I got a letter from a new penfriend in Hong Kong, written in 普通话. I think their first language is Cantonese. Mostly the letter uses simplified characters, with the occasional traditional one. It starts by using 尔, e.g.


then shifts to using 你. So I was wondering about the differences between the two. It looks like for this meaning 尔 is more formal, and the dictionaries I looked at say it’s a formal word when used for “you”. But I’d like to have some examples; the dictionaries don’t give much detail here.

  • Must be a typo... has the meaning of in old Chinese though.
    – Justin XL
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 8:00
  • In 普通话, is rarely used instead of . It could be found at some chengyu or fixed phrase occasionally, such as 尔虞我诈.
    – user4072
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 8:53

4 Answers 4


尔 in traditional chinese is written in 爾. Although it also mean "you", I believe it's a typo. Because

  1. 尔 is widely used in old chinese. The situation is just like "Thou" and "you".
  2. It's rarely use in nowadays daily life no matter in HK, mainland China nor Taiwan.
  3. Instead of simplified Chinese, Hong Kong people usually write in traditional chinese. Sometimes people tried to write in simplified chinese quite some HK people would mix up some wordings. I would rather believed that is a typo if you said your pen friend is come from HK.

When will we use 尔? One common example we will definitely use nowadays is 尔虞我诈(or in traditionally chinese is 爾虞我詐). Which is an idiom mean "People cheating and getting advantages of each others".


尔 for 你

It's rude to call someone 尔 ancient times.I only see people calling enemy with that.There is another word also means 你 in ancient:汝, doesn't offensive。

Because these words are used by ancients,some times it will be fun to use with familiar friends


伊 for 她

吾/余/予 for 我

私(meaning of Japanese kanji) for 我


尔 is only used in old Chinese. It is surprising to see someone who uses this word nowadays...

For your future reference, there are several words which mean 'you' in old Chinese:

尔: implies that the person you speak to is inferior to you. So your boss could use 尔 when talking with you (but not vice versa!) I think your penfriend is actually addressing you in a rude way...

汝: implies that the person you speak to has equal social status to you, or inferior to you.

君: implies that the man you speak to is superior to you. Using 君 in old Chinese is like using 您 in modern Chinese.

公: implies that the man you speak to is older than you and also much superior to you.

Hope it helps.


尔 is only used in ancient chinese written language, now we don't say 尔, it only exists in phrase.

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