Mandarin Chinese Synonyms – Five Common Examples

2014 April 21
by Junyu Z

One of the difficulties of learning Chinese (as well as other languages) comes from word pairs that have similar meanings (synonyms). For Chinese learners, it is always hard to figure out which word to use under the situation that both words from the pair appear to be applicable. Here, we would like to give out five typical examples.



Flashcards and Pronunciation of the Article:

 (er2) – (liang2)

Usually in the beginner Chinese class, most teachers will repeatedly emphasize the distinction between “二” and “两”。 However, even many advanced Chinese learners still make errors when using these two words.

Both “二“and “两” means the number 2.

  • “两” should be always used before measure words. For example:
两个人  2 people
两年  2 years
两点  2 o’clock
两岁  2 years old


  • On the other hand, “二”  is usually used in the following 3 situations :

1.Name of numbers:

For example:

12 十二
20 二十
32 三十二
200 二百


Things will be very easy if this is always the case, but exceptions in a language cause confusion for language learners. Here is the exception under situation 1:

In spoken Chinese, when number 2 is placed before “百”,“千”,“万”,or “两“ is more commonly used. Following what was mentioned above, 200 can be named as “二百”. However, in spoken Chinese, people prefer to name it as “两百”.

So, when you tell your friends you have earned 200 dollars, you should say “我赚了两百块钱。”

Notice: This exception only applies when 2 comes BEFORE “百”,“千”,“万”, but NOT “十”. So 220 will be“两百二十”, but never “两百两十”。

To conclude this exception with a chart:

200 二百 √ 两百 √
2000 二千 √ 两千 √
20,000 二万 √ 两万 √
20 二十 √ 两十 ×

This is the only situation that 两 is NOT used before a measure word.

2. Ordinal Number Expression

“Second” writes or reads “第二” (but never “第两”).

3. When we are talking about a series of numbers, such as phone number, room numbers, etc. Examples:

Room 421 四二一(号)房
Year 2032 二零三二年
572453 五七二四五三


 时间(shi2jian1) 时候(shi2hou4)

By meaning, both ”时间“ and “时候” are roughly translated as “time”.

  • “时间” is usually used with specific numbers.

– The specific number can indicate a specific point of time.

e.g. 上课的时间是早上9:00。(Class hour is 9:00 a.m.)

– Or, it can indicate a period of time

e.g. 我每天用一个小时的时间上班。(It takes me one hour to get to work every day.)

e.g. 我学习汉语有一年时间了。(It has been one year since I started to learn Chinese.)

  • “时候”is usually used when emphasizing a particular period of time.

e.g. 夏天的时候,人们喜欢去游泳。( People love to go swimming during the summer time. )

(Here, The phrase “夏天的时候” tries to bring out the time when summer is here.)

e.g. 上课的时候我睡着了。( I fell asleep when I was in class.)

A general description may not be clear enough. To contrast, here are two examples, when “时间” and “时候”follows with a same phrase.

e.g. 他上班的时间早上9:00到晚上6:00。(His working hour is from 9 a.m to 6 p.m..)

e.g. 上班的时候,他很努力。(He works hard while at work.)

e.g. 考试的时间是周五下午。(The time for the exam is Friday afternoon )

e.g. 考试的时候,他身体不舒服。(He didn’t feel well when he was taking an exam.)


马上(ma3shang4) – 立刻(li4ke4)

Both “立刻” and “马上” express the meaning of “right away”, but do you know the difference between them?

In most situations, they are replacable:

e.g. 她听完那个笑话马上/立刻就笑了。(She laughed right after she heard the joke.)

e.g. 电话一响,他就马上/立刻去听。(He picked up the phone right after it rang.)

There are two incidences in both sentences:

In sentence 1, Incident 1- “电话响” (phone rings) and Incident 2-“他去听” (he picks the phone up). “立刻” indicates Incident 1 is followed by Incident 2 very quickly, and the time between is extremely short.

