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Chinese Grammar: Lesson: Being able to: learning when to use 会 or 能

There are different ways to express "can" in Chinese, depending on what type of ability you’re talking about. Two verbs, in particular, are used to express "being able" are and . Let's see what the difference between and is!

2 key ways to express "can" in Mandarin Chinese

The two key verbs to express "being able" are and . These auxiliary verbs both work the same way and are placed before the verb.


S + or + verb + O.

Knowing how to vs. being able to

Choosing whether to use or depends on what ability you want to express.

Expressing learned skills with

is used to express a skill that has been learned or studied. In this case, it means "to know how to".


I can speak Chinese. = I know how to speak Chinese.

I can drive. = I know how to drive.

Expressing natural ability with

is used to express natural ability, i.e. when talking about activities that are not consciously learned or studied. It means "being able to".


He can help you. = He is able to help you.

I can go today. = I am able to go today.

Expressing possibility

In addition to being used to express natural ability, is also used to communicate possibility and is often used to ask for permission politely. In its negative form, 不能 means it's not possible (not allowed or not capable of).

can also be used to express possibility. is used in cases where the possibility or the likelihood of it happening is higher. That's why we tend to regard as a near future, and much closer in meaning to "be going to"or "will" in English.

These two examples will help you understand the nuance between the two:

I can go with you.
(You are expressing your availability to go but you have to wait for the permission to go. )

I will go with you.
(You are pretty sure that you will be going with that person)

Let's look at a few more examples.


May I sit here?

不能 这儿
You can't sit here.

明天回去 上班
Will you go back to work tomorrow?

Yes, I will.

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