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Rrina

Neng vs. Hui - this is very confusing to me

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Rrina

So far I think I've understood all of the exercises in the Schaum's Chinese Grammar. But this one I really don't get, on the verb chapter -selecting hui4, neng2 or ke2yi3 to fill in the blanks.

I took literally the meaning giving for neng2 as conveying "physical ability".

So I selected neng2 for "Can you ride a bicycle?" - Ni ____ bu ____ qi zixingche?

Also for "Can that child speak yet?" - Na ge xiao haizi ___ shuo hua le ma?

But I was wrong - in both cases it was "hui".

Then they asked. "my car is broken, can you help me fix it?" - Ni ___ bu ___ bang wo xiu?

and I selected hui. But it's "neng"!

There has to be some clear way to understand the difference. Is there? I checked the Routledge book also and I still don't see clearly what's the difference between the two.

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FSO

Neng2 and Hui4 do overlap somewhat in meaning, so sometimes either is acceptable. In the examples you provided, though, there are definite differences between the two.

I took literally the meaning giving for neng2 as conveying "physical ability".

So I selected neng2 for "Can you ride a bicycle?" - Ni ____ bu ____ qi zixingche?

Also for "Can that child speak yet?" - Na ge xiao haizi ___ shuo hua le ma?

But I was wrong - in both cases it was "hui".

Both riding a bicycle and speaking are learned skills, so hui4 is normally used. If neng2 is used, the implication is that of true physical ability, i.e. physical limbs and inner-ear balance necessary to ride a bike, or the presence (or lack thereof) of the necessary speech organs. In the latter example, it seems to me that there would not be a "le" if using neng2, unless some sort of surgery had recently been completed.

Then they asked. "my car is broken, can you help me fix it?" - Ni ___ bu ___ bang wo xiu?

and I selected hui. But it's "neng"!

Others can chime in if they have a different view of this one, but my sense is that, by using neng2, you are asking whether they have the necessary tools to help fix the car. Using hui4 could give the sense that you are asking whether they have the knowledge to fix it, or even whether they are willing to do so (in the future-potential sense of hui4 - "can you help me fix it?' versus "would you help me fix it?")

I'm interested to see if others have more to add to this.

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anonymoose

Rules given in grammar books tend to be stricter than actual usage would suggest. In reality, 能 and 可以 are often used interchangably.

In answer to your question, 会 has the implication of being able (to do something) as a result of an acquired skill, whereas 能 as you stated conveys physical ability, or ability under the circumstances at the time.

So, as for your example 你__不__骑自行车? (Can you ride a bicycle?), most people have the physical ability to do so (in other words, having two arms and two legs), but the determining factor in whether they can ride or not is whether they have learnt the skill of riding a bike, so here the most appropriate answer would be 会. That is not to say, however, that 能 is not a possible answer. If someone has just lost a leg (for example due to an accident), you may very well ask 你能不能骑自行车?

As for your second example 那个小孩子__说话了吗? (Can that child speak yet?), again the significant factor here is the skill of speaking which has to be learnt, rather than the physical ability, so as in the previous example 会 is more appropriate. Again, however, 能 would be possible under certain circumstances, for example if the child had had a hoarse throat and had lost her voice, a few days later you may ask 那个小孩子能说话了吗? meaning "Can that child speak (again) yet (after having lost her voice)?". In this latter case, you can see the salient part is the physical ability to speak, and not the skill (which is assumed to have already been acquired).

As for your final example 你__不__帮我修? (Can you help me fix it?), fixing cars in general is an acquired skill, so you may use 会 in a question about fixing cars in general, eg. 你会不会修车? (Can you fix cars?). Here 会 implies an acquired skill. However in your example, the question is not about fixing cars in general, but rather whether you can help me fix my car in this particular instance. In this case, the emphasis is not on skill, but rather on whether circumstances (whether you have the time, mood, physical ability etc.) make it possible for you to help. So here, 能 is the correct answer.

From a more linguistic/grammatical point of view, 能 in this sentence refers primarily to 帮 and not to 修. The significant part is 能不能帮, in other words "can you help". Here, of course, the ability to help depends on physical/circumstantial ability rather than skill. So in your final example, 会 would not be a possible alternative. You could however rephrase the question as 你会不会修我的车? (Can you fix my car?), whence the 会 refers to 修 (of which the ability to do depends on skill) rather than to 帮.

Well, I hope my explanation was not too long-winded and that it helps you distinguish the difference between 能 and 会. If you search you will probably find other threads on the same issue.

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gougou
In this case, the emphasis is not on skill, but rather on whether circumstances (whether you have the time, mood, physical ability etc.) make is possible for you to help. So here, 能 is the correct answer.
This emphasis on circumstances might also be applied to the first two examples. For instance, say you have a friend who wants to drive to the supermarket around the corner by car, but you are big on protecting the environment and would prefer him to ride a bike. Then you could say: 你能不能骑自行车去啊? - Couldn't you take the bike?

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Rrina

Thanks for all those detailed explanations! The grammar books I have are so skimpy on this issue, it's maddening.

I guess a lot of this is a matter of time and developing the "ear" for certain words.

And to think I'm not even dealing with 'le' yet... :shock:

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