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When and How to Use “不 (Bù)” and “没 (Méi)” for Negative Meaning

Aug. 31, 2018

HSK 3 quiz

Mandarin Chinese does not have a simple and easy way to say “no.” A Chinese student will have to become familiar with the various negative meanings of “不 () not” and “没 (méi) none” to indicate refusal, denial, disappointment and not having something.

As a Mandarin Chinese teacher, there are certain questions that come up time and time again in my classes. One of the most eternal questions that Chinese language learners have is on the difference between “不 () not” and “没 (méi) none.” These common words have similar meaning but are used in different contexts. Both “不 () not” and “没 (méi) none” can be placed in a sentence to make a negative meaning. However, you cannot use them interchangeably.

不 (Bù) = no; not; negative prefix.

没 (Méi) = have not; none; absence; without.

There are five main determinates that I like to introduce to students on when and how to use “不 ()” and “没 (méi).”

1. Tense

“没 (Méi) none” is used to deny both the present and past tenses- that is, to negate the actions and things that happen now and in the past, but cannot be used in the future tense.

“不 () not” is used to deny past, present and future tense.

Examples:

Yǐqián tā méiyǒu qù guò Zhōngguó.
以前他没有去过中国。
He had never been to China before.

Jīntiān tā méi qù xuéxiào.
今天他没去学校。
He didn’t go to school today.

Tā míngtiān bú qù gōngsī.
他明天不去公司。
He will not go to the company tomorrow.

2. Attitude

When the speaker expresses their own attitude and indicates that this behavior has always been the same from the past to the present, the use of “不 () not” is appropriate to use.

Example:

Wǒ bù xǐhuān chī xiāngjiāo.
我不喜欢吃香蕉。
I don’t like to eat bananas.

3. Subjective vs. Objective

“不 (Bù) not” indicates subjective willingness. It often goes hand-in-hand with “是 (shì) indeed”, “像 (xiàng) to resemble”, “应该 (yīnggāi) should” to judge the estimation or cognition.

“没( Méi) none”, is used for objective narratives, negating that an act has taken place.

Examples:

Shì tā māma bú ràng tā wán diànnǎo.
是他妈妈不让他玩电脑。
It is his mother who does not let him play the computer.

Tā gāngcái méi wán diànnǎo.
他刚才没玩电脑。
He didn’t play computer just now.

4. Modifiers

“不 () not” can modify adjectives and verbs.

“没 (Méi) none” only modifies verbs.

Examples:

不喜欢 (Bù xǐhuān) = dislike.

不漂亮 (Bú piàoliang) = not pretty.

没想到 (Méi xiǎngdào) = did not expect.

5. Fixed matches

There is a verb “有 (yǒu) have” that must always be combined with “没 (méi) none”. “没有 (méiyǒu)” means “do not have.” (What’s the usage of “有 (yǒu)” and “没有 (méiyǒu)?”)

There is a verb “是 (shì) be” that must be combined with “不 () not.” “不是 (búshì)” means “to be not.”

Examples:

Zhè zhī qiānbǐ bú shì wǒ de.
这支铅笔不是我的。
This pencil is not mine.

Wǒ de xuéxiào méiyǒu túshūguǎn.
我的学校没有图书馆。
My school does not have a library.

If you can remember these five rules above, the vast majority of uses for “不 () not” and “没 (méi) none” will be understandable to you. Remember, “不 () not” does not usually match with a noun and “没 (méi) none” does not usually match with an adjective. Pay close attention to their use in context and learn how to say “no” in Mandarin Chinese!

HSK 3 quiz

1. Please select the correct character that best fits in the bracket.

Tā (   ) qù Měiguó, tā qù le Zhōngguó.
他 (   ) 去美国,他去了中国。

A. 不 ()

B. 没 (Méi)

C. 否 (Fǒu)

See Answer Analysis

―Written by Becky Zhang―
Becky Zhang is a teacher at eChineseLearning.com. She has over eight years of experience teaching Mandarin Chinese to foreign students and promoting Chinese culture. She lives in Beijing but loves traveling to ancient Chinese villages. One day she’d like to be a tour guide in China!

Learn More Confusing Chinese Words:
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Misused Mandarin Words: “普通(pǔtōng)” vs. “普遍(pǔbiàn)”
“以为(yǐwéi)” vs. “认为(rènwéi)” – Similar but Different
课(kè) vs. 班(bān)-Two Ways to Talk About “Classes” in Mandarin

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