The Differences Between 不 Bù and 没 Méi

July 12, 2022

When looking up how to say “No” in Chinese, you are likely to come across two different words: 不 and 没 méi. However, neither of these words directly translates to “No” in Chinese on its own. Although 不 and 没 méi are both used to express negatives in Chinese, they function in very different ways. Let’s investigate the differences between 不 and 没 méi together.


What are 不 and 没 méi in Chinese?

Both 不 and 没 méi are to express negatives. You can use 不 and 没 méi to say you don’t have something, to make comparisons, or to inquire as to the state of something. Yet a common mistake Chinese language learners make is to assume 不 and 没 méi mean “No” on their own. In reality, you will rarely find that 不 and 没 méi stand alone.

Let’s start by looking at the most basic definitions:

What does 不 mean in Chinese?

When combined with other characters, 不 means “not”, “won’t”, “not so”, etc. It is used to negate more subjective things, like feelings or intentions, and can technically be used in all tenses.

(Note that, while 不 is usually pronounced in the 4th tone, it will change to the 2nd tone bú when paired with another character that is also 4th tone. For example: 不能 bùnéng vs. 不是 búshì.)

What does 没 Méi mean in Chinese?

Unlike 不 , 没 méi typically translates to “not have”, “is not”, or “to be without”. It is used to negate more objective things like facts and is used in both the past and present.

There’s a lot of negativity surrounding these two characters, isn’t there? Now that we know the basics, let’s get into the details.

How to Use 不 in Chinese

is used for the present and future tenses

You can use 不 to say you aren’t going to do something, you don’t want to do something, or you don’t intend to do something.

Subject + 不 + Verb

她不想做作业. Tā bùxiǎng zuò zuo yè. She doesn’t want to do homework.

At this moment, in the present, she doesn’t want to do this.

他明天不来上班. Tā míngtiān bù lái shàngbān. He isn’t coming to work tomorrow.

Tomorrow, in the future, he isn’t doing something.

is used for habitual actions

Just as you can tell people what you normally do, you may also tell them what you don’t normally do. In these instances, 不 can help you explain what you’re not in the habit of doing.

Subject + 不 + Verb + Object

我们不吃早餐. Wǒmen bù chī zǎocān. We don’t eat breakfast.

他们晚上不喝茶. Tāmen wǎnshàng bù hē chá. They don’t drink tea at night.

These are expressions of typical behaviors - that eating breakfast or drinking tea at night isn’t something that normally happens.

Note: If you were to swap out 不 for 没 méi in either of these sentences, the sentences are still grammatically correct, but the meaning completely changes. For example, if you said “我们没吃早餐. Wǒmen méi chī zǎocān,” you are saying “We didn’t eat breakfast,” implying that, up to that point in the day, no breakfast had been eaten. However, you may still eat breakfast, or you may tomorrow. This was a sole instance in the past that you didn’t eat breakfast.

is used with adjectives

In any description, you may use either a positive or negative descriptor. In this case, you will need 不 to negate the adjective of your sentence.

+ Adjective

狗不快. Gǒu bùkuài. The dog isn’t fast.

公元不进. Gōngyuán bù jìn. The park isn’t close.

Note: Again, if you were to replace 没 méi with 不 in some sentences, you would be grammatically correct but, again, saying something very different.

“够没快 Gǒu méi kuài” still means the dog isn’t fast now, but it implies the dog may become fast later. For instance, the dog might be in a race in which it started slowly but will later speed up.

Using 没 méi with an adjective typically means that something hasn’t become something yet, but it may become so in the future. You are simply negating the change of a situation, not stating a fact.

is used with: 是 shì, 在 zài, 知道 zhīdào, 认识 rènshí

There are certain words that only pair with 不 and not with没 méi.

• 不是 búshì - This is a very common way to say, “No”, “Is not”, or “Not”. Often you will use this phrase to negate what someone else has said.

A: 你是画家吗? A: Nǐ shì huàjiā ma? A: Are you an artist?

B: 不是. B: Búshì. B: No.

她不是服务员, 她是厨师. Tā bùshì fúwùyuán, tā shì chúshī. She is not a waitress, she is a chef.

• 不在 bùzài - This phrase is used to say something isn’t here. This is useful when answering whether something is nearby or not.

A: 猫在里面吗? A: Māo zài lǐmiàn ma? A: Is the cat in here?

