Chapter 12: Chinese modal verbs


Chinese Grammar  Updated: Sun, Oct 21, 2012 00:02 AM   By HugChina


Modal verbs occur before a verb and express the meanings of possibility, ability, permission, obligation, and prohibition. Chinese modal verbs include: 会, 能, 可以, 必须, 必得, 应当

Modal verbs occur before a verb and express the meanings of possibility, ability,permission, obligation, and prohibition.

1. Expressing possibility:会huì

明天会下雨。 It may rain tomorrow.

我希望我们将来会有机会再见。 I hope that in the future we will have the chance to meet again.

Notice that this meaning of 会 huì also implies future time.

2. Expressing ability

2.1 会huì

会 huì expresses innate ability or ability based on learning and knowledge. The negative is不会 bù huì.

她会说中文。She can speak Chinese.

我不会写那个字。I can’t write that character.

2.2 能néng

能 néng expresses physical ability or the unobstructed ability to perform some action. 不能bù néng is used when performance is obstructed.

你能不能把桌子搬到那边去? Can you move this table over there? (lit: Can you take this table and move it over there?)

他的嗓子疼,不能说话。His throat is sore. He can’t speak.

现在在修路,不能过。 The road is being repaired now. You can’t cross it.

2.3 可以kéyǐ

可以 kéyǐ is sometimes used to express knowledge-based or physical ability. The negative is 不可以 bù kéyǐ.

你可以不可以写你的名字? Can you write your name?

她已经八十岁了,可是还可以骑自行车。She is already eighty years old but can still ride a bicycle.

3. Expressing permission: 可以 kéyǐ

The primary use of 可以kéyǐ is to express permission to perform an action. The negative is 不可以bù kéyǐ

妈妈说我可以跟你去看电影。Mom said I can go with you to see a movie.

你才十六岁,不可以喝酒。You are only 16 years old. You cannot drink alcohol.

4. Expressing obligations

Obligations may be strong (must) or weak (should). In Mandarin, as in English, negation often changes the force of the words used to express obligation. This section presents a brief overview of the use of modal verbs to express obligations.

4.1 Strong obligation: must, have to

The Mandarin words used to indicate strong obligation (must) in Mandarin are 必须 bìxū, 必得 bìděi, and 得děi. 必得bìdei and 必须 bìxūare more formal than 得 děi. 必须bìxū is used in legal pronouncements and in other formal spoken and written contexts.

必须 bìxū:婚前必须做健康检查。Before you get married you must have a physical exam.

必得bìděi:医生说我每天必得吃药。The doctor says I must take medicine every day.

得 děi:住院前得先付钱。Before being admitted to the hospital you must first pay a fee.

4.2 ‘Weak obligations’ – Socal and moral obligation: should, ought to

The modal verbs used to express weak obligations (should ) associated with social or moral responsibilities include 应该 yìnggāi,该 gpi, 应当 yìngdāng, and 当 dōng.应当yìngdāng is more formal than 应该 yìnggāi and can be used in formal texts including legal documents.该 is used in informal speech. 应该 is used in formal texts including legal documents.

应该 yìnggāi: 学生应该认真地学习。Students should study conscientiously.

该 gāi:你该早一点睡觉。You should go to sleep a little earlier.

应当 yìngdāng:孩子应当尊敬父母。Children should respect their parents.

4.3 Using modal verbs to express negative obligations: need not, do not have to

不必bù bì expresses negative obligations using the syllable 必bì that occurs in the strong obligation modal verbs 必得 bìděi and必须bìxū.

你去看朋友的时候不必送礼物。When you visit friends it is not necessary to bring a gift.

5. Expressing prohibitions

The following phrases involving modal verbs are used to express prohibitions.

不可以 bù kéyǐ ‘not allowed to’

考试的时候不可以说话。 During the test you cannot speak.

不能 bù néng ‘cannot’

这些书都是内部刊物,你不能借。 Those books are all restricted publications. You can’t borrow them.

这件事情,我不能告诉你。(As for) this matter, I can’t tell you about it.

不许 bù xǔ ‘must not, not allowed’, 不许 bù xǔ is used in formal speech and writing.

图书馆里不许抽烟。You are not allowed to smoke or eat (things) in the library.

6. Grammatical properties of modal verbs

6.1 Negation of modal verbs

Modal verbs are always negated with 不 bù and never with 没 méi.

He can’t speak Chinese. : Say this: 他不会说中文。 Not this:他没会说中文。

You shouldn’t smoke.: Say this: 你不应该抽烟。 Not this:你没应该抽烟。

Modal verbs indicating weak obligation, 会huì, 可以 kéyǐ,能néng, 应该 yìnggāi, and 应当yìngdāng, have the properties of stative verbs.

6.2 Questions with modal verbs

Modal verbs can occur as the short, one word answers to yes–no questions.

Question Response
Can you speak Chinese?你会不会说中文?/ 你会说中文吗? 会Huì.  (I) can.
Can I borrow your car?我可(以)不可以借你的车?/ 我可以借你的车吗? 可以Kéym.  (You) can.
Can you help me?你能不能帮助我?/ 你能帮助我吗? 能Néng.  (I) can.
Should we hand in our homework?我们该不该交作业?/ 我们该交作业吗? 该Gpi. (We) should.

They can serve as the verb in verb-not-verb questions:

你会不会说中文。 Can you speak Chinese?

你能不能帮助我? Can you help me?

你可(以)不可以在图书馆说话? Can you speak in the library? (Are you allowed to . . . )

我们该不该请他吃饭? Should we invite him to dinner?

6.3 Modification by intensifiers

会 huì and能néng can be modified by intensifiers.

那个人很会跳舞。 That person can really dance.

中国人很能吃苦。 Chinese people can endure a lot of hardship.

For a complete list of intensifiers, see 10.3.

6.4 Modal verbs and expressions that indicate change over time

会 huì, 能néng, and 可以kéyǐ can be used in the structures 越来越 yuè lái yuè and 越 verb越verb yuè verb yuè verb to indicate change over time.

他越来越会说话。 He is becoming more and more elegant (diplomatic) in his speech.

他越来越能适应英国的生活了。 Little by little he is getting used to English life.

中国人越来越有谈话的自由了。 Little by little, Chinese people are able to have freedom of speech.

6.5 Modal verbs and adverbs

The modal verbs that indicate strong obligation,必须bìxū, 必得bìděi, 得děi, are similar to adverbs.

They cannot serve as the verb in verb-not-verb questions:

Do you have to go right home? Say this:你必须马上回家吗? Not this:你必须不必须马上回家?

Do we have to register here? Say this:我们得在这儿注册吗? Not this:我们得不得在这儿注册?

The modal 得děi cannot be used as the one-word answer to yes–no questions:

Question: 今天得注册吗?Do we have to register today?

Respond with this: 今天得注册。We have to register today. Or 对 duì。 correct.

Do not respond with this: 得Děi

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