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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 in front of the verb. However, they have opposite effects on the tone of the sentence, with 才 (cái) implying a=the speaker's sense of lateness, and 就 (jiù) imparting a sense of earliness.

Emphasis with 才

Expressing Lateness with "cai"

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。 I had waited two hours before buying the ticket.
  • 老板 十一 点 到 办公室。The boss didn't come to the office until 11 o'clock.
  • 这么 多 工作, 最少 要 花 两 个 月 能 做完。There's so much work. I need at least two months to finish it all.

Expressing Small Quantity with "cai"

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

Structure

才 ( + Verb) + Measure Word + Noun

Examples

  • 他 才 十 岁,不 能 让 他 喝酒!He's only ten. You can't let him drink!
  • 我们 有 这么 多 人,你 点 了 三 个 菜。 We have so many people and you only ordered three dishes.
  • 我 买 了 这么 多 东西, 花 了 五百 块 。 I bought so many things,

and it only cost me 500 RMB.

Expressing earliness with "cai"

"才"表示动作在说话前不久发生,有" 刚、刚刚"的意思。常常跟"就"连用,形容某事发生得很快。

Structure

Subj. + 才 + Verb

(现在) + 才 + Time

Examples

  • 来 就 要 走 ?也 不 多 坐 一会儿 ?You just came and you're leaving now?
  • 电影 开始 你 就 不 想 看 了 ?The movie just started and you don't want to see it now?
  • 毕业 就 找到 了 这么 好 的 工作 ?How come he found such a good job while he just graduated from college?
  • 现在 九点 ,再 玩 一会儿 。It's only nine o'clock. Stay and hang out a little bit more.
  • 六点 ,起 那么 早 干嘛 ?It's only six. Why did you get up so early?

Emphasis with 就

Used to Express Earliness

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

  • 他 下午 四点 吃 晚饭 了。He ate dinner at four in the afternoon.
  • 她 十九 岁 结婚 了。She got married when she was 19.
  • 我 八点 出门 了,路 上 堵车,我 迟到 了 十 分钟。I left at eight, but there was a traffic jam. I was ten minutes late.
  • 你们 这么 早 下班 了?You guys leaving work so early?
  • 你 妹妹 十五岁 上 大学 了?Your younger sister started college when she was only fifteen?

Used to Express Small Quantity

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

Structure

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

Examples

  • 我们 有 这么 多 人,你 点 了 三 个 菜?.
  • 你们 每天 睡 四 个 小时? Do you only sleep four hours every day?
  • 那时候 中国人 都 生 四 五 个 孩子,他们 家 生 一 个?She got married when she was 19.
  • 你 这么 大 一个 男人, 吃 这么 一 小 碗饭?!.
  • 每 个 人 都 写 了 五页 纸,你 写 了 一 页 纸!.

See also

Sources and further reading

Books