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How to Choose the Right Words when Speaking Chinese

Let's say that you're pretty confident with your Chinese word order and pronunciation. But you're still having trouble getting understood by Chinese people. This could be due to another issue: word choice!

Recently I noticed a friend of mine make this mistake and perhaps you too have done the same thing. Do you ever remember telling someone you were going to meet up in half an hour, and instead of saying 半小時 (bàn xiǎo shí), you said 一半小時 ('yí bàn xiǎoshí')? Since both 半 and 一半 mean half in Chinese, you might have thought they were interchangeable.

How to Distinguish Between Two Semantically Similar Words

When you translate a vocabulary from one language into another, the chance of you getting several words that all share the same meaning is pretty high. For example, to send can be translated as 派 (pài), 送 (sòng), or 寄 (jì) in Chinese. However, these words do not have identical meanings. Below is a list of examples and rules that will help you distinguish the differences and use the right word.

1. 知道 (zhīdào) or 認識 (rènshì)

知道 conveys the meaning of to know of or to know about.

English Chinese Pinyin
I know how to cook. 我知道怎麼煮飯。
我知道怎么煮饭。
wǒ zhīdào zěnme zhǔfàn.

Alternatively

知道 怎麼 煮飯。
知道 怎么 煮饭。
zhīdào zěnme zhǔfàn.
I know how to cook.

認識 means to know (a person or a place) or to recognize, but it can't be used in the sense of to know of or to know about.

English Chinese Mistake Pinyin
I know his brother. 我知道他弟弟。
我知道他弟弟。
wǒ zhīdào tādìdì.

Alternatively:

知道 他弟弟。
知道 他弟弟。
zhīdào tādìdì
I know his brother.

The use of 知道 here doesn’t make the sentence wrong or sound awkward; however, it changes the meaning of the sentence. 我知道他弟弟 is translated into I know of his brother.

English Chinese Correction Pinyin
I know his brother. 我認識他弟弟。
我认识他弟弟。
wǒ zhīdào tādìdì.

Alternatively:

認識 他弟弟。
认识 他弟弟。
rènshì tādìdì
I know his brother.

2. 試試 (shìshì) or 想要 (xiǎngyào)

試試 is translated as to try in English.

English Chinese Pinyin
Please try this dish 請試試這道菜。
请试试这道菜。
qǐng shìshì zhè dào cài.

Alternatively:

試試 這道菜。
试试 这道菜。
qǐng shìshì zhèdàocà.
Please try this dish.

A mistake Chinese learners often make is using 試試 in sentences where 想要 is supposed to be used. For example,

English Chinese Mistake Pinyin
He tried to hit me. 他試試打我。
他试试打我。
tā shìshì dǎ wǒ

Alternatively:

試試 我。
试试 我。
shìshì wǒ.
He tried to hit me.
English Chinese Correction Pinyin
He tried to hit me. 他想要打我。
他想要打我。
tā xiǎngyào dǎ wǒ.

Alternative:

想要 我。
想要 我。
xiǎngyào wǒ.
He tried to hit me.

想要 is used in the sense of try to or attempt. The main difference between these two words is that 想要 usually implies a failed attempt.

English Chinese Pinyin
I tried to call him, but he didn't answer. 我想要打給他,但是沒打通。
我想要打给他,但是没打通。
wǒ xiǎngyào dǎgěi tā , dànshì méi dǎ tōng.

Alternatively:

想要 打給 他, 但是 沒打通。
想要 打給 他, 但是 沒打通。
xiǎngyào dǎgěi tā, dànshì méidǎtōng.
I tried to call him, but he didn't answer.

3. 有的 (yǒude) v.s. 一些 (yīxiē)

Non-native Chinese speakers can easily mix up 有的 and 一些 because they are both translated into some.

English Chinese Mistake Pinyin
I gave my friend some photos. 我給我朋友有的照片。
我给我朋友有的照片。
wǒ gěi wǒ péngyǒu yǒude zhàopiàn.

Alternatively:

我朋友 有的 照片。
我朋友 有的 照片。
gěi wǒpéngyǒu yǒude zhàopiàn.
I gave my friend some photos.

English Chinese Correction Pinyin
I gave my friend some photos. 我給我朋友一些照片。
我给我朋友一些照片。
wǒ gěi wǒ péngyǒu yīxiē zhàopiàn.

Alternatively:

我朋友 一些 照片。
我朋友 一些 照片。
gěi wǒpéngyǒu yīxiē zhàopiàn.
I gave my friend some photos.

One way to know when to use the right word is 有的 will never be placed after the verb, whereas 一些 can be used after the verb. For example,

English Chinese Pinyin
I have some things for you. 我有一些東西給你。
我有一些东西给你。
wǒ yǒu yīxiē dōngxī gěi nǐ.

