Modal Verbs In Mandarin Chinese (Explained With Examples)

  • Jasmine Chiam
    Written byJasmine Chiam
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Modal Verbs In Mandarin Chinese (Explained With Examples)

Chinese modal verbs talk about possibility, likelihood, necessity, intent, permission, or ability.

These verbs are some basic but important words that all new Mandarin Chinese language learners will eventually need to pick up. You’ll need to know which one to use and where to place them in sentences so they’re grammatically correct.

Modal verbs are essential for daily conversations. So, in this guide, I’ll cover the most commonly used modal verbs in Mandarin Chinese and show you how you can use them correctly.

Let’s get started.

Common modal verbs in Mandarin Chinese

Modal verbs are used together with a verb to explain and give more information about what the speaker thinks of the action. They’re basically “helping” verbs that describe the mood or tone of the sentence.

Sometimes they’re referred to as auxiliary verbs.

I’ll explain the meaning and usage of different modal verbs below.


The following modal verbs are commonly used to say “can” or “could” as how you would in English.

I’ll compare 可以, 能, and 会 in this section as they can all be used to say “can” in Mandarin.

可以 (Kěyǐ)

In most cases, 可以 carries the meaning of “have/has the permission to”. In English, this term can be translated to “can” or “may”, which means that the subject of the sentence is allowed to carry out the specified action.

The following are some examples:

Listen to audio


Rúguǒ nǐ zuò wán nǐ de gōngkè, nǐ jiù kěyǐ chūqù wán.
If you finish your homework, you can then go out and play.
Listen to audio


Nǐ jīntiān kěyǐ zǎodiǎn xiàbān.
You **can **leave work earlier today.

可以 can also be used in a question to ask about the possibility of something or request permission. For instance:

Listen to audio


Wǒ kěyǐ guòlái ma?
Can I come over? (Asking for permission)
Listen to audio


Míngtiān nǐ kěyǐ zǎodiǎn xiàbān ma?
Can you get off work early tomorrow? (Asking about possibility)

In some cases, 可以 can also be used to make a suggestion or propose an idea. For example:

Listen to audio


Nǐ kěyǐ gěi tā dǎ diànhuà, ràng tā zhīdào wǒmen huì chídào.
You can give her a call so that she knows we'll be late.
Listen to audio


Tiānqì hǎo dehuà nǐ kěyǐ qù yóuyǒng.
You can go swimming if the weather is good.

能 (Néng)

能 is most commonly used to convey the meaning of “is able to”. It usually talks about the innate ability to carry out the specified action.

Here are some examples:

Listen to audio


Zhèxiē shíwù wǒ yīgè rén jiù néng chī wán.
I can (am able to) finish all this food by myself.
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Wǒ zìjǐ néng bān zhèxiē yǐzi.
I can (am able to) move these chairs on my own.

Similar to 可以, 能 can also be used to talk about permission or the possibility of something. In such cases, it is interchangeable with 可以.

Listen to audio


Wǒ néng zài zhèlǐ tíngchē ma?
Can I park here?
Listen to audio


Míngtiān nǐ néng dài māmā qù yīyuàn ma?
Can you bring Mum to the hospital tomorrow?
Listen to audio


Rúguǒ nǐ xūyào dehuà wǒ néng bāngzhù nǐ.
I can help you if you need me to.

会 (Huì)

Similar to 能, 会 can be used to talk about a person’s ability to do something. However, it’s unique in the sense that it commonly involves an ability or skill that you learned or trained to do.

Here are some examples of how to use 会 the right way:

Listen to audio


Wǒ huì dàn gāngqín.
I can play the piano.
Listen to audio


Wǒ huì shuō sān zhǒng yǔyán.
I can speak three languages.
Listen to audio


Tā huì tiàowǔ.
She can dance.

While 会 refers to a skill or activity that you studied or trained for, 能, on the other hand, talks about a natural ability. This means you should use 能 instead of 会 to discuss something you can naturally do.

In certain cases, swapping one for the other could even change the meaning of the sentence.

For example, let’s say that you know how to swim because this is a skill you learned. You would say, “我游泳。(Wǒ huì yóuyǒng.)” This means, “I can (know how to) swim”.

Imagine another scenario where you couldn’t go swimming with your friend because you’ve been too busy. When you’re finally able to join them for a swim again, you might say, “这个周末我和你一起去游泳。(Zhège zhōumò wǒ néng hé nǐ yīqǐ qù yóuyǒng.)” This means, “I can go swimming with you this weekend”.

In this case, you’re not talking about whether you know how to swim but whether you are able to join them for a swim after considering your schedule.

With practice, knowing when to use 会 and 能 will come very naturally.


In Mandarin, you can also use certain terms to talk about something that could happen.

可能 (Kěnéng)

可能 is one of the most commonly used terms to say “might” or “may” in Mandarin Chinese. Adding it into a sentence helps you describe a scenario or action that has probably already happened or is probably happening now.

Some examples include:

Listen to audio


Tā kěnéng huí jiāle.
She might have already gone home.
Listen to audio


Tā kěnéng shuìle.
He might have gone to sleep already.
Listen to audio


Tā kěnéng zài túshū guǎn xuéxí.
He might be studying at the library.

You can also use 可能 to talk about something that might happen in the future.

For example:

Listen to audio


Tā kěnéng huì yímín dào měiguó.
She might migrate to America.
Listen to audio


Tā míngtiān kěnéng huì zǎodiǎn xiàbān.
She might get off work earlier tomorrow.

In such cases, you’d notice that 会 is used right after 可能. In this case, 会 helps indicate that the statement is related to the future. We’ll discuss this usage of 会 again further down the article.


Modal verbs can also be used to express obligation in Mandarin Chinese.

