One of the most important words to grasp when starting a new language is of course the word ‘yes’. You will find it can be applied to various scenarios, becoming a go-to phrase to give an affirmative response to a question, comment, or statement, or simply to keep the conversation going.
One may find it shocking to discover that there is no direct translation for the word ‘yes’. The most widely-accepted translation of the word ‘yes’ in Chinese is 是/是的 (shì / shì de). Here, you are literally responding with ‘Yes it is’. However, in conversations with native speakers you’ll find that there are many other ways to express affirmation. These are used just as frequently as 是/是的 in everyday life, so it would be incredibly useful to pick up a few to widen your vocabulary!
The key point when incorporating these words into your vocabulary is to consider the context in which you’re using them.
To start, let’s look at each way of saying ‘yes’ in detail.
是/是的 (shì / shì de) - 'Yes it is' This is commonly used as a way to confirm what someone said was correct and true. An auxiliary verb, its literal translation is 'is'/'am'/'are'. In general, it is fine to use this as your go-to response. Example: Can you speak Chinese? 你会说中文吗? Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma? Yes, I can speak Chinese. 是的，我会说中文. Shì de, wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén. 对/对的 (duì / duì de) - 'Right / Correct' 对/对的 can be used to convey affirmation and can substitute 是/是的. This is literally translated as 'Right', 'Correct', thus shows someone you agree with them. Example: Are you married? 你结婚了吗? Nǐ jiéhūnle ma? Yes, I am married. 对的, 我结婚了. Duì de, wǒ jiéhūnle. 没错 (méi cuò) - 'That's right' This phrase literally translates word for word to 'not wrong' and is another way to say 'That's right'. As such it can replace 是 and 对. You can also use this to show concord with someone's personal opinion. Example: Is the supermarket open? 超市开着吗？Chāoshì kāizhe ma? That's right, the supermarket is open. 没错，超市开了。Méi cuò, chāoshì kāile.
行 (xíng) - 'Okay' This is usually used when someone tells you something, or asks you of something. Example: Can I borrow your pen? 我能借您的笔吗? Wǒ néng jiè nín de bǐ ma? Ok, no problem. 行, 没问题. Xíng, méi wèntí. 好 (hǎo) - 'Good' Another similar word you can use is 好 (hǎo). This literally means 'good' and can mean 'okay' when used as a response. Example: Can you help me carry this? 你能帮我提一下吗? Nǐ néng bāng wǒ tí yīxià ma? Yes, no problem. 好, 没问题. Hǎo, méi wèntí. 可以 kě yǐ - 'Okay' This is again similar to the previous two words. 可以 literally means 'I can', meaning it's perfect to be used as a response to requests/invitations (you're literally saying 'Yes, I can do what you requested of me'). Example: Can you make me a cup of water? 你能给我一杯水吗? Nǐ néng gěi wǒ yībēi shuǐ ma? Okay, please wait a moment. 可以, 请稍等. Kě yǐ, qǐng shāo děng.
Take note: in most scenarios, 好/行/可以 can be used synonymously, but cannot be used to replace 是/对/没错 in Chinese.
Another consideration is the use of pairing words such as 啊 (ā) /呀 (ya) /啦 (lā) /吧 (ba)/ 了 (le) with any of the phrases above. These are commonly added at the end of the phrase to convey tone and attitudes, including informality. 啊/ 呀 /啦 /吧 are interchangeable in most situations and expresses strong emotions and excitement.
Would you like to have coffee together? 你想一起喝咖啡吗？Nǐ xiǎng yīqǐ hē kāfēi ma?
Yeah! Let’s go together! 好呀! 一起去吧! Hǎo ya! Yīqǐ qù ba!
However, caution must be taken when using 了 (le) alongside these phrases as a way to convey ‘yes’. It is still applicable for informal occasions but conveys a sense of ‘Ok, that’s enough,” in your tone. Take a look at the following example.
Can you stop being so careless? 你能不再这么粗心吗？Nǐ néng bù zài zhème cūxīn ma?
Ok (that’s enough), I understand. 好了，我知道了. Hǎo lе, wǒ zhī dào lе.
Take words from the other participant
Although the words above are used frequently and can be adapted into most conversations, there are times where you could use vocabulary from the questioner to give a speedier answer.
1. Do you want a drink? 你想喝一杯吗? Nǐ xiǎng hè yībēi ma?
Yes, I want a drink. 想啊, 我想喝一杯. Xiǎng a. Wǒ xiǎng hè yībēi.
2. Do you like this song? 你喜欢这首歌吗? Nǐ xǐhuān zhè shǒu gē ma?
Yes, I like it, it sounds good. 喜欢, 这听起来不错. Xǐhuān, zhè tīng qǐlái bu cuò.
3. Is that book interesting? 那本书有趣吗? 那本书有趣吗?
Yes, it’s interesting. It’s not a bad choice. 有趣, 不错的选择. Yǒuqù, bùcuò de xuǎnzé.
The key to these responses is to take the key verb or adjective (or sometimes even nouns) from the asker’s direct words and adapt this. Simple but effective!
Other useful words and phrases
嗯 (Ń) - 'Yeah' / 'Mhm' /'Uh-huh' This is a rather informal way of conveying 'yes'. In fact, this is more of an utterance to mean 'mhm' or 'uh-huh' and, like in English, is used to show that you're following the conversation. Example: Do you remember when we went to the cinema? 你还记得我们去电影院的时候吗？ Nǐ hái jìdé wǒmen qù diànyǐngyuàn de shíhòu ma? Mhm, I remember. 嗯，我记得. Ń, wǒ jìdé. 当然 (dāng rán) - 'Of course' This can be used to respond to others when you want to express 'sure' or 'of course' to show absolute agreement/assent. Example: Can you help me carry this? 你能帮我提一下吗？Nǐ néng bāng wǒ tí yīxià ma? Of course! Let me help you. 当然了! 让我来帮助你. Dāngrán! Ràng wǒ lái bāngzhù nǐ. 没问题 (méi wèn tí) - 'No problem' Similarly, this can also mean 'sure' and is literally translated to mean 'no problem'. Example: Can you help me please? 你能帮我吗？Nǐ néng bāng wǒ ma? No problem! 没问题，您需要什么帮助？Méi wèntí, nín xūyào shénme bāngzhù?
As you continue on your journey to learn Chinese, you will likely come across more phrases and methods to express ‘yes’ to others. A great way to pick these up and learn from different examples is to immerse yourself within Chinese-speaking content. Check out our blog post on 5 Best Chinese Learning Podcasts for some inspiring ideas! Alternatively, Chinese TV paired with English subtitles is a great option too!