No Nonsense Newbie Tips: 会 vs. 能

After tackling 知道 vs 认识 and 觉得 vs 想, lets continue with a distinction a few readers have written inquiring about: 会 vs. 能.

Like “to know” and “to think” before it, “can” or “able” is an English word where translating into Chinese can be tricky depending on the situation. The differences between the two are very real, and become relatively simple with ample practice and real world exposure.

When you think about “can” in English, it *can* mean a lot of things. It can indicate your “learned” ability to do something (I can play the piano), your ability to complete an action based on circumstances (I can go tomorrow), or whether you are “allowed” to do something (can we smoke in here?)

We’ll take a look at both and separately, dive into some simple example sentences, and finish up with key takeaways.

1. 会- huì

Definition: can, able, will

Ah, yes, the beloved . Conjuring up images of meetings, parties, and all other types of social gatherings, it is one of the most commonly encountered of all Chinese characters (number 18 on the Mandarin Poster). For the purposes of this piece, let’s put aside its “social” definitions (社会– shèhuì -society, 聚会– jù huì- party), and focus specifically on its contrast with .

The most common use of 会 is “can” or “able to”, specifically for learned knowledge. Use it for actions you know how to do because you acquired the skill as a result of study, not necessarily because you were born with an innate ability.


Tā huì zuò fàn
He can cook

Wǒ bù huì shuō rì yǔ
I can’t speak Japanese

Tā men dōu bù huì dǎ lán qiú
None of them can play basketball

 is also commonly used to indicate “will”, or “will be”. As shown in the example sentences below, “I will…” or “it will” is typically “…”


míng tiān huì xià yǔ ma?
Will it rain tomorrow?

nǐ huì qù ma?
Will you go?

你放心, 明天我会准时来
nǐ fàng xīn, míng tiān wǒ huì zhǔn shí lái
Don’t worry, I’ll be on time tomorrow.

2. 能- néng

Definition: Ability, capable of, able to

Use to indicate physical ability to do something or complete a task. Considering the present circumstances, indicates whether you are “capable” of completing the action based on the situation.


wǒ míng tiān bù néng qù yóu yǒng
I can’t go swimming tomorrow

Tā yī cì néng hē 7 píng pí jiǔ
He can drink 7 bottles of beer in one go

Nǐ néng bāng wǒ yī gè máng 吗?
Can you help me for a minute?

can also mean “be allowed to” or “may do”. In this case it is often interchangeable with 可以, but not with .


zài shì nèi bù néng chōu yān
Smoking not allowed inside

wǒ néng cháng yī xià ma?
Can I have a try?

So…Remember this!

Below are some tips to help you out. And don’t forget that you can also hop over to FluentU to see vocabulary in context through native Chinese videos.

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1. 我会喝酒, 但是现在不能. I am able to drink alcohol, but I cannot right now. Thus, I drink, but right now, because of present circumstances (I have to drive later, I have an important meeting in the morning, my girlfriend will get angry), I 不能.

2. Use when your physical ability to do something is dependent on the situation. Use for learned ability, blind to present circumstance.

3. In addition to both meaning “can”, means “will” or “will do”, where means “allowed to”.

That’s it! There is no substitute for practice and immersion, but these definitions, examples, and takeaways should help guide you.

And One More Thing...

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