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Chinese Grammar: Expressing “unless” with 除非

In Chinese, when dealing with hypothetical situations and their outcomes, there are many ways to express conditionality in a sentence. We’ve already learned how to express “only...if” and “if...then” in Chinese, so today let’s look at how to express “unless” with 除非 and few other ways.

Basic form

除非 is a conjunction word in Chinese, you can use it alone to form a simple pattern to express “unless”. Attention, the second part after 除非 is what the speaker emphasized.


A,除非 B


除非 付钱
You can’t eat it unless you pay for it.

可以 回家除非 作业 写完
You can’t go home until you finish your homework.

Using 除非 with 否则 and 不然

除非 can also be used in a sentence pattern with 否则 and 不然 as in English “unless...otherwise...”. And there aren’t any worries to interchange use these two words without changing the meaning.


除非 A, 否则/不然 B


除非 否则 不会
Unless you’re present, otherwise I won’t go.

除非 对不起否则 不会 原谅
Unless you say sorry, I won’t forgive you.

除非 告诉 不然 不会
Unless you tell me, I won’t talk to you anymore.

除非 汉语不然 女朋友
Unless you learn Chinese, otherwise I won’t be your girlfriend.

Expressing “only if” with 除非

As we learned to express “only if” with 只有..., we can also express it with 除非....

You can understand it as two parts. Starts by 除非 with something that can happen followed by the second part that begins by with the condition of the realization.


除非 A, B


除非 天气 我们 才能 野餐
We can go for a picnic if the weather is nice.

除非 安心
I’ll only feel safe if you’re there.

除非 亲口 告诉 相信
I’ll only believe it if you are the one who tells me.

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