应该 (Yīnggāi)

This term goes before a verb or verb phrase in Mandarin Chinese. It works the same way as “should” does in English.

There are two main messages that you can convey using 应该. The first talks about obligation and duty.

For example:

Listen to audio


Nǐ yīnggāi qù kànwàng nǐ de fùmǔ.
You should go visit your parents.
Listen to audio


Nǐ yīnggāi xiàng tā dàoqiàn.
You should apologize to her.
Listen to audio


Nǐ yīnggāi qù kàn yīshēng.
You should go to see a doctor.

Another way to use 应该 is to talk about probability and expectation. Here are some examples:

Listen to audio


Tā jīntiān yìng gāi zàijiā.
She should be at home today.
Listen to audio


Tāmen yīnggāi yào dàole.
They should be arriving really soon.


There are several modal verbs that can be used to say “will” and talk about future events in Mandarin.

会 (Huì)

Apart from talking about a skill you learned to do, 会 can also be used to discuss something that is going to happen or what someone is going to do.

This is by far one of the biggest differences between 会, 可以, and 能. While all of them translate to “can” in English, 会 is the only one that can also be used to talk about future events.

For instance:

Listen to audio


Wǒ xiàbān hòu huì gěi nǐ dǎ diànhuà.
I will call you after I get off work.
Listen to audio


Jīn wǎn wǒ huì lái jiē nǐ.
I will pick you up tonight.

要 (Yào)

This modal verb can have different meanings depending on the context of the situation or sentence.

One possible way to use 要 is to discuss an action that someone is going to do. In this context, it can be used similarly to 会. However, they’re not always interchangeable.

In most cases, you’ll find that a time word will be inserted before 要. This makes sense since 要 can be used to talk about the future, and you’d normally also state a timeline when making future plans.

Here are examples of how to use 要:

Listen to audio


Niándǐ wǒ yào qù àodàlìyǎ.
I am going to Australia at the end of the year.
Listen to audio


Jīn wǎn wǒmen yào kàn diànyǐng.
We are going to watch a movie tonight.
Listen to audio


Tā xià gè yuè jiù yào jiéhūnle.
He is going to get married next month.

将 (Jiāng)

Similar to 会, 将 can be used to say “will” and talk about future events. The difference is that 将 has a more formal tone to it.

Here are some examples of how you can use 将:

Listen to audio


Tā míngnián jiāng huòdé jìnshēng.
He will be getting promoted next year.

In some cases, you might also notice 将 being used with another modal verb like 会 or 要. 将会 or 将要 can be used similarly to 将.

For example:

Listen to audio


Wǒ jiāng huì nǔlì xuéxí.
I will study very hard.
Listen to audio


Bāshì jiāngyào dàole.
The bus is going to arrive soon.


Modal verbs can also be used to say “must” in Chinese.

必须 (Bìxū)

必须 is used to convey a very strong sense of obligation. It tells the other person that the action is something that must be done.

Listen to audio


Nǐ bìxū qù jǐngchá jú bào'àn.
You must go to the police station to make a report.
Listen to audio


Nǐ xiànzài bìxū jiào jiùhù chē.
You must call an ambulance now.

必须 shows that the action must be carried out, or there will be undesirable consequences.

得 (Děi)

得 is sometimes used to say “must”.

Listen to audio


Nǐ děi gàosù tā zhè jiàn shì.
You must tell her this issue.
Listen to audio


Nǐ děi tīng māmā dehuà.
You have to wake up early tomorrow.

要 (Yào)

要 can be used to say “need to”.

For example:

Listen to audio


Míngtiān wǒmen yào zǎoqǐ.
We need to wake up early tomorrow.
Listen to audio


Wǒmen yào nǔlì xuéxí cáinéng tōngguò zhè cì kǎoshì.
We need to study hard to pass this exam.

Expressing “desire” or “intention” in Mandarin

Modal verbs can also be used to express someone’s desires and wishes.

要 (Yào)

Another usage of 要 is to convey the meaning “want to” or “intends to”.

Here are some examples:

Listen to audio


Wǒ bàba yāomǎi yī liàng xīnchē.
My father wants to buy a new car.
Listen to audio


Wǒ yào hē chá.
I want to drink tea.

Because 要 can convey different meanings, it’s important to take note of the context of the sentence so that you don’t misunderstand what the speaker is trying to say.

想 (Xiǎng)

想 can be used as a modal verb to say that you “would like to” or “wish to” do something.

Listen to audio


Wǒ xiǎng chī shòusī.
I would like to eat sushi.
Listen to audio


Nǐ xiǎng qù nǎlǐ?
Where would you like to go?

The difference between 想 and 要 in the context of saying what you want or wish to do is quite subtle. 想 may be considered a little more formal, polite, and less demanding. But 要, in itself, isn’t a rude term to use. You can use either, as it will boil back down to your tone of voice.

Negating Chinese modal verbs

The simplest way to negate modal verbs is by adding a 不 () in front of them.

For example, 不可以, 不能, and 不会 will mean “cannot”.

You’ll still have to use each one in the right context, as they are not always interchangeable. Take, for example, the following sentences.

Listen to audio


Nǐ bù kěyǐ zài zhèlǐ tíngchē.
You cannot (are not allowed to) park here.
Listen to audio


Wǒ bù huì dàn gāngqín.
I cannot (don't know how to) play the piano.

Modal verbs take time and practice

Some modal verbs can be used in different contexts to mean different things.

For instance, 要 could mean “want to”, “going to” or “need to”. Other modal verbs, like 可以 and 能, can have overlapping meanings but aren’t always interchangeable.

With some practice, you’ll naturally know when to use each of these modal verbs.

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