B:不在. B:Bùzài. B: No (it’s not here).

你的手机不在桌子上. Nǐ de shǒujī bùzài zhuōzi shàng. Your phone isn’t on the table.

• 不知道 bù zhīdào - This phrase expresses that someone “doesn’t know” information.

他们不知道答案. Tāmen bù zhīdào dá’àn. They don’t know the answer.

• 不认识 bù rènshí – This is the way to say you don’t know a person. Another way to use it is to say you’re “not familiar with” something or someone.

我不认识你. Wǒ bù rènshí nǐ. I don’t know you.

In any of these cases, you cannot use 没 méi, you can only use 不 .

is used to emphasize negative phrases

In some instances, 不 is used to emphasize an already-negative phrase.

Take, for example, this phrase: 好容易 hǎo róngyì. This already means something is very easy. So if you add 不 to say 好不容易 hǎobù róngyì, you are emphasizing the difficulty.

他好不容易减肥了. Tā hǎobù róngyì jiǎnféile. He finally lost weight.

(By using this phrase, you are implying that it has been really difficult for him to lose weight, but he has finally done it.)

Now that we have seen how 不 is used, let’s look closer at 没 méi.

How to Use 没 Méi in Chinese

Méi is used for past actions

We have already alluded to this usage above. In any instance when you want to say something didn’t happen in the past, or hasn’t happened yet, you will need 没 méi to do so.

Subject + 没(有) Méi(yǒu) + Verb + Object

他们上周没(有)去参加聚会. Tāmen shàng zhōu méi(yǒu) qù cānjiā jùhuì. They didn’t go to the party last week.

他没(有)做作业. Tā méi(yǒu) zuò zuo yè. He didn’t do his homework.

Note:If you want to imply that he hasn’t done his homework yet but still might, you only need to add one word:

他还没(有)做作业. Tā hái méi(yǒu) zuò zuo yè.

You can also use 没 méi to say you have never done something, or that you haven’t done something recently. As long as it’s in the past, 没 méi is the word you need.

méi is used with 有 yǒu

The phrase 没有 méiyǒu translates to “do not have”.

You may have noticed all of the 有 yǒu characters in parentheses above. The word 有 yǒu can only be paired with 没 méi, though the 有 yǒu can also be omitted.

Subject + 没有 Méiyǒu + Object

我们没有宠物. Wǒmen méiyǒu chǒngwù. We don’t have pets.

Simple, right? Just remember that, in plenty of other cases, you cannot directly translate this phrase to mean “do not have”. Read or listen carefully in order to note the differences.

Méi is used to say “almost”

Take a look at the phrase 差点 chàdiǎn.

On its own, it means “almost”, “not quite enough” or “not good enough”. You could use it in a sentence like:

我差点通过了考试. Wǒ chàdiǎn tōngguòle kǎoshì. I almost passed the test (but I didn’t).

Now, let’s add 没* méi. When you use the phrase “差点没 *chàdiǎn méi”, it still means “almost”, but you are flipping the negative meaning. So if we say:

我差点没通过了考试. Wǒ chàdiǎn méi tōngguòle kǎoshì.

then we are now we are saying, “I almost didn’t pass the test, but, in fact, I did.”

méi in this sentence negates the verb that follows it.

差点没 Chàdiǎn méi + Verb

We can also use this in a different way. Perhaps there’s something we don’t want to happen. We can use 差点没 chàdiǎn méi to emphasize that it almost happened, but it didn’t.

他差点没摔坏了他的新手机. Tā chàdiǎn méi shuāi huàile tā de xīn shǒujī. He almost broke his new phone.

With all of this under our belt, let’s now look at the differences between 不 and 没 méi in questions.

Using 不 and 没 méi to Ask Questions

Yes/No Questions in Chinese

There are a few different ways to ask “yes/no” questions.

(In fact, we have an entire article on how to ask questions in Chinese: Chinese question words)

First, there’s this structure:

Verb + 不 + Verb

Here, we are asking whether or not someone does something. (Note the present and future tense implications.)

你喝不喝葡萄酒? Nǐ hē bù hē pútáojiǔ? Do you drink wine (or not)?

他打不打篮球? Tā dǎ bù dǎ lánqiú? Does he play basketball (or not)?

Essentially, each question phrased this way implies “… or not” at the end.

To answer, you simply restate the verb, adding a 不 bù before it if the answer is a negative one.

