Hui and Neng: Ability Words in Chinese

“能”(néng) and“会”(huì) both translate into the English word ‘can’, indicating someone’s ability to do something. Many of my students get confused about how to properly use these words. Here are a few things you need to know…

1. Level of Study

  “会”emphasizes that you needed to study in order to obtain the skill, while “能”emphasizes the level of a specific ability.

  • 我会游泳。wǒ huì yóuyǒng.(I can swim.)
  • 我十五分钟能游一千米。wǒ shíwǔ fēnzhōng néng yóu yìqiānmǐ. (I can swim 1km in 15 minutes.)

2. The Negative Form 

When talking about someone’s ability,“不会”(búhuì) means the person can’t do something because he or she doesn’t have the skill, while “不能”(bùnéng) indicates the person can’t do it regardless of his or her skill level.

  • 我不会游泳。wǒ búhuì yóuyǒng (I can’t swim, because I don’t know how to swim.)
  • 我生病了,不能游泳。 wǒ shēngbìng le, bùnéng yóuyǒng (I can’t swim, because I am sick.)

3. Regaining Abilities

“能”also can also describe regaining an ability. If for any reason, you lose the ability to do something and later retrieve it, you can use “能”.

  • 我的病好了,又能游泳了。(wǒ de bìng hǎole, yòu néng yóuyǒng le)I have recovered. I can swim again.

4. Quantity vs Quality

If you want to indicate someone is good at something, you can use both “能”and “会”. It is however important to remember “能” emphasize quantity while“会”emphasizes quality.

  • 他很能写,一年能写五本小说。tā hěn néng xiě, yìnián néng xiě wǔběn xiǎoshuō (He is good at writing. He can write 5 novels in 1 year.)
  • 他很会写,他的小说获得了诺贝尔文学奖。tā hěn huì xiě, tā de xiǎoshuō huòdé le nuòbèiěr wénxuéjiǎng (He is good at writing. His novel won the Nobel Prize in literature.)

Alice writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese and Chinese language. She completed her MA in Chinese language and literature at Nankai University.