Chinese grammar: Comparison of "huì 会", "néng 能" and "kěyǐ 可以"

It is important to know when to use the words you learn in the right situation when learning a language.
When translating from a language into Chinese, different word choices will often have more than one meaning.
The word "can" is an example of this. When we use "can" as an auxiliary verb, we should know that this word has many meanings in Mandarin Chinese.
Therefore, it is important to know what context and situation we are going to use the Chinese word.



The three modal verbs huì 会, néng 能 and kěyǐ 可以


The three modal verbs huì 会, néng 能 and kěyǐ 可以 are often translated as "can". Sometimes they are explained as such: huì 会 means "know how to", néng 能 means "to be able to", and kěyǐ 可以 means "to have permission to."
However, the use of these words in Mandarin Chinese overlaps somewhat. We will now explain in more detail how to use them properly.



Basic meanings


The words huì 会, néng 能 and kěyǐ 可以 sometimes overlap in meaning. However, you can divide their use into 3 categories:
1. huì 会 can mean "to know how to", expressing an action you have learned.
2. néng 能 can mean "to be able", which describes having a special ability.
3. kěyǐ 可以 can mean "to be allowed", and expresses having another person's permission.
When do these words overlap in the way you use them?
Ability in the sense of "knowing how". Here you can use both huì 会 and néng 能.
Permission. Here you can use néng 能 or kěyǐ 可以.
Note that when permission is not granted, you say bù kěyǐ 不可以.



Express ability


Both huì 会 and néng 能 can express the ability to do something.
huì 会 / néng能 + Verb
Wǒ huì kāi chē.
I can drive.

Wǒ huì shuō Zhōngwén.
I can speak Chinese.



Express permission


kěyǐ 可以 / néng 能 + Verb


A: Jīnglǐ, wǒ kěyǐ wǎn diǎn shàngbān ma?
A: 经理, 我可以晚点上班吗?
A: Manager, can I start working a little later?
B: kěyǐ
B: 可以.
B: That's fine.

A: Wǒ néng hē jiǔ ma?
A: 我能喝酒吗?
A: Can I drink alcohol?
B: Bù néng.
B: 不能.
B: (You) can not (do it).


Womans hand rejecting more alcohol from wine bottle in bar



Express opportunity


Néng 能 and kěyǐ 可以 can also express possibility.
kěyǐ 可以 / néng 能 + Verb

Wǒmen néng bù néng qù lǚyóu?
Can we go travelling?

Míngtiān wǒmen kě bù kěyǐ zài jiā kàn diànyǐng?
Can we stay home and watch a movie tomorrow?



Talk about the future


Huì 会 can also mean that something is going to happen.
huì 会 + Verb / Adj.


Xià zhōu wǒ huì chūchāi.
I'm going on a business trip next week.

Wǒ huì qù Hángzhōu lǚyóu.
I'm going to travel to Hangzhou.



Emphasize something


By placing hěn 很 in front of huì 会, we emphasize the ability and skill of the action presented. Hěn huì 很 会 means that you are very good at doing something.
hěn 很 + huì 会 / néng 能 + Verb
If you say hěn néng shuō 很 能 说 means that someone speaks a lot, while hěn huì shuō 很 会 说 means that someone is good at expressing themselves in spoken language.
I'm going to change.
He's really good at singing.
Tā hěn néng shuō.
She really talks a lot.



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