Neng, Keyi, Hui

Various Ways to Say "Can"

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One of the difficulties when translating from one language to another is that certain words can have more than meaning. The English word can is a good example.

Besides the obvious distinction between can = noun and can = auxiliary verb, there are several meanings for the auxiliary verb can, and these meanings each take a different word in Mandarin Chinese.


The first meaning of "can" is "permission" - Can I use your pen? This "can" in Mandarin is 可以 kěyǐ:

Wǒ kě bù kě yǐ yòng nǐ de bǐ?
Can I use your pen?

The answer to this question would be either:

kě yǐ
can (yes)
bù kě yǐ
cannot (no)

We can also use 可以 kěyǐ to suggest an alternative idea, as in:

Nǐ yě kěyǐ xiě zhègè zì.
You can also write this character.

We can also use 可以 kěyǐ (or 不可以 bù kě yǐ) in answer to a question using 能 néng – our next translation of can.


The English word can can also mean "ability" – I'm not busy today, so I can come over. This meaning of can is translated with the Mandarin 能 néng.

We use 能 néng when talking about inherent physical ability, as in “People can’t fly (because they don’t have wings),” or “I can lift a car (because I’m very strong).”

We can also use 能 néng to talk about permission or possibility due to external factors: “I can’t come (because I’m busy right now),” or “I can’t tell you (because I promised to keep it a secret)”.

There is a bit of overlap between 能 néng and 可以 kěyǐ, as in a sentence like:

Wǒ néng bu néng yòng nǐ de bǐ?
Can I use your pen?

As we have already seen, the sentence above could be said with kě bù kěyǐ instead of néng bu néng.


The final meaning of can is "skill" - I can speak French. To express this idea in Mandarin, use 會/会 huì.

We use 會/会 huì for things we know how to do because of our learned or acquired abilities:

Wǒ huì xiě zì.
I can write Chinese characters (because I’ve learned how to do that).
Wǒ bú huì shuō fa wén.
I can’t speak French (I’ve never learned how to).