Comparing "cai" and "jiu"
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.
- 1 Emphasis with 才
- 2 Emphasis with 就
- 3 Using 才 and 就 Together
- 4 See also
- 5 Sources and further reading
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.
Subj. + Time Word + 才 + Verb
- 我 等 了 两 个 小时 才 买到 票。 I waited two hours before I could buy the ticket.
- 老板 十一 点 才 到 办公室。 The boss didn't come to the office until 11 o'clock.
- 这个 项目 最少 要 花 两 个 月 才 能 做 完。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.
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.
- 我们 有 这么 多 人，你 才 点 了 三 个 菜。 We have so many people and you only ordered three dishes.
- 我 买 了 这么 多 东西，才 花 了 五 百 块 。 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.
(现在) + 才 + Time
- 现在 才 九点 ，再 玩 一会儿 。It's only nine o'clock. Stay and hang out a little bit more.
- 才 六点 ，起 那么 早 干吗 ？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.
Subj. + Time + 就 + Verb + Obj.＋了
- 她 十九 岁 就 结婚 了。She got married when she was only 19.
- 你 妹妹 十五 岁 就 上 大学 了？Your younger sister started college when she was only fifteen?
- 他 下午 四点 就 吃 晚饭 了。He ate dinner at four in the afternoon.
- 你们 这么 早 就 下班 了？You guys getting off work this early?
- 我 八点 就 出门 了，路 上 堵车，我 还是 迟到 了 十 分钟。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.)
Subj. + 就 + (＋Verb) ＋ Measure Word ＋ Noun
- 我们 有 这么 多 人，你 就 买 了 一 瓶 可乐？We have all these people, and you just bought that one bottle of cola?
- 你们 每天 就 睡 四 个 小时？ Do you only sleep four hours every day?
- 每 个 人 都 写 了 五页 纸，你 就 写 了 一 页 纸！ 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 就 一 个 孩子？ 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.
Subj + 才 + Verb + 就 + Verb Phrase
- 你 才 来 就 要 走 ？不 多 坐 一会儿 ？You only just came and you‘re leaving already? Are you not going to sit a little longer?
- 电影 才 开始 你 就 不 想 看 了 ？The movie just started and you don't want to watch it anymore?
- 他 才 毕业 就 找到 了 这么 好 的 工作 ？He just graduated and already found such a good job?
- Expressing lateness with "cai"
- Expressing earliness with "jiu"
- "cai" used for small numbers
- "Just" with "jiu"
- Emphasis with "jiu"
- Expressing "as one likes" with "jiu"
- Expressing indifference with "jiu"
- Limiting scope with "jiu"