My Top-Ten Favorite Vague Chinese Words – Part One

Vague words are awesome for language learners. Keep a few in your pocket and you can pull them out any time you’re in need of “beating around the bush”, or you simply can’t find the specific word in Mandarin. These same words native speakers also use to talk around a subject or get out of giving the details.

#1 有事 yǒu shì = to have some matters (to tend to)
Man, I love this word! You can use it for almost anything. You can’t make it to a party; you cancel an appointment; you want ‘out’ of doing something; any time is a good yǒushì time. In Chinese, this is a universally accepted vague answer:

Usage: Subject + yǒu shì.

Example Sentences:

对不起, 我不能来,因为我有事。
Duìbùqǐ, wǒ bù néng lái yīnwèi wǒ yǒu shì.
Sorry, I can’t come, because I’ve got something going on.

我星期五晚上不行,因为我有事。
Wǒ xīngqīwǔ wǎnshàng bù xíng yīnwèi wǒ yǒu shì.
Friday night isn’t possible for me; I’ve got something going on.

#2 这样(子) Zhè yàng (zì) = like so, as such, in such a way, things like that
I remember the day I discovered the “zhè yàng” trick and have been a “zhè yàng zì” addict every since. It is so non-specific you can use it in many situations from responding vaguely to something someone said to showing somebody how to do something (without having to say the details):

The “like so” zhè yàng
你可以这样做。
Nǐ kěyǐ zhè yàng zuò.
You can do it like this.

The “In that a way” zhè yàng
哦, 结果你是这样做的。
O, jiěguǒ nǐ shì zhè yàng zuò de.
Oh, so in the end that’s the way you did it.

“oh, so that’s the way it is” Zhè yàng zì
(in response to something someone said)
这样子。
Zhè yàng zì.
“Oh I see” / “So it was like that”/ “Ah that’s what happened”/ “So that’s the way it gonna be.”

“things like that” Zhè yàng
这样的事情真让人生气。
Zhè yàng de shìqing zhēn ràng rén shēngqì.
Things like that really can make a person angry.

“like that” Zhè yàng
如你这样做,我不会把你当朋友。
Rú nǐ zhè yàng zuò wǒ bú huì bǎ nǐ dāng péngyǒu.
If you are going to do it like that, then I’m not going to be your friend.

#3 那个,那个 nà ge, nà ge = ummmm (expression to buy time while speaker thinks)

Need time to think because the Chinese isn’t flowing out of your mouth at the moment? Look no further. Just like our “ummmm” in English, this word can be repeated two or more times to show you are searching for the word or to not leave blank air time during your conversation.

Example:

他说他要请我吃饭, 然后带我去… 那个,那个,那个… 新的博物馆。
Tā shuō tā yào qǐng wǒ chīfàn , ránhòu dài wǒ qù … nàgè ,nàgè ,nàgè … xīn de
bówùguǎn.
He said he wants to take me out to dinner, and then take me to that new, ummmm, museum.

More to come… stay tuned for Part Two

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10 Responses

  1. Hi!

    Love the blog. Just found it.
    You’re missing the pinyin “guo” after “ru” in the zheyang sentence about being one’s friend.
    Cheers

  2. Hi,
    Actually “ru” can stand on its on its own and still means “if”.
    Thanks for checking out my blog.
    Rachel

  3. Ha! I remember the first time I got “有事ed” by someone. It can be so annoying to be on the receiving end, yet so tempting and convenient to use when you need it! (Though I’ve found a few situations where Chinese people won’t take 有事 for an answer.)

    We’d only been studying for less than three months, and we were apartment hunting (we were desperate to get out of the foreign ghetto apt. complex that housed most of our NGO’s people and local language students, and into a normal Chinese neighbourhood). I met a landlord to see their place, and then arranged to come back the next night with my wife. We showed up the next night, but the landlord had just sent some underling to tell us, “他有事”。 Our Chinese friends said it was because he didn’t want the hassle of renting to foreigners (which can be extra hassle). Seeing how he could so effortlessly get out of the situation with a simple “有事” was my first introduction to that whole genre of Chinese noncommittal/conveniently vague communication.

  4. Good “youshi” story and right, it also can be frustrating to be on the receiving end. I had the same apartment problems in Taiwan years ago. I’d have a Chinese friend call to answer a room ad (since my Chinese still wasn’t good enough) and when I appeared suddenly the room would disappear (or rather, no longer be available for rent). I think it’s the age old fear of people who are (or look) different from you, easier to stick to the familiar.

    P.S. I’ve moved my blog to Blogger since WordPress is banned in China (or so I’ve been told). Check out http://chitchatchinese.blogspot.com/ for the follow up to this list.

  5. yeah, WordPress.com often needs a proxy in China. But we have friends who blog from China on WordPress through a proxy.

    In Tianjin it’s hard to tell motives when it comes to renting apartments to foreigners. Depending on the district, the registration rules can make foreigners an extra hassle, and depending on how scrupulous the authorities are, it can be extra fees for the landlord (many are pseudo-legally subletting their work unit apartments). Some landlords seek out foreign tenants on purpose because they think we’ll take better care of the place. But of course there’re some just don’t want to bother with the language and culture barrier hassles of a foreign tenant.

    I’ll go update my links.

  6. Oh I see. In Taiwan there is no such thing, so really the only barrier is the hassles of the foreigness of the foreigner. Thanks for updating that link : )

  7. In chinese,”那個” may have different meaning in the youngs if you say it in a special tone. it sometimes imply make love while a man speaks to a woman.

    for example

    man:你想要跟我”那個”嗎?(abnormal tone)
    do you want to make love with me?

    woman:才不要!
    definitely no!!!

    conclusion:
    as you said,”那個” is a vague word,hence you should use it carefully. For the example used in the article
    “他说他要请我吃饭, 然后带我去… 那个,那个,那个… 新的博物馆。”

    if you said like this
    “他说他要请我吃饭, 然后带我去… 那个,那个”
    which means “after dinner and then you two will go making love.”

    Therefore,I sincerely suggest you should use the word “什麼”(she me) which means “what”, so you could say like this
    他说他要请我吃饭, 然后带我去什麼… 新的博物馆。

    or choose to repeat the lastest word
    “然后带我去?….去?….去?…. 新的博物馆。”
    (and then take me to go…go…go..the new museum. )

    so do u get 我說的”那個”意思了嗎?

  8. Hey Kenney,
    Ha! I am glad you told me about that double entendre! And thanks for warning readers. I can see how that might work to mean ‘hanky panky’.
    Thanks,
    Rachel

  9. “Actually “ru” can stand on its on its own and still means “if”.”

    Yes, but in this case you should remove the 果, it is inconsistent between pinyin and characters.

  10. Hehehe, loved the comment about 有事, that’s so true! My experience with Chinese people and their language is that they often like to be really vague as a way of teasing out some attention, especially from boy and girlfriends.

    I’ve often heard my friend mention to their partner that they want to do something, or go out with a ‘classmate’ 同学, which could basically mean an old classmate, an ex, a hot girl/guy…pretty much anyone and therefore always leads to a line of interrogation for the opposite partner.

    For that I think 同学 has to be my favourite vague word!!

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