Chinese Grammar: 肯定/一定/确定 - One's thing for certain: these three words can all mean certain!
Lupishu’s talking to Nincha, and he’s sure about one thing: he prefers chicken claws to catnip. He wants to convince Nincha and show him he’s certain of his choice. Lupishu’s not sure though: which word should he use for “certain”? Is it 肯定, 一定 or 确定? Suddenly, he’s not so sure.
Lupishu’s not to blame: it’s easy to get these three words mixed up in Chinese! 肯定 /一定/ 确定 all share a common character, 定 and have similar meanings of “certainty”. However, you don’t use these three words the same in Mandarin Chinese, so here’s how to tell them apart.
First, let’s look at 定 as it’s the common character in all three words. On its own, the character 定 means “to set; to fix; to determine; to decide; to order”, which is why you can be sure all three words have to do with being certain, of being determined and decided.
How to tell them apart
The good news is that 肯定/一定/确定 all have different word types, so they get used differently in a sentence. Isn’t that lucky? Once you know what type each word is, you’ll know where to place it in the sentence.
The biggest difference lies in their nuance in meaning and significance.
Out of the three words, 确定 carries a meaning that is the furthest apart from the others, so let’s start with that one.
确定 used as verb/adjective
If you’ve browsed Chinese internet sites and used Chinese software before, chances are you’re already familiar with 确定: it’s written on the “ok” button, so you click on it to confirm your action.
确定 carries a meaning of “to confirm, to decide; to resolve”. It is often used to describe a situation objectively It can either be a verb or an adjective. (You’ll also sometimes find it used as a way to emphasize an idea or an opinion)
Structure as a verb
确定 + a noun / a verb / sentences
As a verb, 确定 can be followed by a noun, another verb or a sentence. When it is placed before a verb, it brings a meaning of something being “already set” or in a “progressing condition”.
(确定 is followed by a sentence in this example, and it is used to confirm the situation expressed by the sentence.)
When 确定 is used as an adjective, it also means “affirmative,” something that is sure.
Structure as an adjective
确定 is the easiest to tell apart from the others, even if it can sometimes be interchanged with 肯定. We’ll talk about that a bit later, for now, let’s move on to 一定 and 肯定 and learn each’s word’s nuances so you can use them properly in the right context.
肯定 used as verb/adjective/adverb
肯定 can either be a verb, an adjective, or an adverb.
肯定 used as verb/adjective
S+ 肯定 + Noun/Sentence
You might notice that as a verb, 肯定 has a meaning close to 确定’s: both of them has the meaning of “to affirm” “to confirm”. That’s true. Even though 确定 carries more certainty in general, these two words are interchangeable on condition that they both work as a verb and they are placed between a subject and a sentence.
These examples can help you to understand better the close relationship between these two words.
肯定 Used with an adverb
肯定 emphasizes more of subjective judgment or promise.
肯定 + Adjective / Verb
一定 used as adjective/adverb
As we have already said at the beginning of this lesson, the key to figuring out the nuances between these three words is to know which types each word is and how they work in different types.
确定 can be used as a verb and an adjective. 肯定 can either be a verb, an adjective, or an adverb. How about the last one 一定? Which types it is and where should it be placed in a sentence. Let’s meet the last brother of 定 family!
Apart from working as an adjective, 一定 can also be an adverb which means either “definitely” or “must do something”. A little bit confused? No worries! Let’s learn it step by step!
First of all, when 一定 is placed before an adjective or a verb, it might carry the meaning of “definitely” and “certainly”. If you feel no doubt about something or you think something must happen in the future, you can use 一定 to highlight your certainty. In this case, you can also use the adverb 肯定 to express the same meaning.
However, as an adverb, 一定 has another meaning: the meaning of force, which always brings out an obligation or means that something must be done. In this case, 一定 is often followed by a verb indicating the content of the obligation.
一定 + Adjective / Verb
In the fourth sentence, 一定 is used as an adverb twice but with different meanings. Can you distinguish the one from another?
一定 "一定 adj = really broad uses You need to pay attention to the specific times it's used in" "as an adjective = something particular, a certain 一定 + （的 +） Noun" "As an adverb, it is often used to give a reinforcing tone. It sometimes carries an air of forcing something or issuing a command. (definitely) 一定 + Adjective / Verb"
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