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According to every dictionary I've seen so far, there is a big overlap in these:

  • 可以 = can, may, be able to
  • 会  = can, be able to, able
  • 能  = can, may, able, capable

How do I properly choose which one to use when I have a sentence with can / may / able? What are the differences in primary use of these characters?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted
  • 可以 means I can do it, but may I? For example :

    可以 开车吗?

    May I drive? (Have the implication of I want to drive)

    可以 开车。

    I can drive (have the implication of I can, but I don't want to (unwilling to do so))


  • means I am able to, or I know how to do it For example :

    开车吗?

    Can you drive? (Are you able to drive? Do you know how to drive? Or even Do you have a drivers license?)

    开车。

    I can drive (I know how to drive)


  • is similar to can, in most cases they are interchangeable. It means capable of doing something or Would you...? For example :

    开车吗?

    Would you drive? (Would you mind driving?)


Other Meanings

  • Apart from the meaning of willingness, 可以 can also mean good/not bad. For example :

    你的中文还 可以

    Your Chinese is not bad.

  • 能 can also mean power / energy For example 能量.

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If I got it right, 会 stands on its own meaning "having the ability/knowledge to do something", while 能 and 可以 are interchangeable in meaning "willingness" or "having permission" to do something? –  dr Hannibal Lecter Dec 15 '11 at 20:39
    
Yep, that's correct. –  StarCub Dec 15 '11 at 21:19
1  
You said that 能 and 可以 are mostly interchangeable, is there a rule on when they are not? –  dr Hannibal Lecter Dec 15 '11 at 21:27
    
When I said mostly I was thinking maybe there were some cases that I didn't think of. They are interchangeable in all the cases that I can think of. :) I've updated the answer to include other meanings for 可以 and 能. –  StarCub Dec 15 '11 at 21:45
    
Great, this is more than good enough for me, you win one green checkmark! :) –  dr Hannibal Lecter Dec 15 '11 at 21:52

可以 refers to PERMISSION or "social capacity." Am I allowed (permitted) to do such and such? Or at least can I "get away" with it?

会 refers to "know how." Do I know HOW to do such and such.

能 refers to physical capacity: size, strength, dexterity. I may 会 (know how) to move a large piece of furniture or change a tire (having done so before), but no longer 能, have the capacity, because I've grown old, weak, clumsy, etc.

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Excellent explanation, thanks! –  dr Hannibal Lecter Dec 15 '11 at 23:15
    
I agree with this ans. 能 is very much in reference to physical capacity. –  tbaums Dec 16 '11 at 0:00
    
+1 for providing counter-examples. (That is, an example of where one could mean 会 but definitely not 能.) I think that where usage questions are concerned, any full answer needs to contain at least one counter-example. –  Jesse Madnick Dec 29 '11 at 8:42

可以 means may or can, it is usually used to ask for or to give permit to do something.

能 means may, can or be able to, it is used more to show an ability to do something as well as to ask for or to give permit to do something.

会 means can or will, it is used to show an ability to do something. Be careful here, 会 also means will or would, it is a future tense indicator in this case

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The problems with these are because "can" or be able to" does not make these distinctions in English:

可以 = Involves social permission and the question of whether something is "permitted" (or not) based on the way social relations are ordered.

会 = Involves an ability (or not) that you acquired through direct experience or instruction. You are able to do certain things because of the knowledge you have acquired. We use this word with swimming because we believe that swimming is not a skill that we are born with but rather must be acquired.

能 = Involves an ability that you have because your base physical constitution alone permits it. Machines or tools may extend a native ability as in night goggles that permit you to see at night.

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