Mandarin Chinese grammar: gāng 刚 and gāngcái 刚才

Gāng 刚 and gāngcái 刚才 are two words that are often used in different situations in Mandarin Chinese. Both of these words mean "just, a moment ago" and refer to actions that happened a short time ago.
But even though the meaning is the same, the use of these two Chinese words is not always the same.


Gāng 刚 and gāngcái 刚才


Although you can place both words in front of verbs, gāng 刚 and gāngcái 刚才 are not the same.
Gāng 刚 is an adverb and is placed directly in front of the verb or an adjective. Gāngcái 刚才 cannot be placed in front of an adjective.
Gāng 刚 is used only directly in front of the verb and cannot be used at the beginning of the sentence before the subject.
Subject + gāng 刚 + verb / adjective
Wǒ gāng líkāi.
I just left.
Wǒmen gāng dào jiā
We just got home.


When gāngcái 刚才 is connected to an activity, it is placed either before or after the subject.
Subject + gāngcái 刚才 + verb / gāngcái 刚才 + subject + verb
Wǒ gāngcái kàn dào tā.
I just saw him.
Gāngcái nǐ chī le shénme?
What did you just eat?



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You can use gāngcái 刚才 to change a noun to something that happened right now.
Gāngcái 刚才 + de 的 + noun 
Gāngcái de qíngkuàng hěn wéixiǎn.
The situation right now was very dangerous.
Gāngcái de shùxuétí tài nán le.
The math question (which we just looked at) was too difficult.



Gāng 刚 and gāngcái 刚才 can refer to different periods

Gāngcái 刚才 is a fixed, absolute verb that represents a moment ago, and emphasizes that the action took place recently.

The time gāngcái 刚才 expresses in Mandarin Chinese is short but depends on the situation. Although it may take a few seconds or a few minutes, it rarely means more than 30 minutes.

Gāngcái nàgè rén shì shéi?
Who was that person (that we just met)?
And because it is a verb, you can not use gāngcái 刚才 with other verbs and to refer to events of a certain duration.
Gāng 刚 emphasizes that the action just took place, but the length of the time frame is relative and depends on what the speaker means by "just". Whether it's a few minutes, a few hours, a few weeks or months ago.

Tā gāng dào jiǔdiàn méi duōjiǔ.
He just arrived at the hotel not long ago.
'Gang' can also be used with a specific time to show how long it took from when an action occurred.
The structure is then:

Subject +  gāng 刚 + verb + object + duration.
Wǒ bān lái Hángzhōu gāng mǎn 2 nián.
I have been moving to Hangzhou for (just exactly) 2 years.
Huìyì gāng kāishǐ 5 fēnzhōng.
The meeting has just started 5 minutes ago.
Gāng 刚 usually does not require a le 了 in the sentence, especially when talking about a verb with a precise result.
Since gāngcái 刚才 refers to recent actions that have been completed, sentences with gāngcái 刚才 often include le 了.
If there is a time gap between the action that just happened and the current situation or something that has changed since then, gāngcái 刚才 is used more often.


Tā gāngcái hái zài gōngsī, xiànzài yǐjīng huí jiāle.
他刚才还在公司, 现在已经回家了
He was just in the office (company) but has already gone home.


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