Comparing "gang" and "gangcai"

刚 (gāng) and 刚才 (gāngcái) have similar meanings of "just (now)," 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. Unsurprisingly, 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 a Verb

One thing that confuses a lot of learners is that when you use 刚 with a verb, you normally don't need 了. Keep that in mind while reading the following examples, and look for the explanation below.

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 bad timing. 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 had just arrived in Shanghai.

刚 or 刚刚 Before an Adjective

刚, as an adverb, can also be placed in front of an adjective, while 刚才 can't be used this way. 刚 can also be used interchangeably with 刚刚.

A few examples:

  • 他 的 感冒 刚刚 好 。Tā de gǎnmào gānggāng hǎo.He just recovered from his cold.
  • 晴 。Tiān gāng qíng.The sky just became clear.
  • 牛肉 熟 。 Niúròu gāng shú.The beef just got cooked.

刚才 as "Just Now"

刚才 is a time noun (like 今天 and 现在), and it expresses that the time elapsed is really short, in near-absolute terms. We're talking no more than 1-30 minutes in most situations, and often less than 5 minutes. When used before a verb, 刚才 emphasizes something happened "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.
  • 刚才 看 了 。Wǒ gāngcái kàn le.I looked at it just now.

So these are both simple "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 already 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 with 刚才 because it feels so recent and unresolved.gāngcái kàndào le.I saw it just now.

A few more examples:

  • The verb 到 includes a clear result.gāng dào.I just arrived.
  • 知道 吗 ?The verb 知道 always includes the result of "knowing."gāng zhīdào ma?You just found out?
  • 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

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 (and no 了) 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.

See also

Sources and further reading