In Cantonese, you use 先 to mean "first." For example:

Eat first => 先食

In Mandarin, most people use 才 so it becomes:


But sometimes people also use 先 even with Mandarin, so what are the guidelines in Mandarin for using 才vs 先?

  • If you mean “Eat first” in the sense of “Eat first, wash the dishes later” or “You eat first, I’ll help myself afterwards”, then I highly doubt that “In Mandarin, most people use 才”.
    – Philipp
    Sep 14, 2017 at 6:40
  • @Philipp could you please elaborate as an answer? it sounds like there are certain guidelines to using 才. thanks!
    – Crashalot
    Sep 14, 2017 at 8:35

4 Answers 4


才 and 先 are both very common words in Mandarin. Like you said, 先 means first in Cantonese, but it is the same in Mandarin.

  • means first or previous in time(or order), or means earlier than ..., or means in advance, or means before ..., the opposite word is 后(means later).
    examples:,前 both mean previously(or in the past). 人 means ancestor

    她比我们到了那里——She got there before us.

  • has two kinds of character.

    When it's used as noun it means ability or talent or gift. (example:你真有——you really have talent! 多多艺——be gifted in many ways.)

    When it's used as adv, it means just now (example:刚——just now, 开始——just start),

    or means things happen or finish so late (example:你怎么来——Why are you so late!, 他昨天走——He doesn't leave until yesterday).

    or means short in number (example:你十八岁——you are only 18 years old!)

    or means only ...when (example: Only when you try hard, you can get good results——努力有好结果),

    or mean emphasize (example: I'm not buying what you said at all——我不信你说的呢)

this is all I know, hope it helps

  • helps a lot! this is an awesome answer. will probably accept this as the answer but should wait 24-48 hours or so to let others reply as a courtesy. thanks again!
    – Crashalot
    Sep 14, 2017 at 8:38
  • so in your "only" example, could you also use 先? in cantonese, it would be okay to use 先 like 努力先有好结果.
    – Crashalot
    Sep 14, 2017 at 8:39
  • @Crashalot In the only example, '先' not commonly used(I myself have never seen), it's better to use '才'. sorry I'm not so familiar with cantonese
    – jiaxyan
    Sep 14, 2017 at 12:08

Eat first => 先食

It is correct, because 先 means 'first' in both Cantonese and Mandarin, so 先食 in Cantonese means the same as 先吃 in Mandarin

But in Cantonese, '先'(shortened for 先至) is also the counterpart of '才' in Mandarin


[7] [粵] [adv] only then (shortened for 先至)


Only after you finish them all, then you can get off work

全部做完可以下班 (Mandarin)

全部做完(至)可以放工 (Cantonese)


Only after I bought it, then I realized it was a fake

買了知是假貨 (Mandarin)

買咗(至)知係假貨 (Cantonese)

Your example sentence: "努力先有好结果" is a valid shortened version of "努力先至有好结果"

才vs 先: When to use each one in Mandarin?

Aside from using '先' as the shortened form of '先至' in Cantonese, the usage of 先 is basically the same in Mandarin and Cantonese.

  • 先 cannot replace 才 in Mandarin

They have different meanings, I'm not familar with Cantonese, but in Mandarin, "先" means first, before, "先吃" and "先食" have the same meaning of "eat first". "才" indicates doings something late than normal, "我三点才吃午饭" means I had lunch at three pm, which delivered a message that I was busy at lunch time, and have to eat lunch late.


才 could mean 'a little late' or 'just now' according to the context.

才吃 means you just finish eating and possibly implying it's late according to the speaker's tone. The intonation plays a key role here.

This is hard for a Chinese language learner to distinct whether the speaker has the implication of 'late'.

For example, 你才吃完啊? could just simply mean you just finish eating. Or if you put an emphasis on 才 while you speak, it means you just finish eating but emphasize more on "you are actually late" for eating. It could be a complaining sometimes.

先 just means 'first', 'earlier'. It's not that hard as 才.

先吃 means you eat a bit earlier than others/normal; you eat first. Like in 我先吃;你先吃;

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.