Verb + 没 Méi + Verb

Here, we are asking whether someone did something in the past.

你今天早上去没去超市了? Nǐ jīntiān zǎoshang qù méi qù chāoshìle? Did you go to the supermarket this morning?

他们上周参没参加了会议? Tāmen shàng zhōu cān méi cānjiāle huìyì? Did they attend the meeting last week?

Again, to answer, simply restate the verb, this time using 没 méi before any negative answer.

Adjective/Adverb + 不 + Adjective/Adverb

In this case, we are clarifying a description of something, or how one does something.

你的新书好不好? Nǐ de xīnshū hǎobù hǎo? Is your new book good?

她走路慢不慢? Tā zǒulù màn bù màn? Does she walk slowly (or not)?

To answer, you guessed it! Restate the adjective or adverb, adding 不 if it is a negative response.

Tag Questions in Chinese

Using 不 , there are also phrases you can add to the end of your sentences.

好不好 hǎo bùhǎo 是不是 shì búshì 对不对 duì búduì

These tags allow you to clarify something, or to seek acceptance or approval of something.

我们去图书馆, 好不好? Wǒmen qù túshū guǎn, hǎo bùhǎo? Let’s go to the library, shall we?

她是你的妹妹, 是不是? Tā shì nǐ de mèimei, shì búshì? She’s your sister, isn’t she?

你今天上数学课, 对不对? Nǐ jīntiān shàng shùxué kè, duì búduì? You have math class today, right?

The answers follow the same pattern: restate 好 hǎo, 是 shì, or 对 duì, adding 不 before it if your answer is negative.

Now that we can ask questions, let’s look at the differences between 不 and 没 méi when making comparisons.

Using 不 and 没 méi to Make Comparisons in Chinese

Making Comparisons in Chinese Using 不

You may already be familiar with the Chinese comparison structure, A + 比 + B, which compares two things:

你的家比我的大. Nǐ de jiā bǐ wǒ de dà. Your home is bigger than mine.

When you add 不 , you simply negate the comparison.

A + 不比 Bùbǐ + B

他不比你高. Tā bùbǐ nǐ gāo. He is not taller than you.

Similarly, you can use 不如 bùrú to make negative comparisons.

A + 不如 Bùrú + B

In this comparison, A is not as (adj.) as B in some way or another.

茶不如咖啡好喝. Chá bùrú kāfēi hǎo hē. Tea is not as good as coffee.

Making Comparisons in Chinese Using 没 méi

Perhaps you want to compare two things in a negative way. “This thing is not as ___ as that thing.” In that case, 没有 méiyǒu will come in handy.

Noun 1 + 没有 Méiyǒu + Noun 2 + Adj.

他没有你矮. Tā méiyǒu nǐ ǎi. He is not as short as you.

他们没有我们忙. Tāmen méiyǒu wǒmen máng. They are not as busy as us.

Now, for a few collocations that either use 不 and 没 méi.

Set Phrases Using 不 and 没 méi

可不(是) Kě bú(shì)

This phrase translates to, “Exactly!” or “That’s right!” It stands alone and is used as a response to something someone said.

不客气 Bù kèqì / 不用谢 Bùyòng xiè

After thanking someone, you may hear one of these two phrases said in reply. Both translate to, “You’re welcome,” “My pleasure,” or “Don’t mention it.”

没办法 Méi bànfǎ

While this phrase directly translates to, “There’s no way,” it usually means, “There’s nothing to be done,” or “There’s nothing one can do about it.” Use this when facing a situation without any solution.

没关系 Méiguānxi

After apologizing to someone, often you will hear this phrase in return. Essentially, it translates to, “It doesn’t matter,” or “That’s alright”. This is most typically used in instances where the apology is for something small or inconsequential.

Conclusion

So, as you can see, there are many differences between 不 and 没 méi in Chinese. (And to think, these are just some of the ways each word can be used!)

Be it the tense of your sentence, or the meaning behind it, any Chinese language learner would do well to keep an eye on 不 and 没 méi, and practice using them within their respective structures.

We hope this article is a great first step in clarifying those distinctions and to setting you on the right path toward using both 不 and 没 méi in Chinese correctly!

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About the Author

Alexandra Sieh became fascinated by the Chinese language (and especially its written characters) during her 6+ years living and traveling in China.

Alexandra Sieh cultureyard author