The Five Ways To Say “No” in Chinese

by Dave Flynn | 29th November, 2011 | Vocabulary |

Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. There are no less than five ways to say “no” in Mandarin. Though naturally the meanings all vary slightly, as does the situations and places you might use or see each of them, but in the simpliest form they are all negations and also very versatile. Let’s have a look at them one by one and see how to use them.

Note: If you read the comments below you’ll find out that there are in fact a few more negations in Chinese so expect a further update to this post soon.

The five ways to say "no" in Chinese

不(不)

Pinyin:
English: not; no

Without a doubt the most common of the ‘no’ words and the one you almost certainly learnt in your first week of Chinese, if not the first day. Very rarely seen on its own and usually used as a negative prefix like in the simple examples below:

不要去 (我不要去)
bú yào
I don’t want to go

那輛車不是我的 (那辆车不是我的)
nà liàng chē bú shì wǒ de
That car’s not mine

你是不是英國人? (你是不是英国人?)
nǐ shì bú shì yīngguórén?
Are you British?

沒(没)

Pinyin: méi
English: not; have not

Another very common word that is learnt in the very early stages of Chinese, it’s an essential word that you wouldn’t get far without. How else could you deny things?

沒有錢 (我没有钱)
méi yǒu qián
I haven’t got any money

你有沒有去過中國?(你有没有去过中国?)
nǐ yǒu méi yǒu qù guò zhōngguó?
Have you ever been to China?

無(无)

Pinyin:
English: nothing; none; to lack

Getting a bit more difficult now and little more 「書面」”written” Chinese, rather than the very much 「口語」”spoken” Chinese of 「不」 and 「沒」. 無 is extremely flexible and versatile, though. Here’s a couple of the more common uses that you are likely to see:

無法進行這項計畫 (我无法进行这项计划)
wúfǎ jìnxíng zhè xiàng jìhuà
There’s no way I can implement this plan

As mentioned above, 無法 is very 「書面」 and only used in formal speech, though still essential to learn. In the first example above you’d likely use 「沒辦法」(没办法 méi bàn fǎ)instead of 「無法」in a less formal situation.

抱歉!我是無意做的(抱歉!我是无意做的)
bào qiàn! wǒ shì wú yì zuò de
Sorry! I did it by accident

A very useful phrase and easy to remember too – 意 means intention, and from the definition of 無 above we can see that it can mean ‘to lack’, so if you do something without, or lacking in, intention, then it must be by accident!

非(非)

Pinyin: fēi
English: to negate; not; wrong

非 is a very formal negation and you’ll often see it used in situations regarding law or formal notices/warnings. Here’s a pretty obvious example to start off with:

殺人是非法的(杀人是非法的)
shā rén shì fēifǎ de
Murder is illegal

In this example, 法 is short for 法律(fǎ lǜ)”law”. If something is the negation(非) of legality or law(法律) then it must be illegal (非法). Note: “legal” is actually 合法(hé fǎ).

非請勿進(非请勿进)
fēi qǐng wù jìn
No Entry (without invitation)

HTC 並非另一Nokia(HTC并非另一Nokia)
HTC bìng fēi lìng yī(yí,yì) Nokia
HTC really isn’t another Nokia

This example was taken from a headline in Google news today. If you know anything about mobile phones the you’ll know Nokia was once the king of the market, but was unable to react fast enough after the debut of the iPhone. Anyway, here 並 is used to emphasise the negation 非, which gives is “really not”.

否(否)

Pinyin: fǒu
English: to deny; to negate

Lastly is 否, which is quite similar to 非 in its usage, but with quite different meanings.

你不能否認中國的崛起(你不能否认中国的崛起)
nǐ bù néng fǒurèn zhōngguó de juéqǐ
You can’t deny the rise of China (is happening)

總統的新政策是否合理(总统的新政策是否合理)
zǒngtǒng de xīn zhèngcè shìfǒu hélǐ
Is the president’s new policy reasonable or not?

