How do you say no, deny something or negate a fact in Mandarin Chinese?
And how do you politely decline a well-meaning offer?
Like “yes”, knowing how to say “no” in Mandarin Chinese is pretty much essential in your daily conversations.
In this guide, I’ll show you some of the most common ways you can say “no” in Mandarin Chinese.
“No” in Mandarin Chinese and how it compares to English
The word “no” is one of the simplest in the English language.
So this seemingly straightforward term shouldn’t be too challenging to learn in Mandarin, too, right?
Well, there’s a catch: There isn’t a direct equivalent of “no” in Mandarin.
Unlike “no” in English, there isn’t a wildcard word or phrase that’s suitable for every case.
While you may have been taught that 不 (bù) is equivalent to “no,” it is very rare to hear this word used on its own.
When misused, native speakers could catch on to what you’re saying, but they may get a good laugh out of it, too.😅
However, the more accurate meaning would be “not.”
You’ll typically combine 不 with other words to convey the meaning “no,” and this would depend on the context of the question or situation.
Common ways to say “No” in Mandarin Chinese
Using the word 不 to respond to all questions and offers will unwantedly highlight you as a non-native speaker.
There are many different and more appropriate ways to say “no” in Mandarin Chinese. Learning and applying these will help you blend right in!
Note that most of these phrases aren’t liberally exchangeable, so it’s essential to pay attention to the context they’ll be most suitable for.
Let’s explore the various ways you can say “no” in Mandarin Chinese.
是 (shì) is one of the most common words in Mandarin Chinese.
This word translates to “to be.” Since 不 means “not,” combining the two would give you the meaning “no.”
You may also hear people saying 不是的 (bùshì de). The two have the same meaning and are more or less interchangeable.
You’ll use either of these phrases when negating a fact or disputing a statement that the other party has said. Additionally, you can also use them in response to a question checking a fact.
In most scenarios, this would be a concrete fact that’s either true or false.
Here are some examples:
One clue you can keep an ear out for is this: If you hear 是 in the question, your answer will likely contain a 是, too.
The pinyin for this phrase can be formally written as bùshì. The fourth (falling) tone applies to both characters.
However, in conversations and real-life applications, you’ll use the second (rising) tone for the first character, 不, and 是 is said using the fourth tone to sound more natural.
The same concept will apply for phrases that formally contain a repeated fourth tone, such as 不对 (bùduì) and 不会 (bù huì), both of which we will cover further down the article.
对 means “correct,” or “right,” so combining the two, 不对 translates to “not correct,” or “not right.”
In other words, it means “incorrect” or “false.”
Though some would reserve this for showing their disagreement about other people’s opinions, you may also hear people using it to correct a fact or statement.
Unlike the previous phrase we learned, the word 对 is unlikely to appear in the question.
However, there are cases where speakers wish to confirm the accuracy of their statements by saying something along the lines of 对不对 (duì bùduì) or 对吗 (duì ma).
You’ll hear this at the end of the question.
In those cases, it’s pretty apparent that a suitable way to answer would be 对 (correct) or 不对 (incorrect).
However, you won’t always get that lucky.
But in general, if the question is asking you to confirm if a statement is correct or incorrect, you can respond with a 不对 for “no.”
不可以 (bù kěyǐ)
不可以 is often used in response to questions that involve a request or permission. 可以 translates to “can,” so 不可以 means “cannot” or “may not.”
It may also be worthwhile to take note that there are three different phrases in Mandarin that translate to “can,” which are 可以 (kěyǐ), 能 (néng), and 会 (huì). Understandably, new learners may find them hard to differentiate.
可以 and 能 have somewhat similar usages, but 能 also means “able to.”
In the context of asking for permission or responding to such requests, though, these two terms are often interchangeable. Essentially, you can use either 不可以 or 不能 (bùnéng) to deny the request.
If you’re confused or caught in the moment, you can just use 不可以 for such scenarios.
Some examples are as follows:-
Of course, answering with just a “no” may come off as a little cold or rude.
So, you might want to add the reason why into your response.
