Expressing "what if" with "wanyi"

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Literally meaning "ten thousand to one," 万一 (wànyī) is a word you can use to discuss unlikely possibilities in the sense of "what if," or "in case," or "in the unlikely event that." It's most often used to bring up undesirable situations.

Basic Pattern

万一 is used for a usually undesirable possibility which the speaker considers highly unlikely. It's often a rhetorical question. (In other words, the speaker is saying, "if this happens, you're screwed.")


There are two common ways to use it in a question:

万一 ⋯⋯ 怎么办 ?

万一 ⋯⋯ 呢 ?

Note that 万一 can go before or after the subject of a sentence.


  • 万一 我 父母 不 同意 呢 ?Wànyī wǒ fùmǔ bù tóngyì ne? What if my parents disapprove?
  • 万一 被 发现 了 怎么办 ? Wànyī bèi fāxiàn le zěnme bàn?What if we get caught?
  • 带 着 伞 吧 ,万一 下雨 呢 ?Dài zhe sǎn ba, wàn yī xiàyǔ ne?Take an umbrella. What if it rains?
  • 你 先 打 电话 问问 。他 万一 不 在 呢 ?Nǐ xiān dǎ diànhuà wènwen. Tā wànyī bù zài ne? You should call first. What if he's not there?
  • 开 慢点 !万一 撞到 人 怎么办 ?Kāi màn diǎn! Wànyī zhuàngdào rén zěnme bàn? Drive slowly! What if you hit someone?

Fuller Pattern

This use of 万一 has the same basic meaning as in a statement, but because it's a question, there's no solution offered.

After bringing up the possibility of "disaster," the rest of the sentence normally addresses what "we" should do about it.


万一 ⋯⋯ ,⋯⋯


  • 万一 他 不 喜欢,你 可以 来 换 。Wànyī tā bù xǐhuan, nǐ kěyǐ lái huàn.If he doesn't like it, you can come to make an exchange.
  • 我 要 记 下来 ,万一 忘 了,可以 查 。Wǒ yào jì xiàlái, wànyī wàng le, kěyǐ chá.I need to write it down. In case I forget, I can look it up.
  • 万一 迷路 了,就 用 地图 导航 。 Wànyī mílù le, jiù yòng dìtú dǎoháng.In case you get lost, use the map's GPS navigation.
  • 万一 发生 这种 情况 ,马上 报警 。 Wànyī fāshēng zhè zhǒng qíngkuàng, mǎshàng bàojǐng.In the unlikely event that this happens, call the police immediately.

以防万一(yǐ fáng wànyī) as "just in case!"

This usage is notably less common than the other two, but if you're looking to sophisticate your Chinese, this is a good leader phrase to know. (Later on you will learn more about what's going on with this .)

Note that 万一 (wànyī) is used as a noun here.

A few examples:

  • 北京 现在 特别 冷 ,多 带 几 件 衣服 ,以防万一Běijīng xiànzài tèbié lěng, duō dài jǐ jiàn yīfu, yǐ fáng wànyī.It's especially cold now in Beijing. You should bring a few more pieces of clothing, just in case.
  • 多 带点 现金 吧 ,以防万一Duō dài diǎn xiànjīn ba, yǐ fáng wànyī.Take more cash, just in case.
  • 多 买 点 吧 ,以防万一Duō mǎi diǎn ba, yǐ fáng wànyī.We should buy some more, just in case.

See also