是否 is an interesting example as it is basically like saying “true or false”. A very literally translation of the example above might be “Is it true or false that the president’s new policy is reasonable?”, though in all but a political debate you’d never word the sentence that way and instead more likely translate it using the “… or not?” construct.

每天一定要上課,否則被學校開除(每天一定要上课,否则被学校开除)
měi tiān yīdìngyào shàngkè, fǒuzé bèi xuéxiào kāichú
You must go to school every day, otherwise you’ll be expelled.

否則 is pretty much a synonym for 不然(bù rán) which also means “otherwise”, though 不然 is more commonly used in speech.

Phew! Well that’s the 5 ways to say “no” in Chinese. If you have any questions about any of the examples above – or have your own better examples, then post ‘em below. Also, if you spot a mistake please let us know and we’ll get it corrected rigth away – no one’s perfect!

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Dave Flynn

Dave is a designer of websites, learner of Chinese and lover of technology. Originally from the UK, he's been living in Taiwan and learning Mandarin Chinese for the last eight years. He founded and runs Chinese Hacks, a blog dedicated to effectively learning Chinese.

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Tags: #deny #do not #don't #have not #negate #negative #no #none #not #nothing #to lack #wrong

11 Comments

  1. The 勿 in one of your examples is also a common negation term used in written Chinese. 勿 and 毋 both mean “do not” or “not to”.

    The following two are common expressions in spoken Chinese:

    除非 – unless

    无非 (negation + negation = affirmation) – just to, simply to


    • Hi Lydia, Thanks for the extra examples I’ll add some examples that use these common words.
      It’s also becoming more and more apparent that I should have named this post “five ways” and not “THE five ways” :)


  2. I have a question. “你有沒有去過英國?” This is actually incorrect is it not? I know everyone says it, including myself, but you’re “supposed” to just say "你去過英國嗎?" right? I heard the whole 有「動詞」過 thing is from English, like present perfect tense so people have started to say it in Chinese too. Thoughts?


    • Good comment and I’ve heard the argument that it comes from English, too. Though I actually can remember a teacher in Taiwan telling me that it comes from Taiwanese. Being in the UK now I don’t have any of my reference books so I’ll see who I can find online to chime in.


      • Daan

        When I was living in Taiwan, my teachers told me that sentences such as 我有去過英國 ‘I’ve been to the UK’, albeit very common, were to be avoided in formal speech. They said this 有 + V construction was common in 閩南話, but not acceptable in standard Mandarin. (As Chris pointed out, though, it’s actually used quite often in locally flavoured Mandarin, or 台灣國語.)But I was never told that sentences like 你有沒有去過英國? ‘Have you ever been to the UK?’ were wrong – only that speakers of Northern Mandarin would be more likely to say 你去過英國沒有?


    • York2275

      Hello, Chris!

      As a native Taiwanese college student, I’m sure that “你有沒有去過英國?” is perfectly correct!

      There is an interesting thing I would like to tell you.

      Although “無法” is generally a formal word, we sometimes deliberately use a formal way in dialogue to create a cute and hilarious effect, like saying “我無法” in common occasion, meaning that “I can’t”


      • As Daan said above it is correct in Taiwanese Mandarin, but isn’t normally used in China aside from maybe people in Fujian or those who watch a lot of Taiwanese TV shows.


  3. MrJoseph

    How about 勿,how come that was never discussed even though I saw it used in one of the examples?


    • Hi MrJoseph, You are indeed correct – see the comment I made to Lydia above. This post will be be undergoing some alteration soon and I’ll also add some extra examples too!


  4. I sometimes think Mandarin was made to not let foreigners say no to them ;)


  5. Shu

    Yes, Taiwan people like to say 有没有。 There is a cyber phrase 有木有 which is quite popular lately. 你有木有去过台湾?
    有木有 functions the same as 有没有; it is a dialect spoken somewhere in China.
    Languages are constantly changing and developing, good for learning fun:)


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