Expressing ability or possibility with "neng"
能 (néng) is one of several Chinese words that is normally translated as "can" in English. However, 能 (néng) is used to emphasize one's ability or the possibility of something happening.
能 (néng) indicates ability when used with activities that are not consciously learned or studied.
The structure to use 能 (néng) to express "ability" is:
Subj. + 能 + Verb + Obj.
- 我 能 吃 四 十 个 饺子。I can eat 40 dumplings.
- 他 能 工作 24 个 小时。He can work 24 hours.
- 你 能 帮 我 找到 他 吗？ Can you help me find him?
- 你 的 手机 能 上网 吗？Can your cell phone go on the internet?
- 一 岁 的 宝宝 能 说话 吗？Can a one year old baby talk?
When used with activities that are consciously learned or studied, 能 (néng) generally means that circumstances do not allow execution of the action. In other words, it's not possible.
The structure to use 能 (néng) to express possibility is exactly the same:
Subj. + 能 + Verb + Obj.
- 开车 一 个 小时 能 到 家 吗？Is it possible to drive home in one hour?
- 他们 明天 能 早 点 来 吗？Would it be possible for them to come a little earlier tomorrow?
- 你们 能 小声 一点 吗？Could you all lower your voices a bit?
- 你 能 告诉 我 她的 手机 号码 吗 ？Could you tell me her cell phone number?
- 一 千 块 能 买 一 个 手机 吗？Is it possible to buy a cell phone with one thousand RMB?
From these examples we can see such circumstances might be pertaining to getting someone's consent or reliant on the speaker's health. If the speaker wishes to express that they are able to execute an action requiring a consciously studied skill, 会 (huì) can be used instead.
Because 能 (néng) can express possibility, it is often used to form polite questions, something like "would it be possible" in English:
- 我 能 问 你 一 个 问题 吗？Could I ask you a question?
- 我 能 坐 在 这里 吗？Could I sit here?
- 这里 不 能 游泳。It's not allowed, or not possible for other reasons.You can't swim here.
- 上课 的 时候 不 能 说 英文。My teacher has forbidden me from speaking English.In class, you can't speak English.
- 工作 的 时候 不 能 玩 手机。When working, you can't play with your cell phone.
- Expressing permission with "keyi"
- Expressing a learned skill with "hui"
- Comparing "hui" "neng" "keyi"
Sources and further reading
- Sinosplice: Chinese Modal Verb Venn Diagram
- HSK Standard Course 1 (pp. 74) 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1 (3rd ed) (pp. 219-20) 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 1 (新实用汉语课本1) (pp. 160-1) 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 1 (新实用汉语课本1)(2nd ed) (pp. 185-7) 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） →buy