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