Comparing "hui," "neng," "keyi"

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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.

Basic Meanings

The words 会, 能, and 可以 actually overlap a little in meaning. The first step is to understand their basic meanings, though:

  1. 会 can mean "know how to" and can express an action that you had to learn or be trained in to do.
  2. 能 means "to be able to" and expresses having a certain ability or having obtained a certain minimum requirement.
  3. 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)

Expressing Ability

Both 会 and 能 can be used to express ability in something.


会/能 + Verb


  • 我们 都 游泳 。Wǒmen dōu huì yóuyǒng.We all know how to swim.
  • 他 不 修 电脑 。Tā bù huì xiū diànnǎo.He doesn't know how to fix computers.
  • A: 说 中文 吗 ?huì shuō Zhōngwén ma?Can you speak Chinese?
  • B: 不 好意思 ,我 只 说 一点 。Bù hǎoyìsi, wǒ zhǐ huì shuō yīdiǎn.Sorry, I can only speak a little.
  • A: 吃 三 碗 米饭 吗 ?néng chī sān wǎn mǐfàn ma?Are you able to eat three bowls of rice?
  • B:néng.I can't.

Expressing Permission

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 ?Lǎoshī, wǒ kěyǐ zǎo diǎn zǒu ma?Teacher, can I leave a little early?
  • B:不 可以 。kěyǐ.No, you can't.
  • A: 在 这里 抽烟 吗 ?néng zài zhèlǐ chōuyān ma?Can I smoke here?
  • B:néng.No, you can't.

Expressing Possibility

能 and 可以 can also be used to express possibility.


可以 / 能 + Verb


  • 明天 你 早点 来 吗 ?Míngtiān nǐ néng zǎodiǎn lái ma?Is it possible for you to come a little earlier tomorrow?
  • 可 不 可以 换 时间 ?Kě bu kěyǐ huàn shíjiān?Is it possible to change the time?
  • A:外国人 能 不 能 参加 ?Wàiguó rén néng bu néng cānjiā?Is it possible for foreigners to attend?
  • B:néng.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 跟 你 结婚 。Tā bù huì gēn nǐ jiéhūn.He's not going to marry you.
  • 生 我 的 气 吗 ?huì shēng wǒ de qì ma?Will you be mad at me?
  • 这样 穿 好看 吗 ?Zhèyàng chuān huì hǎokàn ma?Will I look good if I dress like this?
  • A: 今天 下雨 吗 ?Jīntiān huì xiàyǔ ma?Is it going to rain today?
  • B: 我看 不 Wǒ kàn bù huì.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.


  • 说 。hěn néng shuō.He's quite a talker.
  • 我 妈妈 做饭 。My mom cooks very well.Wǒ māma hěn huì zuòfàn.My mother really knows how to cook.
  • 她 才 五岁 ,但是 说话 。The subject has good speaking skills.Tā cái wǔ suì, dànshì hěn huì shuōhuà.She's only five but she's a smooth talker.
  • 这个 女生 打扮 。Zhège nǚshēng hěn huì dǎban.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:

  • 睡 了 。The subject can sleep a lot, for many hours.tài néng shuì le.He can really sleep.
  • 吃 !The subject can eat a lot.zhēn néng chī!Wow, you really can eat!
  • 中国 人 吃 ! The subject has great knowledge about food and its culture, a true connoisseur.Zhōngguó rén zhēn huì chī!Chinese people can really eat.
  • 没想到 你 这么 吃苦 。Méixiǎngdào nǐ zhème néng chīkǔ.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 跳舞 了 。Wǒ de jiǎo hǎo le, xiànzài yòu néng tiàowǔ le.I am able to dance now since my foot is better. (The condition changed)
  • 我 学 了 两 个 月 ,现在 我 跳舞 了 。Wǒ xué le liǎng gè yuè, xiànzài wǒ huì tiàowǔ le.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 。Wǒ bàmā tóngyì le, xiànzài wǒ kěyǐ tiàowǔ le.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.

See also

Sources and further reading