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作 and 做 are both translated as "to do" or "to make"; how can I tell when I should use one or the other?

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Look up the word 做作 if you want to get more confused :) – Geoffrey Zheng Dec 14 '11 at 4:42
@GeoffreyZheng: Awesome, is it an adjective? 那个人很做作 ? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 14 '11 at 12:57
Make it even confusing: 做作业. ;) – Flake Dec 14 '11 at 14:47
@Flake That's not actually very confusing if you understand that 作业 should be taken together to mean homework – Yi Jiang 易江 Dec 15 '11 at 14:25
@Mr.ShinyandNew安宇: yes it's mostly used as an adjective. However as with all live languages, you can use an adjective in many different ways, for example 你做作什么 or even 你做什么作 both use it as a verb. – Geoffrey Zheng Dec 21 '11 at 19:18
up vote 25 down vote accepted

Some real life examples to help identify the differences:

In general, "做" is almost always a verb that has some real meanings. It is very close to English word "do" in its verb form and "make". E.g. "Do your job!" = "做好你的工作!", "do nothing"="什么也不做", "make love" = "做爱", "make some cakes" = "做些蛋糕", etc.

For the word "作", in my personal opinion for now, acts as a function word (虚词) more often than having some real meanings. E.g. "作为" = "as/act as", "装作" = "pretend as". In these examples, it is really close to "as".

One of the most common "real meaning" usages of "作" is "compose": "作曲" = "compose a music", "创作" = "compose/create/write".

Another very common exception of "作" is the word "作文". It is a noun means "essay" or generally the "writing assignments" for students. Without checking it up, I don't even know what exactly "作" in "作文" means.

All in all, "做" is much more widely used as it is really similar as English "make" and "do".

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Very nice and clear examples! – Lars Andren Jan 2 '12 at 9:41
It may be worth pointing out that 作文 can also be translated as "composition". – Brian Tung Nov 27 '15 at 21:44

Flake has a really good answer, but I thought I'd add a favorite example of mine.

工作 and 做工
Having a job that you do is 工作 not very specific, rather abstract. You go somewhere to think thoughts and do things that makes the counter in your bank account go up once every month. A part of your identity; an occupation.

Carving a spoon out of a piece of wood, or creating a vase out of clay is 做工. A highly tangible result of what you do with your hands.

Getting up in the morning and going to your 工作 could very well mean doing some 做工, but whereas one is high level and abstract, the other one is quite specific (and often relates to working with your hands).

These two differences apply to the usage of 作 and 做 in other contexts as well.
So, just as Flake says, 作ing a piece of music isn't so much the actual writing notes on a paper; it is more about hearing the different instruments harmonize, the beat, the melody etc.

做ing a vase out of clay means actually shaping a lump of dirt into somehing that holds flowers in a pretty way.

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I could be totally off-base on this, because my Chinese experience is colloquial Cantonese in Hong Kong, but here's my $0.02. Generally from my experience, 作 is used in situations where you're doing something that has an end and an output, such as the Cantonese phrase 作准备. 做 seems to be used for things that are more ongoing, such as 做工作. Please somebody come along and correct me if this is wrong, because I'd like to know the answer to this as well.

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from my experience, 做 is corresponding to "make" and "do", just like you said: with no remarkable end-product, and 作 is corresponding to "compose(作曲)" "purposefully used as(名词用作动词)" "commit(作恶)" I have to stress, however, in my chinese Pinyin IME, when I type zuo zhun bei, i get "做准备" rather than "作准备"... – pimgeek Jul 11 '13 at 10:02

I have found a topic talking about these two words. It's realy complicated. Url is here: Hard to translate all.

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Complicated, but credible. – George Chen Sep 23 '14 at 7:46
Can you summarize, or at least provide a few relevant points from the article, please? Link-only answers are subject to link-rot. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 23 '14 at 12:42

做:The verb 'do'. 作:everything else.

As a professional user of Chinese for more than a quarter century I don't know what the character 作 mean independently. So you don't have to either.

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Yes, 作 is rarely used independently as a verb in modern Chinese. However, it's much more commonly used independently in ancient Chinese. Example: 舍瑟而作。——《论语·先进》(Confucian Analects - Book XI: Hsien Tsin)(See ref:, 作 means 挺身直跪 -- straight up body while knee sitting. It's a verb here. Another one proverb, which is still commonly used today, is "日出而作,日入而息" (《乐府诗集》) -- wake up and work when the sun arises, lay down and rest when the sun sets (rough translation). – Wang Zong'an Feb 5 at 6:15

做 sometimes means actual action or acting

作 is for abstracted meanings

in fact even many native speakers are not very clear of that

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As an extension to Flake's answer:

做 in most cases do not involve creative activity, in another word, usually do not involve mind work. As in 做工(work), 做饭(cook). 作 in most cases is something creative.As in 作曲(compose), 创作(write).

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