Lesson 17: Modal Verbs: The Difference Between Three CAN in Chinese

Office Space

能 (néng), 会 (huì) and 可以 (kě yǐ) are all translated as can. Here comes the question, how do we decide when is the right time to use each of them?

Compare these:

我能弹钢琴。

Wǒ néng tán gāngqín.

I can play the piano.


我会弹钢琴。

Wǒ huì tán gāngqín.

I can play the piano.


我可以弹钢琴。

Wǒ kě yǐ tán gāngqín.

I can play the piano.

 

Just because three of the modal verbs have the same literally translation in a certain language, doesn’t mean that three of them have the same exact meaning. This is one of the reasons why learning languages is so interesting. By learning foreign languages, you can have a different point of view, which may be completely distinct from your culture.

 

Let’s discuss the difference between 能 (néng), 会 (huì) and 可以 (kě yǐ) one by one!

 

能 (néng)

Basic meaning: able, capable or having the skill to do something.

Therefore, the sentence

我能弹钢琴。

Wǒ néng tán gāngqín.

I can play the piano.

implies that I am not sick or not feeling tired, so I have the physical ability to play the piano.

 

会 (huì)


Basic meaning: know how to do something, possessing or even mastering a skill after a period of learning.

Therefore, the sentence


我会弹钢琴。

Wǒ huì tán gāngqín.

I can play the piano.

implies that I am able to play the piano because I have been practicing the piano for a period of time. We believe that playing the piano is not a skill that we are born with, but an acquired skill.

 

会 (huì) can also indicate a probability, likelihood or a future tense indicator.

Example:

明天会下雨。

Míngtiān huì xià yǔ.

It will rain tomorrow.

 

可以 (kě yǐ)


Basic meaning: allowed to do something, according to external circumstances (regulation, environment, other people’s permission).

Therefore, the sentence

我可以弹钢琴。

Wǒ kě yǐ tán gāngqín.

I can play the piano.

implies that I have been given the permission to play piano by someone so I can play the piano.

 

They are Interchangeable!

In some circumstances, the usage of these modal verbs can be used interchangeably.

Examples:

For expressing abilities, we can use either 能 (néng) or 会 (huì).

For expressing possibilities, we can use either能 (néng) or 可以 (kě yǐ).

For expressing permission, we can use either 可以 (kě yǐ) or 能 (néng).

 

Negative Sentences

Always use 不 (bu) to negate the modal verbs!

Read: Understanding No or Not in Chinese

不能 (bù néng) = lacking the ability to do something.

不会 (bú huì) = do not know how to do something.

不可以 (bù kěyǐ) = be not allowed to do something.