Comparing "cai" and "jiu"

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Both 才 (cái) and 就 (jiù) are adverbs that have to do with expressing time, and they are both placed before verbs. However, they typically have opposite effects on the tone of the sentence, with 才 (cái) implying a sense of lateness, and 就 (jiù) imparting a sense of earliness.

Emphasis with 才

Expressing Lateness with 才

才 indicates that the speaker feels that the events discussed happened later than expected. Sometimes it also expresses anxiety, impatience, anger, or other related emotions.

Structure

Subj. + Time Word + 才 + Verb

Examples

  • 我 等 了 两 个 小时 买到 票。 Wǒ děng le liǎng gè xiǎoshí cái mǎi dào piào.I waited two hours before I could buy the ticket.
  • 老板 十一 点 到 办公室。 Lǎobǎn shíyī diǎn cái dào bàngōngshì.The boss didn't come to the office until 11 o'clock.
  • 这个 项目 最少 要 花 两 个 月 能 做 完。Zhège xiàngmù zuì shǎo yào huā liǎng gè yuè cái néng zuò wán.It's going to take at least two months to complete this project.

Expressing Small Quantity with 才

才 can also mean "only" in the sense of a small quantity.

Structure

才 ( + Verb) + Measure Word + Noun

The key thing to pay attention to here is that the 才 goes before the verb, and not the "small quantity" that follows it.

Examples

  • 我们 有 这么 多 人,你 点 了 三 个 菜。 Wǒmen yǒu zhème duō rén, nǐ cái diǎn le sān gè cài.We have so many people and you only ordered three dishes.
  • 我 买 了 这么 多 东西, 花 了 五 百 块 。 Wǒ mǎi le zhème duō dōngxi, cái huā le wǔ bǎi kuài.I bought this many things, and I only spent 500 RMB.

Expressing "Not Late" with 才 and Time

When 才 is followed by a time, it can express the idea of "only," as in, "it's only 9 o'clock," expressing the idea that "9 o'clock is not late." This would seem to be the opposite of the 才 expressing "lateness," but it's important to remember that this 才 precedes a time, and not an action.

Structure

(现在) + 才 + Time

Examples

  • 现在 九点 ,再 玩 一会儿 。Xiànzài cái jiǔ diǎn, zài wán yīhuìr.It's only nine o'clock. Stay and hang out a little bit more.
  • 六点 ,起 那么 早 干吗 ?Cái liù diǎn, qǐ nàme zǎo gànmá?It's only six. Why did you get up so early?

Emphasis with 就

Expressing Earliness with 就

就 indicates that something has occurred earlier than the speaker expected. There may be an accompanying feeling of surprise or amazement.

Structure

Subj. + Time + 就 + Verb + Obj.+了

Examples

  • 她 十九 岁 结婚 了。Tā shíjiǔ suì jiù jiéhūn le.She got married when she was only 19.
  • 你 妹妹 十五 岁 上 大学 了?Nǐ mèimei shíwǔ suì jiù shàng dàxué le?Your younger sister started college when she was only fifteen?
  • 他 下午 四点 吃 晚饭 了。Tā xiàwǔ sì diǎn jiù chī wǎnfàn le.He ate dinner at four in the afternoon.
  • 你们 这么 早 下班 了?Nǐmen zhème zǎo jiù xiàbān le?You guys getting off work this early?
  • 我 八点 出门 了,路 上 堵车,我 还是 迟到 了 十 分钟。Wǒ bā diǎn jiù chūmén le, lù shàng dǔchē, wǒ háishi chídào le shí fēnzhōng.I left at eight o'clock, but there was a traffic jam, so I was still ten minutes late.

Expressing Small Quantity with 就

就 can be used to mean "only," in the sense of a small quantity.

If you're thinking, "didn't we just learn to use 才 to also mean small quantity??" then you're very perceptive, and the answer is yes. For this "small quantity" emphasis, both 才 and 就 can be used before the verb to express essentially the same thing. (If you really want to split hairs, native speakers might say that there's a tiny difference in emphasis between the two, but that level of nuance goes beyond the scope of this grammar point.)

Structure

Subj. + 就 + (+Verb) + Measure Word + Noun

Examples

  • 我们 有 这么 多 人,你 买 了 一 瓶 可乐?Wǒmen yǒu zhème duō rén, nǐ jiù mǎi le yī píng kělè?We have all these people, and you just bought that one bottle of cola?
  • 你们 每天 睡 四 个 小时? Nǐmen měi tiān jiù shuì sì gè xiǎoshí?Do you only sleep four hours every day?
  • 每 个 人 都 写 了 五页 纸,你 写 了 一 页 纸! Měi gè rén dōu xiě le wǔ yè zhǐ, nǐ jiù xiě le yī yè zhǐ!Everyone wrote five pages, but you wrote just one?
  • 那 时候 中国人 都 生 四 五 个 孩子,他们 家 一 个 孩子? Nà shíhou Zhōngguó rén dōu shēng sì wǔ gè háizi, tāmen jiā jiù yī gè háizi?At that time Chinese people all had four or five children, but their family only had one?

Using 才 and 就 Together

They're not matter and anti-matter; these two "opposite" words can actually be used together. When used together, they're the "just recently" meaning of 才 and the "early" meaning of 就. Together, they indicate that one thing just happened recently, and then the other happened soon after.

Structure

Subj + 才 + Verb + 就 + Verb Phrase

Examples

  • 要 走 ?不 多 坐 一会儿 ?cái lái jiù yào zǒu? bù duō zuò yīhuìr?You only just came and you‘re leaving already? Are you not going to sit a little longer?
  • 电影 开始 你 不 想 看 了 ?Diànyǐng cái kāishǐ nǐ jiù bù xiǎng kàn le?The movie just started and you don't want to watch it anymore?
  • 毕业 找到 了 这么 好 的 工作 ?cái bìyè jiù zhǎodào le zhème hǎo de gōngzuò?He just graduated and already found such a good job?

See also

Sources and further reading

Books