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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

Subj. + 不 + Verb

Examples

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

  • 我 今天 晚上 喝酒。Wǒ jīntiān wǎnshang hējiǔ. Tonight I'm not going to drink.
  • 爸爸 回来 吃 晚饭。Bàba huílái chī wǎnfàn. Dad is not coming back to eat dinner.
  • 老板 明天 来 公司。Lǎobǎn míngtiān lái gōngsī. The boss won't come to work tomorrow.
  • 我 知道 这 个 周末 下雨。Wǒ zhīdao zhè ge zhōumò xiàyǔ. I know it's not going to rain this weekend.
  • 你女朋友 跟 你 一起 去 吗?Nǐ nǚ péngyǒu gēn nǐ yī qù ma? Is your girlfriend not going together with you?

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

Subj. + 不 + Verb + Obj.

Examples

  • 吃 肉。 chī ròu. I don't eat meat.
  • 你们 都 喝酒 吗?Nǐmen dōu hē jiǔ ma? Do you all not drink alcohol?
  • 喜欢 说话。 xǐhuan shuōhuà. He doesn't like to speak.
  • 用 手机 看书 吗? yòng shǒujī kànshū ma? Do you not use your phone to read books?
  • 这 个 国家 的 人 吃饭 以前 洗手 吗?Zhè ge guójiā de rén chīfàn yǐqián xǐshǒu ma? Do the people in this country not wash their hands before they eat food?

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

  • 我们 饿。Wǒmen è. We're not hungry.
  • 胖。 pàng. You are not fat.
  • 今天 冷。Jīntiān lěng. Today it isn't cold.
  • 我 觉得 Starbucks 的 咖啡 贵。Wǒ juéde Starbucks de kāfēi guì. I think the coffee at Starbucks isn't expensive.
  • 我家 离 公司 远。Wǒjiā lí gōngsī yuǎn. My house is not far away from the office.

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

Subj. + Verb + 不 + Verb + Obj.

Examples

  • 是 不 是 我的 老师?shì bù shì wǒ de lǎoshī? Are you my teacher or not?
  • 想 不 想 来?xiǎng bù xiǎng lái? Does she want to come? (Literally: Does she want-not want to come?)
  • 爱 不 爱 我?ài bù ài wǒ? Do you love me or not?
  • 你们 周末 上 不 上 班?Nǐmen zhōumò shàng bù shàng bān? Do you all go to work on weekends?
  • 你的 老外朋友们 喜 不 喜欢 吃 中国菜?Nǐ de lǎowài péngyoumen xǐ bù xǐhuan chī Zhōngguó cài? Do your foreign friends like to eat Chinese food or not? (Literally: Do your foreign friends like-not like Chinese food?)

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?
  • 你们 是 好 朋友,对 不 对Nǐ shì hǎo péngyou, duì bù duì? You are good friends, right?
  • 我们 喝 咖啡,好 没 好Wǒmen hē kāfēi, hǎo méi hǎo? Let's drink coffee, OK does not have OK?
  • 你 应该 去 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

Subj. + 没(有) + Verb + Obj.

Examples

  • 没有 打 电话 给 我。méiyǒu dǎ diànhuà gěi wǒ. He did not give me a call.
  • 去 上班 吗?méi qù shàngbān ma? Did you not go to work?
  • 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.
  • 他们 吃 完 饭 以后 付钱。 Tāmen chī wán fàn yǐhòu méi fùqián. They didn't pay after they finished eating food.
  • 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 shàng gè 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 + Adj.

Examples

  • 没有 我 高。méiyǒu wǒ gāo.You are not as tall as me. (Literally: You do not have me tall.)
  • 不 有 我 高。bù yǒu wǒ gāo. You are not as tall as me.
  • 我 的 手机 没有 他 的 手机 贵。Wǒ de shǒujī méiyǒu tā de shǒujī guì.My cellphone isn't as expensive as his. (Literally: "My cellphone does not have his cellphone expensive.")
  • 我 的 手机 不 有 他 的 手机 贵。 Wǒ de shǒujī bù yǒu tā de shǒujī guì. My cellphone isn't as expensive as his.
  • 我们 都 没有 老板 忙。 Wǒmen dōu méiyǒu lǎobǎn máng. We all are not as busy as the boss. (Literally: We all don't have the boss busy.)
  • 我们 都 不 有 老板 忙。 Wǒmen dōu bù yǒu lǎobǎn máng. None of us are as busy as the boss.
  • 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 老板。Tā yǐqián shì wǒ de lǎobǎn. He was not my boss before.
  • 他 以前 是 我的 老板。Tā yǐqián méi shì wǒ de lǎobǎn. He did not is my boss before.
  • 知道 他 要 来。 zhīdào tā yào lái. I didn't know he was coming.
  • 知道 他 要来。 méi zhīdào tā yào lái. I did not have know he was coming.
  • 他 小时候 认识 她。Tā xiǎoshíhou rènshi tā.He did not know her when he was young.
  • 他 小时候 认识 她。Tā xiǎoshíhou méi rènshi tā. He not have know her when he was young.
  • 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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