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Comparing "gang" and "gangcai"

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刚 (gāng) and 刚才 (gāngcái) are similar, but they differ on a few key uses.

刚 as "Just happened"

刚 is actually an adverb, and it is placed in front of the verb. It emphasizes that the action just happened a short time ago. It is similar to the English "just." 刚刚 and 刚 are interchangeable in this case.

The key here is that a short time ago is relative, and determined by the speaker. For this reason, 刚 can indicate that something "just" happened 1 second ago, 5 minutes ago, 2 hours ago, 3 weeks ago, or even a year ago. The absolute time is flexible, but from the speaker's perspective, it feels recent.

刚 before An Verb

A few examples:

  • 到 。This gives the impression that not only did he just get here, but he should still be here.gāng dào.He just arrived.
  • 我们 昨天 到 。Wǒmen zuótiān gāng dào.We just arrived yesterday.
  • 真不巧 ,老板 走 。Zhēn bùqiǎo, lǎobǎn gāng zǒu.What a bad coincidence. The boss just left.

It would be wrong to use 刚才 instead:

  • 刚才 到 。gāngcái dào.
  • 我们 昨天 刚才 到 。刚才 should be used for events a lot closer in time than 昨天.Wǒmen zuótiān gāngcái dào.
  • 真不巧 ,老板 刚才 走 。Zhēn bùqiǎo, lǎobǎn gāngcái zǒu.

And if you mean to say "When I first arrived in Shanghai," use 刚 instead of 刚才:

  • 到 上海 的 时候 ,谁 都 不 认识 。gāng dào Shànghǎi de shíhou, shéi dōu bù rènshi.I didn't know anyone when I just came to Shanghai.

刚 before An Adjective

刚, as an adverb, can also be placed in front of the verb while 刚才 can't be used this way.

A few examples:

  • 晴 。Tiān gāng qíng.The sky just cleared up.
  • 他 的 感冒 刚刚 好 。Tā de gǎnmào gānggāng hǎo.He just recovered from his cold.
  • 面包 熟 , 过 一会儿 再 吃 。 Miànbāo gāng shóu, guò yīhuìr zài chī.The bread just got done cooking. Eat in a little bit.

刚才 as "Just Now"

刚才 is a time noun (like 今天 and 现在), and it expresses that the time that has passed is really short, in near-absolute terms. We're talking no more than 1-30 minutes, in most situations. If it is placed before the verb, it emphasizes what happened in the time that has just passed. It is similar to the English "just now."

A few examples:

  • 刚才He was crying a moment ago but he stopped.gāngcáile.He was crying just now.
  • 刚才 看到 他 Sounds like he's not here anymore; I just saw him, but don't see him now.gāngcái kàndào tā le.I just now saw him.
  • 现在 我 感觉 比 刚才 好 一点 Xiànzài wǒ gǎnjué bǐ gāngcái hǎo yīdiǎn le.I feel a little better now than just before.

刚才, as a time noun, can directly modify a noun to indicate it is that one from "just now" or "just before," while 刚 can't be used this way.

  • 的 事情 太 让 人 生气 了 。Gāng de shìqing tài ràng rén shēngqì le.What just happened is really upsetting.
  • 刚才 的 事情 太 让 人 生气 了 。Gāngcái de shìqing tài ràng rén shēngqì le.What just happened is really upsetting.

刚 and 刚才 with 了

You may have noticed that something interesting is going on with regards to in the sentences with 刚 and 刚才. Namely, 了 is not usually required in sentences with 刚, but it is usually required in sentences with 刚才. This is because 刚才 refers to a time in the recent past, and you're usually indicated that something happened just now (started and finished).

Take these sentences for example:

  • 我 昨天 看 了 。Wǒ zuótiān kàn le.I looked at it yesterday.
  • 我 刚才 看 了 。Wǒ gāngcái kàn le.I looked at it just now.

So these are all simple time "subject + verb" sentences. Notice that when they refer to the past (including the one with 刚才), the action is completed and you need 了. You don't need 了 for things that haven't happened yet (they're just plans, and nothing is completed). And remember that 刚才 always refers to the past.

OK, now what about 刚? Why does it not need 了?

The key is that you don't need a 了 in a sentence with 刚 if the verb indicates a clear result. So, to use the 看 example from above:

  • 看到Adding a 到 to 看 gives the verb a meaning of the result of "looking at."gāng kàndào.I just saw it.
  • 看到 了 is not needed here as 看到 includes the result of "looking at."gāng kàndào le.I just saw it.
  • 刚才 看到 了 is needed here as 刚才 always refers to the past.gāngcái kàndào le.I saw it just now.

A few more examples:

  • 知道 吗 ?The verb 知道 always includes the result of "knowing."gāng zhīdào ma?You just found out?
  • 听说The verb 听说 includes a clear enough indication of result.gāng tīngshuō.I just heard.
  • 宝宝 Bǎobao gāng xǐng.The verb 醒 includes a clear enough indication of result.The baby just woke up.

刚 and 刚才 with 没

OK, so there's also something going on with in sentences with 刚 and 刚才. The deal here is that you can say something didn't happen just now (刚才), but you can't say that something just didn't happen (刚). [Saying that something "just didn't happen" only works in English if you interpret "just" to mean "simply."]

The takeaway? Just don't use 刚 in sentences where you use 没 to negate the past.

  • 看到 。gāng méi kàndào.Don't use 刚 with 没 in the past.I just didn't see it.
  • 听懂 。gāng méi tīngdǒng.I didn't understand just now.

Use 没 with 刚才 to negate the past.

  • 刚才 看到 。gāngcái méi kàndào.I didn't see it just now.
  • 刚才 听懂 。gāngcái méi tīngdǒng.I didn't understand just now.

Example Dialog

  • A:刚才 去 哪儿 了 ?gāngcái qù nǎr le?Where did you go just now?
  • B: 我 去 上厕所 了 。 回来 。Wǒ qù shàng cèsuǒ le. Gāng huílái.I went to the bathroom. I just got back.
  • A: 那 你 不 知道 刚才 事 吧 ?Nà nǐ bù zhīdào gāngcái de shì ba?Then you don't know what happened just now?
  • B: 刚才 发生 了 什么 事 ?Gāngcái fāshēng le shénme shì?What's just happened?

See also

Sources and further reading