I've always been a little wary of talking about the future in Chinese using the character 會, my early teachers made it ambiguous or demanded that I use a 的 at the end of every 會 sentence, but then other times I don't hear them use it. I've gotten a lot of mixed signals. Normally I add on the future time or say 要 instead whenever possible. Even though no one has told me I'm wrong when I use it, I feel like I'm doing something wrong when I use 會 to talk about the future.

However, today I went back into my more basic textbook and started making flashcards, but this time I decided all the definitions would come directly from a Chinese dictionary. The English translation for the context of 會 that I was searching for in this case was "will". The related definitions were as follows:




There was no certainty of the future at all. Does it really just mean "能" or "可能"?

If I'm not mislead, I think this revealed a reality about Chinese thinking to me. No one actually knows if something will happen. We can only say that it's possible that it will happen. "Will" is so definite, confident, it's 100% sure. Either that or this is a bad dictionary.

So my questions are these:

  1. Can 會 directly be used to mean "will"? (As a 副詞)

  2. If 會 does mean "will" could "我會游泳" potentially mean both "I will swim." and "I can swim." depending on the context? (Of course, if so, there are ways to convey the meaning less ambiguously, but I want to use this question to find out if I am using the word correctly.)

  3. If 會 doesn't mean "will" how do I say with the confidence of English that something shall occur in the future (using natural sounding conversational Chinese)?

  • "实用现代汉语语法"第二编 词类 第四章 动词 第六节 能源动词(十五)会1。表示经过学习而后具有某种能力。例如:1你会机种外语?2我会开车了。3他不会游泳。"会"与"能"比较:"会"表示学而后能,不需要学的,只能用"能",不能用"会"。例如:4我能把你举起来,你信不信?*我会把你举起来,你信不信?5老师,我病了,不能去考试。*老师,我病了,不会去考试。表示某种效率时,用"能"。例如:6他一分钟能游二十米。在谈汉语学习时,说"会说汉语","会写汉字",但是不能说"会听中文","会看中国电影"。2。表示可以实现,已然、未然的情况都可以用。例如:1在建设社会主义社会的道路上,一定会遇到许许多多的困难。2明天早晨我会把准确的数字拿出来。3我真没想到你今天会来。4过去,我是不会同意这样做的。"会"还用作动词,表示"善于做某事"。例如:1这个孩子很会说话,见什么人说什么话。2。你真会开玩笑,我哪里是什么百万富翁啊!
    – user6065
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 20:10
  • You may or may not be aware that until fairly recently "will" and "shall" had subtle differences in meaning that most people are no longer familiar with. "Will" was not plain but indicated the will of the person was required. I believe there was also a difference if it was used with the first person vs second or third person. Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 3:25

3 Answers 3

  1. yes, fx, 他会来吗?是的,他会来。
  2. yes,it depends on the context.
  3. we use extra word to express the confidence, fx.'一定',‘必然’。

You have encountered a fundamental, and very complex, problem for English and Chinese speakers who are trying to understand each other. Two things to remember here.

First, English 'will' is a very complicated word, with many shades of meaning, which usually go under the linguistic label of "modality". Compare "Will you shut up?" "I'll save you, Nell!" "It will be a cold day in hell when this Ghul rises again." etc. Chinese of course has no one way of expressing all these different meanings. It just doesn't pack all these meanings into a single vocabulary item.

Second, Chinese is a tenseless language. Many people object to this claim, but it is so. Let's take your example "I will swim tomorrow." On the English side, note that this is not in the same category of events as "The sun will rise tomorrow" in terms of certainty. Chinese as a language requires you to take account of things like this. So you need to have something more in mind here.

Let's say, for example, that you are too busy to go swimming today, so you tell your friend "I will swim tomorrow." One way to say this (I believe) is simply 我明天才去游泳, which I think emphasizes your intention to do something more important today, or perhaps 我明天再去游泳, which, maybe, indicates that you think it is already too late to swim today. The point is that neither of these uses ANY modal verb. This is impossible in English, because English really does need a tense.

One could say that the Chinese sentences do not indicate certainty, but does the English here? To me, no. Not like "The sun will rise tomorrow." It indicates your plan to do something in the future, which is always a (relatively) uncertain thing.

  • Many people also claim that English lacks a future tense as compared to other languages such as Spanish. English can express the future but use of words like "will" and "shall" are not really "tense" in a pretty similar way to how Chinese can express past, present, future, etc using methods other than tense. Many people will object to this claim too. But that's a difference between linguists who study language scientifically and lay people who just use intuition, commonsense, and logic without the technical understanding. Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 3:29
  • 1
    I guess I didn't express myself clearly. I agree that English 'will' has modal properties, and does not just express time reference. That was the point of giving examples like 'Will you shut up?' I felt that the OP had missed this point, and was looking for something in Chinese that doesn't exist even in English: a word that indicates simple future time reference and that has no other semantic content.
    – wpt
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 9:28
  • No your answer is great and I upvoted it. I just thought it might help demistify things by relating one English almost-tense to the several Chinese tenses. Might make it more familiar. Also nobody seemed to mention "shall" in previous comments and answers. Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 9:36

Just a little tidbit here. Spanish has no more of a future tense than English. The conjugated "modal" auxiliary "haber" is simply tagged onto the end of the infinitive to form the future. Historically, "hé de hablar" became "hablar hé" became "hablaré". In fact, in modern Portuguese, a close cousin to Spanish, a pronoun can be inserted between the infinitive and the future marker "falá-lo-ei".

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