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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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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

可以 means I can do it, but may I? For example

我可以开车吗?

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

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

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

你会开车吗?

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

我会开车

I can drive (I know how to drive)

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

你能开车吗?

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
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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
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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
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