Every language has synonyms. For those of us who study Chinese, choosing the right word in the right context can be a coin toss. Sometimes, there is no distinction between the English meanings, which makes the Chinese synonyms even more confusing!
Here are six word-pairs that we laowai often mix up, as well as how to use them properly:
原因 and 理由
原因 yuányīn means “cause; condition that brings about a certain result, or accounts for a certain occurrence.”
Wǒ zuò xiàlái de yuányīn shì wǒ lèile.
The reason I sat down was because I was tired.
理由 lǐyóu means “ground; rationale.”
Tā méiyǒu lǐyóu shuōhuǎng.
He has no reason to lie.
目的 and 目标
目的 mùdì means “purpose; intention; end; place or realm to be reached.”
Wǒ xué hànyǔ de mùdì shì wèile gēn zhōngguó rén liáotiāner.
My goal in studying Chinese is to chat with Chinese people.
目标 mùbiāo means “objective; target (of shooting, attack, etc.)”
Wǒmen zhège yuè dádàole xiāoshòu mùbiāo.
We reached our sales goal this month.
理解 and 了解
理解 lǐjiě means “to know (a fact) clearly.”
Tā bǎ wǒ nà jù huà de yìsi lǐjiě cuòle.
She misunderstood the meaning of what I said.
了解 liǎojiě means “to understand somebody or something (culture, communication methods, etc.)”
Wǒ péngyǒu hěn liǎojiě wǒ.
My friend understands me.
经历 and 经验
经历 jīnglì means “personal experience.” This can also be a verb, meaning “to personally go through; to undergo; to experience.”
Tā de jīnglì hěn fēngfù.
His experience is very rich.
Tā jīnglìle liǎng cì chēhuò.
He experienced two car accidents.
经验 jīngyàn means “knowledge or skill attained through practice; anything observed or lived through.”
Tā yǒu hěnduō jiàoxué jīngyàn.
He has a lot of teaching experience.
表达 and 表示
表达 means “to convey or voice (one’s feelings).”
Wǒ bù zhīdào zěnme biǎodá wǒ duì tā de gǎnjī zhī qíng.
I don't know how to express my gratitude to him.
表示 means “to show, indicate, or express with words or acts.”
Tā wéixiàozhe biǎoshì duì wǒ de huānyíng.
Smiling, he expressed welcome to me.
羡慕 and 嫉妒
羡慕 xiànmù means “to admire; to envy”.
Wǒ xiànmù nǐ xiě dé zhème hǎo.
I envy how well you write.
嫉妒 jídù means “to be jealous”.
Mǎdīng jídù mǎlì shàngrènle, yīnwèi tā juédé mǎlì bǐ bù shàng zìjǐ, nà fèn gōngzuò yīnggāi shǔyú tā.
Martin is jealous of Mary’s promotion because he thinks Mary cannot compare to him, and he should have gotten the job.
A good tip to help you remember the difference is that 羡慕 is for good things other people have. 嫉妒is for things you think rightfully should be yours.
We dare say six pairs of Chinese synonyms are enough to make your head spin for now, but there are plenty more out there! What other tough Chinese synonyms have you come across during your studies?
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Interested in reading more about Chinese language and grammar? Check out “How to Use 了“.
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