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For example, I was talking to one of my friends, and he said that 我会吃饭 means something more like "I can eat," than "I'm going to eat" so you should say 我会去吃饭.

However, I've seen cases where 会 is used to indicate the future tense without 去. My friend wasn't sure of the pattern though, since he's a native speaker and just knows when to use each.

Is there an underlying principle I can use to learn this, or should I just memorize which verbs need the 去?

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  • Saying 我很会吃饭 and 我会吃饭的 can avoid confusion, or simply say 我很能吃 – Tang Ho Jul 21 at 21:56
  • @Davis Yoshida When you say "I'm going to eat" you actually are not going anywhere, right? You just want to express future time, am I correct? – Giuseppe Romanazzi Jul 22 at 1:54
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You should always consider the context in which something is said. Taking short phrases on their own and trying to understand them is never good. Everything becomes clear in context.

明天你和我们一起去吃晚饭吗?
如果有空的话,我肯定会和你们一起去吃晚饭。

I can't find any examples of "会吃饭". I can find "能吃":

青香蕉没成熟,不能吃。
他能吃两碗菜。

Future Tense??

You will know the time indicated from the context. As many have said here, Chinese has no "tense" in it's Western sense.

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去 means "go", "to go", or "going". In a sense, the action "go" (去) happens in the future because you need to start from or stand on a reference point then "go" (去) to somewhere.

会 usually means "can" and "know how to".

我会吃饭 - I "know how to" (会) eat. (Simple present tense)

我去吃饭 - I am "going" (去) to eat (Present continuous tense).

我会去吃饭 - I will(会) "go" (去) eat. (Future tense)

It is interesting to note that 会 + 去 turns out to be a phrase that implies the will of a person. The similar sentences are:

我会回來的 - I shall/will return.

你會求我的 - You will beg me.

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  • The thing I'm confused by is that I've seen uses of 会 for future tense without 去. I'm trying to figure out which verbs or situations the 去 is necessary in. – Davis Yoshida Jul 21 at 23:19
  • 去 is necessary in the situation when the destination of the action is at a location other than where you are standing. 我去(餐廳)吃饭, 我去(朋友家))吃饭. And, it must be in front of an action you are going to perform, 我去(作)功課, 我去(打)拳, 我去(練習寫)毛筆字, as you can see, without the word/phrase in ( ), the sentences would not make sense. – r13 Jul 21 at 23:45
  • For the confusion in 会, you need to provide examples, so we can realize the problem. – r13 Jul 21 at 23:47
  • @DavisYoshida I think the meaning is based on the context, when you omit 去. If you look at 我会吃饭 it has different meanings, but within certain context, you will know what it means exactly. Without context, you need to be more precise to avoid confusion. – sylvia Jul 22 at 15:46
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Is there an underlying principle I can use to learn this

Yes, and I guess it's not what you want to hear, sorry. In English, as well as in Italian, my language, we have to position what we say in time by choosing the correct conjugation of verbs. As @Pedroski correctly said, that is not the case with Chinese. No tenses in Chinese.

Anyway, about time, I would suggest to:

  1. Ask yourself, do I really need to position in time what I say?
  2. Instead of focusing on verbs, focus on time words. Time words are not the only way to express time, but I think this is the easiest way. Then you can concentrate on particles, context, and sentence structure.
  3. Leave the verbs alone.

BTW, even if 会 is often used to indicate the possibility that something may happen in the future, it can also be used for the past and the present.

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