Alternatively:

一些 東西 給你
一些 东西 給你
yǒu yīxiē dōngxī gěi nǐ.
I have some things for you

English Chinese Pinyin
Some people think durian is delicious. 有的人覺得榴槤很好吃。
有的人觉得榴梿很好吃。
yǒuderén juédé liúlián hěn hǎochī.

Alternatively:

有的人 覺得 榴槤 很好吃
有的人 觉得 榴梿 很好吃
yǒuderén juédé liúlián hěnhǎochī.
Some people think durian is very delicious.

Note: when 一些 is used right after the verb, 一 is usually omitted. For example,

English Chinese Pinyin
I left after I had some milk. 我喝了些牛奶後就出門了。
我喝了些牛奶后就出门了。
wǒ hēle xiē niúnǎi hòu jiù chūménle.

Alternatively:

喝了 牛奶 出門了。
喝了 牛奶 出門了。
hēle xiē niúnǎi hòu jiù chūménle.
I left after drinking some milk.

4. 又 (yòu) v.s. 再 (zài)

又 and 再 is another pair that can easily confuse non-native Chinese speakers since they can both be translated as again in English.

There are three ways to distinguish them:

a. 又 is used to talk about events in the past or events that are completed, and 再 is used for future events.

English Chinese Pinyin
We are having curry again. 我們又吃咖哩。
我们又吃咖哩。
wǒmén yòu chī gālǐ

Alternatively:

我們 咖哩。
我們 咖哩。
wǒmén yòu chī gālǐ.
We are having curry again.

English Chinese Pinyin
Stay a little longer! 再多坐一下吧!
再多坐一下吧!
zài duō zuòyīxià bā!

Alternatively:

一下 吧!
一下 吧!
zài duō zuòyīxià bā!
Stay a little longer!

b. When 又 is used for introducing something additional in the sentence, it's translated as and/also in English. Yet, 再 can't be used in the same way.

English Chinese Pinyin
I am so tired and hungry. 我好累又好餓。
我好累又好饿。
wǒ hǎolèi yòu hǎoè.

Alternatively:

好累 好餓。
好累 好饿。
hǎolèi yòu hǎoè。
I am so hungry and so tired.

c. 再 can be used to indicate a higher degree, but 又 cannot.

English Chinese Pinyin
Can you speak louder? 你講話可以再大聲一點嗎?
你讲话可以再大声一点吗?
nǐ jiǎnghuà kěyǐ zài dàshēng yīdiǎn mā?

Alternatively:

講話 可以 大聲一點 嗎?
講話 可以 大聲一點 嗎?
jiǎnghuà kěyǐ zài dàshēng yīdiǎn mā?
Can you speak louder?

5. 不 (bù) v.s 沒 (méi)

A mistake non-native Chinese speakers often make is using 不 to negate the verb 有, which means to have. But to say "not have" (possession), you should use 沒有 instead of 不有. Note: 不有 doesn't exist in the Chinese language.

English Chinese Pinyin
I don't have an older brother. 我沒有哥哥。
我没有哥哥。
wǒ méiyǒu gēgē.

Alternatively:

沒有 哥哥
沒有 哥哥
méiyǒu gēgē.
I don't have an older brother.

Another common mistake Chinese learners make is using 不 to negate an action that has happened already; however, 不 is used to indicate that an action is not going to happen NOW or in the FUTURE. For example,

English Chinese Pinyin
I am not going to Italy. 我不去義大利。
我不去义大利。
wǒ bù qù yìdàlì.

Alternatively:

不去 義大利
不去 义大利
bùqù yìdàlì.
I am not going to Italy.

If you want to indicate that an action didn't happen, you need to use 沒 in front of the action word rather than 不.

English Chinese Pinyin
I didn't go to Italy. 我沒(有)去義大利。
我没(有)去义大利。
wǒ méi (yǒu) qù yìdàlì.

Alternatively:

沒(有)去 義大利
沒(有)去 義大利
méi(yǒu)qù yìdàlì
I didn't go to Italy.

Note: Since 有 can only be negated by 沒, when you see 沒 by itself, you know 有 is assumed.

A question you might have:

Since there's so much vocabulary out there, how am I supposed to remember all the rules?

It's not possible to memorize everything, even for native speakers. The best way to know when to use the right word is to listen and speak more. The more you hear the language and the more you use the language, the better you will be at distinguishing words that are semantically similar.

Glossika shows you how different words are used in real-life conversations. Our spaced repetition training build up your understanding of the grammar by familiarizing you little by little with various sentence structures and patterns.

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How to Choose the Right Words when Speaking Chinese
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