The Differences Between 会 Huì, 能 Néng, and 可以 Kěyǐ

January 17, 2023

In Chinese, there are a few ways you can say, “can”: 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ.

Why so many verbs for one translation?

Well, even in English, “can” has a lot of meanings. Sometimes you want to confirm that you have the ability to do something. Other times, you need to explain whether you can or cannot make it to an event.

This is where the similarities and differences between 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ come in. In some cases, these words are interchangeable, and in others, one is more suitable than the others. Luckily, this article will help you decipher when and for what purpose you use each word. Let’s dive into the differences between Chinese verbs 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ.

The Key Similarity Between 会 Huì,能 Néng and 可以 Kěyǐ

There are a few key similarities between 能 néng, 会 huì, and 可以 kěyǐ. The most obvious is that they can all be translated to “can” in English. Yet just like in English, “can” can be used in different ways, hence the various Chinese verbs to represent this.

Other similarities lie in sentence construction, which we will tackle in a moment. For now, let’s check out the different usages of 能 néng, 会 huì, and 可以 kěyǐ in Chinese.

Expressing Ability in Chinese

If you want to share what you are able to do, you need 会 huì and 能 néng.

Subject + 会 Huì / 能 Néng + Verb + Object

Wǒ bù huì shuō hányǔ.
I cannot speak Korean.

néng jiàn gè zhuōzi ma?
Can you build a table?

Both sentences refer to our abilities, either to speak a language or make something.

However, even within this category, there are some nuances between 能 néng and 会 huì.

Huì is typically used to express that you “know how to” do something. Perhaps it is something you learned to do or were trained to do.

huì jiàn diànnǎo.
I can build a computer.

For this reason, we often use 会 huì to talk about professional skills.

On the other hand, 能 néng is more commonly used to talk about what you are “able to do”. Maybe you have a natural ability or have reached a certain minimum requirement to do something.

néng pǎo 10 gōnglǐ.
I can run 10 kilometers.

In this example, whether I learned to run well or not, I have the ability to run 10km.

Expressing Permission in Chinese

Getting permission to do something or explaining that you have that permission can be pretty important. In these cases, we will need 能 néng and 可以 kěyǐ.

First, let’s learn how to inquire about whether or not we can do something.

Subject + 能 Néng / 可以 Kěyǐ + Verb (+ Object) + 吗 Ma

kěyǐ/néng jièyòng nǐ de shǒujī ma?
Can I borrow your cell phone?

To answer, “Yes” you can only say, “可以 kěyǐ.”, as opposed to “能néng.”, even if the question uses 能 néng. However, to answer, “No,” either 能 néng or 可以 kěyǐ are suitable. (Typically, you would mirror the verb used in the question.)

Now for statements of permission:

Subject + 能 Néng / 可以 Kěyǐ + Verb + Object

kěyǐ/néng zhù zài wǒjiā.
You can stay at my house.

An additional caveat:

If permission is not granted, you should say, “不可以 bùkěyǐ.” However, if something is impossible, you should say, “不能 bùnéng.”

Expressing Possibility in Chinese

If you are not sure whether something will happen or not, you will need 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ again.

Subject + 能 Néng / 可以 Kěyǐ + Verb (+ Object) (+ 吗 Ma)

Ex: 明天你能/可以和我一起去吗? Míngtiān nǐ néng/kěyǐ hé wǒ yīqǐ qù ma? Will you be able to come with me tomorrow?

bùnéng/bùkěyǐ jiārù nǐ.
I can’t join you.

Let’s Talk About the Future

Up until now, 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ have been largely interchangeable. However, when it comes to whether or not something will happen in the future, 会 huì is our only option.

Subject + 会 Huì+ Verb (+ 吗 Ma)

huì xià ge yuè qù āijí.
I will go to Egypt next month.

huì hé nǐ yīqǐ qù ma?
Is she going to come with you?

We can also use this structure to express future trends or possibilities.

Adding Emphasis

Sometimes it is not enough to simply state something. We need adverbs of degree to really emphasize what we mean with 会 huì and 能 néng.

The most common adverb to use is 很 hěn, though 真 zhēn, 太 tài, and 这么 zhème also do the trick.

However, adding these adverbs does not always add the same meaning.

Take “很会 hěn huì”, for example. Adding 很 hěn here emphasizes that the person is very good at that skill.

hěn huì dǎ páiqiú.
She really knows how to play volleyball.

“很能 hěn néng”, however, expresses surprise about someone’s action or ability.

Wa, zhè háizi hěn néng chī.
Wow, this kid can really eat.

In this sentence, the speaker is shocked by how much the child is able to eat. (If you were to swap out 会 huì for 能 néng, you would instead be talking about how knowledgeable the child is about food.)

Note that you cannot add use adverbs of degree with 可以 kěyǐ.

A Few Usage Rules

Do you remember the similarities in sentence construction from earlier? Well now that we have a handle on 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ, we can look at two rules that apply to all three.

1) You cannot use 了 le, 过 guò, or 着 zhe after any of these verbs.

✅ Ex: 他会骑自行车. huì qí zìxíngchē. He can ride a bicycle.
❎ Ex: 他会了骑自行车. Tā huìle qí zìxíngchē. He can ride a bicycle.

__2) The verbs 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ must always come before prepositional phrases or descriptive adverbial modifiers. __

Essentially, just remember to keep 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ before anything describing the situation.

✅ Ex: 你不能从新店买裙子. bùnéng cóng xīndiàn mǎi qúnzi. You cannot buy a dress from the new store.
❎ Ex: 你从新店不能买裙子. Nǐ cóng xīndiàn bùnéng mǎi qúnzi. You cannot buy a dress from the new store.

There you have it! These are the key differences between 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ in Chinese. As long as you pay attention to the nuances, you will surely be able to master these essential Chinese verbs.

huì néng 可以 kěyǐ
Ability x x
Permission x x
Possibility x x
Future x

Psst! Want to learn more Chinese grammar? We've got more in store!


The Nine Chinese Verb Tenses

How to Ask Questions using 什么 and 吗 in Chinese

What are Chinese Measure Words?

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