December 10, 2007

#01-047: The "Chinese Maybe": Correctly Expressing Possibility

cartoon of a fork in the road with a huge sign bearing a question mark
Maybe left? Maybe right? "Maybe" indicates uncertainty.

Note: Sometimes things don't translate well from one language into another. We refer to these things as being "lost in translation." The way Chinese and Japanese people use the word "maybe" is a good example.

Get Ready: What does the word "maybe" mean to you? How do you use it?

A friend from America once asked me, "What do Chinese people mean when they say 'maybe'?"

I said they meant "perhaps," or "possibly," just like we do. No, he insisted, "maybe" meant something else in China. I knew Chinese speakers of English used it more often than we did, but I couldn't quite see what he was talking about.

Last week, I got it.

A student came up to me before class and said, "I have to go to Hong Kong this Friday afternoon. I will be gone for five days. So maybe I can't come to class Monday and Tuesday."

"Maybe?" I replied. "You will be gone five days," and I counted them on my fingers. "There is no 'maybe' about it. You will be gone Monday and Tuesday."

He giggled sheepishly and sat down.

In class I told the students what had just happened. They are great students: dictionaries came out, heads were put together, and we got to the bottom of the "Chinese Maybe."

First, let me point out that most of the time, when a native speaker says "maybe," he is indicating a possibly, or making a suggestion.

"Where's my book?"

"Maybe John has it."

We could also say, "John might have it," or "It's possible that John has it," etc.

Once in a while, we use "maybe" to "soften the blow," to suggest something that we think the listener might not like.

"I hate my boss."

"Maybe you should quit..."

You can see that this is a mix of softening and possibility.

What my students came up with was less ambiguous: The "Chinese Maybe" was 100% softening!

Clearly, my student felt bad about missing class. In consideration of my feelings, he used "maybe" to keep from "slapping me in the face" with the news of his absence.

Let's be clear: This was not about protecting himself; he had every right to miss class. Rather, he was worried about my feelings.

As it turns out, the Chinese language has a very common construction for dealing with this. It is the placement of the particle ba at the end of a sentence. It changes a command to a request, and an assertion to a suggestion, a little bit like the English tag question ("It's cold today, isn't it?")

So we spent some time in class brain-storming how to express that softening in better ways, using phrases like, "I'm afraid I won't be able to..." and "I'm sorry I won't..." and "I wish I could... but I just can't."

It's important to limit "maybe" to cases where you are expressing possibility, and use other ways to soften bad news. Otherwise, you may be misunderstood. If you tell people, "Maybe I can meet you," you give them hope; "Sorry, I can't meet you" lets them down gently but clearly!


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. ambiguous
  2. assertion
  3. brain-storming
  4. get to the bottom of something
  5. misunderstood
  6. particle
  7. possibility
  8. sheepishly
  9. slapping in the face
  10. soften

  1. in this case, being shockingly direct
  2. have two or more possible meanings
  3. coming up with many ideas
  4. in an embarrassed way
  5. figure something out
  6. didn't understand
  7. a claim; a straightforward declaration of fact
  8. a small word with a function, but not really a meaning, like the "do" in "do let me know"
  9. make less severe
  10. what might be, not what is certain

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 10, 2007

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. g; 3. c; 4. e; 5. f; 6. h; 7. a; 8. d; 9. a; 10. i