However, in some situations, “马上” can’t be replaced by “立刻”.

e.g. 冬天过去了,春天马上就要到了。√(Winter is passing, and spring is coming soon.)

e.g. 冬天过去了,春天立刻就要到了。×

In this situation, we are not talking about winter is here today and it will turn into spring tomorrow. If we use “立刻” here, it will express such meaning, which is impossible. So “立刻” should not be used here. When using “马上”, we are talking about a relatively short period of time between the passing of Winter and the coming of Spring (comparing to the time period of a year.)

Still confused? Or are you confused even more? Two more examples when “马上” is replaced by “立刻”  and different meanings are expressed as a result.

e.g. 我听说她马上要结婚了。 √ (I heard that she will be married soon.)

e.g. 我听说她立刻要结婚了。×?

Here,  if “立刻” is used, it expresses the idea that “she” will be married very soon right after the sentence is said, and the situation is very urgent. However, if the idea you want to express is that “she” is getting married soon some day in the upcoming future. “马上” is a more accurate expression. It could be this weekend, next week, or even few months later, and not in an urgent.

e.g. 我马上要去德国了。 √(I am leaving for Germany soon.)

e.g. 我立刻要去德国了。 ×?

Similarly, if  “立刻” is used, the listener will interprete that you are in an urgent situation that you need to leave for Germany in next minute.

(ma) – (ba) – (a)

These three words are confusing not only because they look really alike, but also they are all used at the end of interrogative sentence. Now read the following sentences.

1-     她是你的老师吗?

2-     她是你的老师吧?

3-     她是你的老师啊?

The three sentences are exactly the same except for the last words. What do you think the difference can be?

  • 吗: Using “吗” at the end of a sentence means the speaker is seeking for a “Yes or No” answer. Sentence 1 here means “Is she your teacher ?”, and potential answers should be: 是的,她是我的老师。Or 不是,她不是我的老师。
  • 吧:Using “吧” at the end of a sentence means the speaker is seeking for a confirmation for the fact that he/she stated in the sentence. In Sentence 2, the speaker had the idea in mind that the person is probably “your” teacher, yet not one hundred percent sure.

*Different from “吧”, the use of “吗” is really seeking for an answer because the speaker has no idea about the question.

  • 啊:Using “啊” at the end of a sentence shows the speaker’s surprise about the fact stated. Sentence 3 may happen in a scenario that A told B that C was A’s teacher. While C never thought of before that C is A’s teacher, C restated the fact that “她是你的老师” and puts “吧” at the end to show surprise about the fact.


(he2) – (ji2)

“和” and “及” are usually translated into “and”, but there are some differences between the two.

  1. “和” can be used in both written and oral Chinese, while “及” is more formal and can only be used in written Chinese.
  2. “及” can only be used between two nouns or noun phrases, and “和” is not restricted to this rule.
星星和月亮√ 星星及月亮√ the stars and the moon
我们在公园跑步和打球。√ 我们在公园跑步及打球。×

We run and play ball games in the park.

我喜欢他的勇敢和坚强。√ 我喜欢他的勇敢及坚强。× I like that he is brave and strong.


3. We can only use “和”  when we are connecting two nouns or two adjectives and used them as subject or object.

跑步和游泳都是很好的运动。√subject跑步,游泳- noun 跑步及游泳都是很好的运动。×subject Both running and swimming are very good sports.
我喜欢他的勇敢和坚强。√object勇敢,坚强 – adjective 我喜欢他的勇敢及坚强。×object I like that he is brave and strong.


Knowing about these five examples, you now know the reason they are confusing is that you are memorizing the meaning of these words without knowing the context that you should use them. A good way to solve this problem is compare the pairs by comprehending sample sentences, making your own sentences with these pairs, getting your own sentences proofread by native speakers, and then getting yourself familiar with these sentences that you made.


Reference: Peng Xiaochuan, Li Shouji & Wang Hong, Duiwaihanyu Jiaoxue Yufa Shiyi 201 Li, 2004

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