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.

Expressing Ability

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.


  • 吃 四 十 个 饺子。néng chī sìshí gè jiǎozi.I can eat 40 dumplings.
  • 工作 24 个 小时。néng gōngzuò èrshí-sì gè xiǎoshí.He can work 24 hours.
  • 帮 我 找到 他 吗? néng bāng wǒ zhǎodào tā ma?Can you help me find him?
  • 你 的 手机 上网 吗?Nǐ de shǒujī néng shàngwǎng ma?Can your cell phone go on the internet?
  • 一 岁 的 宝宝 说话 吗?Yī suì de bǎobao néng shuōhuà ma?Can a one year old baby talk?

Expressing Possibility

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 到 家 吗?Kāichē yī gè xiǎoshí néng dào jiā ma?Is it possible to drive home in one hour?
  • 他们 明天 早 点 来 吗? Tāmen míngtiān néng zǎo diǎn lái ma?Would it be possible for them to come a little earlier tomorrow?
  • 你们 小声 一点 吗?Nǐmen néng xiǎo shēng yīdiǎn ma?Could you all lower your voices a bit?
  • 告诉 我 她的 手机 号码 吗 ?néng gàosu wǒ tā de shǒujī hàomǎ ma?Could you tell me her cell phone number?
  • 一 千 块 买 一 个 手机 吗?Yīqiān kuài néng mǎi yī gè shǒujī ma?Is it possible to buy a cell phone with one thousand RMB?

Other Usages

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:


  • 问 你 一 个 问题 吗?néng wèn nǐ yī gè wèntí ma?Could I ask you a question?
  • 坐 在 这里 吗?néng zuò zài zhèlǐ ma?Could I sit here?
  • 这里 不 游泳。It's not allowed, or not possible for other reasons.Zhèlǐ bù néng yóuyǒng.You can't swim here.
  • 上课 的 时候 不 说 英文。My teacher has forbidden me from speaking English.Shàngkè de shíhou bù néng shuō Yīngwén.In class, you can't speak English.
  • 工作 的 时候 不 玩 手机。Gōngzuò de shíhou bù néng wán shǒujī.When working, you can't play with your cell phone.

See also

Sources and further reading