Of course there is 阅读, which specifically means "to read" and satisfies the prosodic preference for disyllabic words. However, if someone asked me what my brother was doing in the back of the car, I would never say "他在阅读“ as that sounds very formal to me (though this might just reflect the kind of Chinese my 老外 parents taught me). Even if I didn't know specifically what kind of media he was reading, I would probably say 他在看书. Perhaps he is reading an essay, or reading posts on a stackexchange, for example.

Is it appropriate to use 看书 in this way, as a general term for reading when the material being read is unknown?

Am I correct in feeling that 他在阅读 is overly formal?

4 Answers 4


1, Does 他在阅读 sound very formal?


2, Can you say 他在看书 when he is reading a newspaper or a post on StackExchange?


3, If he is holding a physical printed matter (newspaper, magazine, etc.), one should say 他在看报纸/看杂志 specifically.

4, If he is reading from a digital device (computer, mobile phone, etc.), unless you know he is reading a book, you can't say 他在看书. You can say 他在看电脑/看手机 or 他在玩手机. To be honest, given that one can do so many things on the phone, you can't deduce that he is reading a book if all you see is him fixing his eyes on a phone (Unless he's told you exactly what he is reading. Then you can say specifically 他在看书/看帖子/看网上文章, etc.)

5, If he is reading from a Kindle, I think we can assume that he is reading a book, so 他在看书 is OK. (Though in fact you can read other things on a Kindle.)


If you were to ask this question a few decades ago, I would have given you an unmistakable "yes" because then, pretty much everything you "read" is a book, or a book-like object. Magazines, novels, brochures, manuals ... etc., can all be loosely classified as "books". So 看书 could be a generic term for reading.

Fast forward to the 21st century. 书 (books) come in all shapes and forms. You can read a printed book, or a digital book (on your computer, ipad, or even your cell-phone). So when you say someone is reading, s/he can actually be holding a printed book, a cell-phone, a laptop etc. If you know that person is, in fact, reading, then sure, you can say 他在看书.

But then, a person holding a cell-phone or iPad can be watching a video or doing other things as well. If you don't know what that person is doing, then you can say 他在看電腦 or 他在看手機. Note the uncertainty is here partly because both "read" and "watch" can be expressed with the same word 看 in Chinese.

To summarize, if the person is reading a book-like object, then you can generalize 他在看书. If s/he is looking at a digital device, then use the name of the device 他在看電腦 or 他在看手機 UNLESS you know for sure it's an e-book that is being read.


If you know he's reading a book, yes, as 看 is literally meant "read" in this situation - 看小說,看雜誌,看報紙,看宣傳單,看漫畫書, all are the applicable response but very specific about the material/item he is reading. Otherwise, you can say "他在看東西", which is similar to "他在阅读“, but not as formal.

However, there is a catch though, as "他在看東西" can be misconstrued as "He is watching something (from an electronic device)", or "He is (literally) stare/look at something" by the listener. So be prepared to provide further clarification, as the inquiry "他在看什麼東西?" is likely to follow right after your answer.

  • I don't understand your answer. If he is reading something that isn‘t exactly a book, would it be misleading to say 看书?
    – Buddy L
    Mar 8, 2022 at 22:00
  • I see where I made mistake, the answer has been revised.
    – r13
    Mar 8, 2022 at 23:49
  • Thanks for the edit, though I still feel the question is unanswered (maybe I misunderstand the answer). If the person reads a lot of different materials (newspapers, magazines, poems, essays, but never books) frequently, I can say in English "He reads all the time". In Chinese, if I say 他老在看书,would it be thought of as inaccurate? Perhaps better to say 他老在看东西, but this could be easily misunderstood. Would 他老在阅读 be considered extremely formal?
    – Buddy L
    Mar 9, 2022 at 2:21
  • You started with a very specific case - your brother is in the car reading something (unknown to you). For that case, 看书 is actually correct/acceptable if he's reading anything that has the form of "book". "阅读" is also acceptable though sounds "formal" to some ears. "东西" is the choice because it is non-specific on the object unless you feel it is very important to let the listener know and makes no mistake that your brother is "reading", not "watching", then you shall be "object-specific" and using 看书/看小說/看雜誌/看報紙..., or simply "阅读".
    – r13
    Mar 9, 2022 at 16:00
  • Thanks for your patience. I'm trying to get better at asking more specific questions.
    – Buddy L
    Mar 9, 2022 at 16:21

"他在阅读" looks formal because "阅读" is often used as a transitive verb: "他在阅读一本书", and is still formal but not so strange when used in perfect tense: "他(阅)读过很多书"。

"He's reading" neglects the objects of reading. But in Chinese we seldom stress this action itself. If you are indeed in the situation when the action is emphasized, it will be okay to use "书" as a generic object of "看". E.g., "他天天看书", "他总是看书看到深夜". But use of "阅读" will often be suitable then if you are telling the abstract "reading": "他喜欢看书" and "他喜欢阅读" have the same meaning.

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