4

As far as I can tell, they both have the same meaning: have no time, i.e.:

对不起,今天我没空帮你

对不起,今天我没(有)时间帮你

But the first one looks like a quasi-idiomatic expression (have no air?); is there a difference in register, perhaps?

Another thing that bugs me: 没 is mostly used for past negation, with the notable exception of 没有. Can I use both of those expressions when referring to the future?

  • 2
    Sorry, I don't have anything other than gut instinct to back this up, but 没(有)时间 sounds really dickish (like, extremely conceited), whereas 没空 sounds perfectly okay. – user3306356 Dec 16 '18 at 14:51
  • @user3306356 good point. I suppose that’s related to the more colloquial nature of the latter. – droooze Dec 16 '18 at 14:57
5

「時間」means time, but「空」means free/leisure/spare time. Correspondingly,「沒(有)時間」means don't have time, but「沒空」means don't have free/leisure/spare time.

While「時間」works in all situations,「空」does not; there are situations where using「空」gives a strange impression or makes little sense, such as

  • 我沒空打工賺錢 - I don't have the free time to go to work to earn money
  • 我的孩子沒空上學 - My children don't have the free time to go to school

In the above, by using「空」, there's a feeling that the task described is trivial or unimportant, which comes across as abnormal if the people around you would consider otherwise.

「沒空」is otherwise more colloquial than「沒時間」, which means that you should use the latter when presenting written work.


Further notes:

  • 「空」here means spare or vacant, and by extension spare time, pronounced in the fourth tone. Air is not the correct interpretation (and is pronounced in the first tone), although it would be related to vacant in meaning.
  • For「沒」vs.「沒有」, see What is the difference between 没有+V. and 没+V.?
  • Thanks for the great answer. Let me follow up with this: In English, Polish, French etc. using “free/spare/leisure time” has an almost uniform effect of making the task “trivial or unimportant”, but entirely normal: “Sorry, I don't have time to spare for school” (= school is pointless). Is consistently the case for Chinese, or is it often abnormal (unidiomatic) as you have pointed out? – MrVocabulary Dec 16 '18 at 18:38
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    @MrVocabulary I suspect it's a combination of cultural differences and sample bias. As the literal inventor of standardised examinations utilised since the Han Dynasty, "school is pointless" is not something that you would hear Chinese people saying, because it makes as little sense as "food is pointless" - but the people you would tend to encounter are those of a reasonably educated and urban, not rural background. This is unlike in the west, where the attitude "school/education is pointless" occurs in all layers of society. – droooze Dec 17 '18 at 0:20
  • I was more thinking about interpreting using that structure to indicate something is trivial etc. – MrVocabulary Dec 17 '18 at 8:29
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    @MrVocabulary yes, it's fine to use that structure generically to make something sound trivial. 我沒空陪你聊天 - I don't have the free time to chat to you, makes chatting to you sound trivial and may offend you if you had something important to tell me. – droooze Dec 17 '18 at 8:31
4

对不起,今天我没空帮你 can be considered as the shorthand of 对不起,今天我没(有)【空闲时间】帮你, meaning I can't find any (free) timeslot to help you today. It's a casual talk, whereas its full version is a formal one.

空闲: free time; spare time; vacancy; etc.

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