Comparing "haishi" and "huozhe"
Both 还是 (háishì) and 或者 (huòzhě) mean "or" and are used to present a choice. However, 还是 is normally used when asking a question, and 或者 is mostly for declarative sentences.
还是 for Providing Choices as a Question
Option A + 还是 + Option B ?
- 你 喜欢 他 还是 我 ？Do you like him or me?
- 你 喝 茶 还是 喝 咖啡 ？Do you drink tea or coffee?
- 你 中午 出去 吃 还是 叫 外卖 ？Are you going out for lunch or ordering take-out?
或者 for Giving Options as a Statement
Possibility 1 + 或者 + Possibility 2
The structure for 或者 and 还是 is the same, but the meaning, as well as the context in which 或者 is needed, is different. 或者 drops the "A or B, PICK ONE" attitude in favor of a more open, "maybe A, perhaps B... (or maybe both or neither?)" So it's less exclusive and less demanding of a choice RIGHT NOW.
- 周末 我 想 在 家 看书 或者 看 电影 。This weekend, I want to stay home and read or watch movies.
- 你 可以 坐 1 号 线 或者 2 号线 去 人民 广场 。You can take Line 1 or Line 2 to People's Square.
- 我们 可以 电话 或者 邮件 联系 。We can contact each other by phone or email.
还是 for Questions That Are Embedded in Sentences
Deciding whether or not to use 还是 becomes difficult with sentences that contain statements like "I don’t know," "I want to know," "I’m not sure," etc. Alone, these statements are not technically questions. However, when used in a sentence that contains choices, these statements imply that a question must be answered. Therefore, you must use 还是.
A few examples:
- 我 不 知道 这 本 书 是 他 的 还是 我 的 。I don't know if this book is his or mine.
- 我 想 知道 他们 是 支持 还是 反对 。I want to know if they support or oppose.
- 老板 不 确定 是 这 个 周末 出差 还是 下 个 周末 出差 。The boss isn't sure if he's going on a business trip this weekend or next weekend.
- 我们 打车 或者 坐 地铁 ？Since it is a question, it should use 还是Shall we take a taxi or take the metro?
- 明天 还是 后天 都 行 。Since it is a statement, it should use 或者Either tomorrow or the day after is fine.
- 我 想 知道 那个 人 是 男的 或者 女的 。It's an embedded question, so it should use 还是I'd like to know if that person is male or female.
Sources and further reading
- Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar (pp. 74-5) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1 (3rd ed) (pp. 257-8) →buy
- Chinese: An Essential Grammar, Second Edition (pp. 144) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1 (3rd ed) (pp. 259-60) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 4 (新实用汉语课本4) (pp. 103) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1 (3rd ed) (pp. 76-7, 257-8) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 1 (新实用汉语课本1) (pp. 179) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 1 (新实用汉语课本1)(2nd ed) (pp. 206-7, 251) →buy
- 现代汉语八百词（增订本） (pp. 238) [ →buy]
- Yale Chinese Usage Dictionary: Comparing 还是 and 或者