Comparing "hui," "neng," "keyi"
The three modal verbs 会 (huì), 能 (néng), and 可以 (kěyǐ) are all often translated as "can" in English. Sometimes they are explained as: 会 means "know how to," 能 means "to be able to," and 可以 means "to have permission to." This is a useful way of thinking about them, but in reality their usage does overlap somewhat.
- 1 Basic Meanings
- 2 Expressing Ability
- 3 Expressing Permission
- 4 Expressing Possibility
- 5 Talking about the Future
- 6 Using Adverbs to Add Emphasis
- 7 Similar Expression with Different Meanings
- 8 See also
- 9 Sources and further reading
The words 会, 能, and 可以 actually overlap a little in meaning. The first step is to understand their basic meanings, though:
- 会 can mean "know how to" and can express an action that you had to learn or be trained in to do.
- 能 means "to be able to" and expresses having a certain ability or having obtained a certain minimum requirement.
- 可以 means "may" or "to be allowed to" and expresses having another person's permission.
As for overlap, this graphic helps explain nicely:
The regions marked by letters are explained in the sections below:
- A: ability in the sense of “know how to” (会 is more common than 能)
- B: permission/request (use 能 or 可以)
- C: possibility (use 能 or 可以)
- D: permission not granted (use 不可以)
- E: impossibility (use 不能)
Both 会 and 能 can be used to express ability in something.
会／能 + Verb
- 我们 都 会 游泳 。We all know how to swim.
- 他 不 会 修 电脑 。He doesn't know how to fix computers.
- A: 你 会 说 中文 吗 ？Can you speak Chinese?
- B: 不 好意思 ，我 只 会 说 一点 。Sorry, I can only speak a little.
- A:你 能 吃 三 碗 米饭 吗 ？Are you able to eat three bowls of rice?
- B: 不 能 。I can't.
可以 is used to ask for or give permission. However, 能 can also be used to replace 可以 interchangeably.
Note: When a question is asked using 能 or 可以 it can be answered with 不能 or 不可以, meaning no, and only 可以 meaning yes. Chinese don't really answer with just 能 when it comes to permission.
可以 / 能 + Verb
- A:老师 ，我 可以 早点 走 吗 ？Teacher, can I leave a little early?
- B:不 可以 。No, you can't.
- A: 我 能 在 这里 抽烟 吗 ？Can I smoke here?
- B: 不 能 。No, you can't.
能 and 可以 can also be used to express possibility.
可以 / 能 + Verb
- 明天 你 能 早点 来 吗 ？Is it possible for you to come a little earlier tomorrow?
- 可 不 可以 换 时间 ？Is it possible to change the time?
- A:外国人 能 不 能 参加 ？Is it possible for foreigners to attend?
- B: 不 能 。Not possible.
Talking about the Future
Only 会 can be used to mean something is going to happen. It expresses that something in the future will happen and is often used to express trends or possibilities.
会 + Verb / Adj.
- 他 不 会 跟 你 结婚 。He's not going to marry you.
- 你 会 生 我 的 气 吗 ？Will you be mad at me?
- 这样 穿 会 好看 吗 ？Will I look good if I dress like this?
- A: 今天 会 下雨 吗 ？Is it going to rain today?
- B: 我看 不 会 。I don't think it will.
Using Adverbs to Add Emphasis
By placing 很 (hěn) before 会, it adds emphasis to the level of ability and skill on the action presented. 很会 is commonly used to mean "to be good at" and expresses being very skillful at something, or doing something very well. It can be translated as "really know how to," as in "you really know how to speak Chinese!" Another way to put it is, "You are good at speaking Chinese."
When 很 is placed in front of 能, the meaning takes on a amazed/surprised tone on the action. Although more rarely used, it emphasizes quantity and amount. 很能 is most commonly used with 吃(chī) to eat, and 睡 (shuì) to sleep. It's like the English equivalent of saying you "can really" do something. For example saying that someone "can really sleep" means that they can sleep a lot.
Note: 很可以 is not a phrase, and therefore this pattern does not apply to 可以.
很 + 会／能 + Verb
Other degree adverbs like 真 (zhēn), 太 (tài), 这么 (zhème), etc. can also be used in place of 很.
- 他 很能 说 。He's quite a talker.
- 我 妈妈 很 会 做饭 。My mom cooks very well.My mother really knows how to cook.
- 她 才 五岁 ，但是 很 会 说话 。The subject has good speaking skills.She's only five but she's a smooth talker.
- 这个 女生 很 会 打扮 。This girl knows how to dress up really well.
Note that 很能说 means someone talks a lot, 很会说 means they have a way with words, but 很可以说 is just bad Chinese.
Examples used with other adverbs:
- 他 太 能 睡 了 。The subject can sleep a lot, for many hours.He can really sleep.
- 你 真能 吃 !The subject can eat a lot.Wow, you really can eat!
- 中国 人 真会 吃 ! The subject has great knowledge about food and its culture, a true connoisseur.Chinese people can really eat.
- 没想到 你 这么能 吃苦 。I didn't expect you to be able to handle so much hardship.
Similar Expression with Different Meanings
- 我 的 脚 好 了 ，现在 又 能 跳舞 了 。I am able to dance now since my foot is better. (The condition changed)
- 我 学 了 两 个 月 ，现在 我 会 跳舞 了 。I studied for two months. I know how to dance now. (It's a learned skill)
- 我 爸妈 同意 了 ，现在 我 可以 跳舞 了 。My parents agreed. I'm allowed to dance now. (Parents gave their permission)
Note that none of the three can be followed by the aspectual particle 过.
- Auxiliary verb "hui" for "will"
- Expressing a learned skill
- Expressing ability or possibility
- Expressing permission
Sources and further reading
- 对外汉语教学语法释疑201例 (pp. 55, 65) [ →buy]
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1 (3rd ed) (pp. 219-20) Anything Goes (无所不谈) →buy