The word ‘no’ is another important phrase that every Chinese learner should grasp and thus should be covered in the early stages of learning. Knowing how- to say ‘no’ will help protect your best interests and keep you safe during travelling or working in China, as is the case in every country.
Similar to the word ‘yes’, there is no direct translation for the word ‘no’ despite its significance. Instead, the phrase to use will depend on the context of the situation and what you are trying to convey.
不 (bù) and 不是 (bù shì)
As mentioned there is no exact equivalent for the word ‘no’, but just like how 是 (shì) is the commonly go-to word for ‘yes’, the go-to word for ‘no’ is 不 (bù). The direct translation for 不 can be thought of as ‘not’ and can be used in situations as highlighted in the following example.
Can you speak German? 你会说德语吗？Nǐ huì shuō déyǔ ma?
No, I cannot speak German. 不，我不会说德语。Bù, wǒ bù huì shuō déyǔ.
Note how we can pair up 不 with the verb to form the antonym ie. the opposite of that verb. Here, adding 不 to the verb 会 (huì), which means ‘can’ or ‘to be able to’ forms 不会 (bù huì), which means ‘cannot’ or ‘to not be able to’.
Let’s see this in action in another example. Take 喜欢 (xǐ huān) – to like.
不 + 喜欢 -> 不喜欢 (bù xǐ huān) – to not like.
不是 (bù shì) is derived in a similar manner. 是 (shì) itself means ‘to be’, thus when paired with 不 becomes 不是 (bù shì), which literally means ‘to not be’. Using this as a response conveys ‘It is not’ or ‘I am not’, depending on the context.
Are you English? 你是英国人吗？Nǐ shì yīngguó rén ma?
No (I am not), I am French. 不是, 我是法国人. Bùshì, wǒ shì fàguó rén.
不好 (bù hǎo)
With the information given above, we can form many many ways to form a negative response. In a previous blog post we explored how the word 好 (hǎo) can express ‘okay’ (literal translation for 好 = good), thus adding 不 (bù) to this to create ‘not good’.
We can therefore use this to show that we don’t agree with a situation or a proposal.
Let’s watch this movie together! 我们一起看这部电影吧! Wǒmen yīqǐ kàn zhè bù diànyǐng ba!
No, I’m not a fan of it. 不好，我不想看。Bù hǎo, wǒ bùxiǎng kàn.
不对 (bù duì)
This next phrase is commonly used when correcting someone’s comment or false statement. The literal translation of 不对 (bù duì) is ‘not right’, therefore it is used when you want to say someone is ‘incorrect’.
Are you from China? 你是从中国来的吗? Nǐ shì cóng zhōngguó lái de ma?
No (that’s not right), I am from Spain. 不对，我是来自西班牙。Bù duì, wǒ shì láizì xībānyá.
Let’s take another look at a situation where an individual asks for clarification but has given the wrong information.
Your meeting is at 5 pm, right? 您的会议是在下午5点, 对不对? Ní de huìyì shì zài xiàwǔ 5 diǎn, duì bù duì?
No (that’s not right), my meeting is at 6 pm. 不对, 我的会议是在下午6点。Bù duì, wǒ de huìyì shì zài xiàwǔ 6 diǎn.
不行 (bù xíng), 不可以 (bù kě yǐ) and 不能 (bù néng)
These two responses are typically used when rejecting someone’s request or refusing some sort of permission.
不行 (bù xíng) literally means ‘not ok’, so can be used to show you’re not ok with a situation or an action, while 不可以 (bù kě yǐ) literally means ‘not allowed’ and thus is used to convey someone cannot do something. Let’s see these in practice. 能 (néng) literally translates to ‘can’, therefore 不能 (bù néng) also conveys ‘cannot’ / ‘not allowed’ and is interchangeable with 不可以.
Can I borrow your pen? 我可以借你的钢笔用下吗？Wǒ kěyǐ jiè nǐ de gāngbǐ yòng xià ma?
No (that’s not ok), I only have one. 不行, 我只有一支。Bù xíng, wǒ zhǐyǒu yīzhī.
[Note: though the question uses 可以, you can respond with either 不行 or 不可以. you do not necessarily have to use the words the questioner used as long as the context is still appropriate.]
Can I call you in five minutes? 我能在五分钟之内给你打电话吗？Wǒ néng zài wǔ fēnzhōng zhī nèi gěi nǐ dǎ diànhuà ma?
No (you cannot), I am busy at the moment. 不能，我现在很忙。Bù néng, wǒ xiànzài hěn máng.
没有 (méi yǒu)
Given its extensive usage, you may recognise the word 有 (yǒu) as the verb ‘to have’. Here, the addition of the word 没 (méi) creates its antonym – the literal translation for 没有 (méi yǒu) is ‘to not have’. The phrase is frequently used to describe a negative fact and indicate a lack of possession or action.
Have you watched this film before? 你看过这部电影吗？Nǐ kànguò zhè bù diànyǐng ma?
No (I haven’t), I have never watched this before. 没有, 我从没看过。Méi yǒu, wǒ cóng méi kànguò.
Adapting 没 (méi) to the situation
Similarly to using 不 in various combinations with different verbs to create a negative response, we can do the same with 没 (méi). Take a look at some examples.
Have you had breakfast yet? 你吃早餐了吗？Nǐ chī zǎocānle ma?
No, I haven’t eaten yet. 我还没有吃。Wǒ hái méiyǒu chī.
Did you buy the computer? 你买电脑了吗？Nǐ mǎi diànnǎole ma?
No, I didn’t buy it yet. 不，我还没买。Bù, wǒ hái méi mǎi.
The phrases we covered above are enough for you to hold most conversations with native and non-native speakers alike, but for those who are eager to continue growing your vocabulary, here are some extra phrases to add to your lists!
还没有 (hái méi yǒu) – ‘No, not yet’.
没门儿 (méi mén er) – This is slang for ‘impossible’, ‘no way’.
下次吧 (xià cì ba) – If you’re stuck in a situation where you want to refuse a request in a polite manner, you can use this phrase, which literally translates as ‘Maybe next time’.
想想吧 (xiǎng xiǎng ba) – Again, an indirect response literally meaning ‘I’ll think about it’.