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).
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Su, Qiu Gui. "Neng, Keyi, Hui." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Su, Qiu Gui. (2023, April 5). Neng, Keyi, Hui. Retrieved from Su, Qiu Gui. "Neng, Keyi, Hui." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).