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No Nonsense Newbie Tips: 知道 vs 认识

For the first in our series No Nonsense Newbie Tips, let’s tackle the particularly thorny issue of 知道 (zhīdào) versus 认识 (rènshi). Both approximately hover around the English “to know”, but there are very important differences between the two.

There are certain circumstances where usage might be interchangeable, but more often than not you’ll want to be careful which you use. If you are truly looking to impress your Chinese friends or teacher with your progress, nail this distinction!

Let’s take a look at each word separately, with a brief English explanation and a few simple examples. We’ll finish with 3 important takeaways.

1. 知道– zhīdào

Definition: To know, to be aware of

If you are looking for a default way to say “I know…”, 知道 is usually your best bet. Its range of use and flexibility is broader than 认识. You can use it for facts, objects, or people you aren’t personally acquainted with, but are aware of or have a general understanding about.

Examples:

你怎么知道?
Nǐ zěn me zhīdào?
How do you know?

他知道怎么样说三种语言
zhīdào zěn me yàng shuō sān zhǒng yǔyán
He knows how to speak 3 languages

你知道比赛的结果?
zhīdào bǐ sài de jié guǒ?
Do you know the result of the match?

我不知道老师的意思
Wǒ bù zhīdào lǎo shī de yì si
I don’t know what the teacher means.

他的目标是让人知道
Tā de mù biāo shì ràng rén zhīdào
His goal is to let people know

2. 认识– rènshi

Definition: To know, understand, be familiar with, to meet (a person)

Using 认识 indicates a degree of familiarity with an object, person, or idea. It implies a level of understanding that goes beyond 知道, and connotes a level of personal familiarity.

Examples:

很高兴认识你!
Hěn gāo xìng rènshi nǐ!
So happy to meet you!

我们是在大学认识的
Wǒ men shì zài dàxué rènshi de
We met in college

我认识这个汉字
rènshi zhè ge hàn zì
I know this Chinese character

他认识到这是一件坏事
rènshi dào zhè shì yī jiàn huài shì
He realized this is a bad thing

你得认识到你的错误
Nǐ děi rènshi dào nǐ de cuò wù
You must recognize your mistakes

So…Remember This!

1) 知道 is probably your “go-to” when expressing “to know”. Somebody tells you not to be late for your appointment? “我知道!”. Somebody asks you to explain the Higgs boson particle? “我不知道!”.

2) “Do you know Tom Cruise?” Sure, I’ve heard of Tom Cruise, I’ve seen many of his movies, I casually follow his religious and relationship exploits online, but I have never personally met him. Thus, I 知道 Tom Cruise 是谁, but don’t 认识 him.

Similarly, to say “我知道上海” Means “I’ve heard of Shanghai”, where “我认识上海” means “I”m familiar with Shanghai”. You should probably choose the friend who 认识 Shanghai to show you around.

This is a great example where the Chinese is more precise than the English!

3) If you “realize or recognize something”, probably use 认识. If you went through the process of not knowing something, to becoming privy to it, indicate your level of personal involvement by using 认识.

What other newbie tips would you find helpful?

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