According to Pleco, 恐怕 has 2 definitions

  1. fear; dread; be afraid of
  2. perhaps; probably; maybe

The second definition is what I am struggling with. I was taught that it is similar to 也许, but in using 恐怕 other reasons must first be stated. For example, in a conversation between two people, person A states some causes for a certain event, then person B may say 恐怕,[another reason]. Is this accurate?

Even if not, I'm not too confident in my understanding of it. Could someone please give a comprehensive explanation? Also is 恐怕 used more in certain parts of China?

5 Answers 5


As a native Chinese speaker, I would say "恐怕" is used most frequently in the context where the speaker expresses his belief that something he does not wish to happen might happen. For example, the coach of L.A. Lakers may say "恐怕 Kobe 不能再打籃球了", i.e. "I am afraid Kobe will not be able to play basketball anymore".

Nevertheless, like in English, "恐怕" sometimes can be used to express conceding attitude. For instance, we may say "恐怕你在這點上是錯的", i.e. "I am afraid you are wrong in this point".


You use 恐怕 to (politely) address a negative point. It could be a fact that's already happened, or it could be something that's about to happen:

  • You get up late, so you text your manager and say 我恐怕今天要迟到了 in fear of disappointing your boss.
  • Your friend talks about conspiracy theories, and you say 恐怕事实不是这样吧 so that your opinion become less offensive.
  • You are a chess expert and you're watching a game. You say 白棋恐怕要输了 out of sheer modesty.
  • You talk about weather and say 明天恐怕要下雨了 because, well, nobody likes raining.

In Chinese, 恐怕 has two ways to use it:

  1. [I’m afraid] be worrid somthing 恐怕我的小狗不行了。(I am afraid my dog can not make it(on the point of death)).

  2. [perhaps;maybe] as same as maybe 恐怕他今天不来了。(He may not come today)

  • Does it carry a sense of "I'm afraid" even in (2)? I've always read that as meaning "I'm afraid he's not coming coming today" with the sense of "maybe" being contained within "I'm afraid not" (just as it is in English) Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 14:35
  • I think that 'I'm afraid not' way of 恐怕 with a mood of worry or something negative.But maybe is just probability way without mood.
    – lqhcpsgbl
    Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 14:40

恐怕 is used to express possibility but:

  1. you know that the thing you are talking about can happen with a relatively high probability.
  2. the thing you are talking about is usually not good for the two parties in the conversation, or at least you think it would be bad to the other. For example, you would say 恐怕麻烦要来了。(We probably have troubles.) 恐怕你这次不能如愿以偿了。(Maybe you cannot do as you wish this time.)
  3. you can use 恐怕 to express that you are sort of helpless that you may fail to stop the bad thing from happening.

恐怕 is especially convenient to translate. It corresponds directly to English "I'm afraid". It can have whatever meaning just as its English counterpart.

  1. It can be used to reject something while expressing regret or the reluctance to reject. E.g. when rejecting an invitation to an event: "I'm afraid I will need to attend a company meeting." == “恐怕我得出席公司的会议。”

  2. To indicate a fact while expressing disgust "I'm afraid you will not be able to live much longer." == “恐怕您活不久了。”

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