不会 (bù huì)
As mentioned earlier, the three musketeers, 可以 (kěyǐ), 能 (néng), and 会 (huì), all translate to “can” in English. While 可以 and 能 are used to seek permission or ask for a request, 会 is used to explain skills you have or don’t have.
After all, we couldn’t possibly master every skill in the world.😁
Keep in mind that 会 is used when asking about skills you can learn or pick up, not so much about the things you can inherently do.
For instance, someone may ask you if know how to play the piano, swim, use programming software, or speak Mandarin.
If those are things you can’t do, you can reply with a 不会, which means “No, I can’t.”
The following are some example scenarios:
Keep your ears wide open for the word 会 in the question.
It’s a pretty good hint that your answer would likely include the word 会 as well.
行 has numerous meanings, but in the context of answering a question, it translates to something along the lines of “alright” or “okay.” Hence, 不行 is likened to “not okay,” or “not possible,” or “no way!”
This phrase could be considered a little impolite, so it’s best to avoid using it with your boss or superiors—unless you’re looking for trouble.
This phrase would be more appropriate in casual conversations and settings, such as when you’re speaking to friends.
不可能 (bù kěnéng)
If you’re looking for a word that screams “Impossible!”, this is it. 可能 (kěnéng) translates to “possible” or “maybe,” so 不可能 means “no way” or “impossible.”
This phrase is typically used when the other party makes a statement that will not happen—unless pigs fly.
In other words, 不可能 would be a suitable reply to a ridiculous statement or request, and it lets the other party know that what they’ve said is out of the question.
Once again, when using this phrase in response to a request, it could come off as somewhat rude and harsh, so reserve it for casual settings.
You won’t look very professional throwing this phrase around at your workplace.😅
If you need a way to reject an offer politely, this is the phrase to use.
You may receive a well-meaning offer from time to time, and this would be the most suitable phrase that serves as a polite declination. 用 translates to “use” or “need.”
Combining it with 不 will give you 不用, which literally means “no need,” but carries the meaning “You don’t have to.”
Sometimes, you’ll hear people say it when the other party offers to pay for their meal. In some cases, you may have to say it a few times before your friend accepts your declination.
To make the phrase sound more friendly and natural, you can use 不用, 不用 (repeated twice) or 不用了(bùyòngle). Additionally, you may say 真的不用 (zhēn de bùyòng) to insist that you feel terrible about accepting the offer.
It’s also best to add a 谢谢 (xièxiè) at the end, which means “thank you” to sound more polite.
Another closely-related phrase is 不必了(bùbìle), which also means “You don’t have to.” It’s less commonly used, but you may still hear it from time to time.
Last but not least on this list is a phrase that doesn’t contain the word 不.
没 (méi) is loosely translated to “no” in English, and 有 (yǒu) means have. Together, 没有 directly translates to “not have.”
Essentially, you’ll be using this phrase to show that you don’t have something.
Additionally, this phrase can also be used to say that you haven’t done something before (or yet).
没有 can also be used to say “there isn’t” or “there aren’t” in some situations.
For instance, if someone asks if there are any public toilets in the vicinity, you can say 没有 to indicate that there aren’t any.
The scenario may play out as follows:
There are a variety of ways to say “no” using the word 没. In some cases, you can combine it with the verb found in the question.
Here’s one example:
还 (hái) translates to “yet.” In this scenario, the word 吃 (chī) is the verb, meaning “eat.” The verb would, of course, change based on the question you’re asked.
Understandably, all the different ways to use 没 might be a little confusing at the start.
But things will come naturally with some practice!😊
Conclusion: Nothing screams “foreigner” louder than using 不 to say “no”
Many dictionaries and apps translate 不 to “no” in English.
But it’s extremely rare to hear the word 不 being used on its own to say “no.” Of course, a native speaker will likely get the message you’re trying to convey.
Nonetheless, use that as your last resort only if you can’t remember anything else on this list.
The key is to listen for clues in the question. Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to get one.🙂
Do you know any other ways to say “no” in Mandarin Chinese?
If you do, feel free to share. We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!