Grammar notes: 才and 就

I have to admit that most of the grammar in my current textbook isn’t highly challenging, at least not until I start asking strange questions about whether I can do x, y, and z with it. But this one made my head hurt a little. My book says 就 means something happened earlier than expected, and 才means something happened later than expected. So far, so good. Except that these words also have a bazillion other uses in Chinese, and they keep throwing me off–I keep thinking 就 is later than expected. But setting that aside, here is how it works. Let’s just suppose that the average age a child learns to speak is 2. If I say

她     两     岁     会     说话     了。
liǎng suì huì shuōhuà le。
she two years of age   able to   speak le。

It means she knew how to speak when she was 2. If I say

她     一     岁     就     会     说话 了。
yī suì jiù huì shuōhuà le。
she one years of age   jiu able to   speak le。

it means that she learned to talk when she was one, and that was earlier than expected. The sentence “She had already learned to talk when she was one.” is almost equivalent. If I say

她     三     岁     才    会     说话.
sān suì cái huì shuōhuà.
she three years of age   cai able to   speak

it means she learned to speak when she was three, and that was later than expected. I think the English sentence “She didn’t learn to speak until she was three.” is equivalent.

But here’s the confusing bit. The observant reader will notice a difference between these sentences: If I use 就(jiù),I have to use 了(le). If I use 才(cái), I can’t use 了(le). (If you don’t know what 了(le) is, it’s way too complicated to explain here. It often indicates that something is completed or that a change of state has happened.)

When I asked my teacher why, she didn’t have an explanation. It’s just our habit, she told me. (This is why linguists have jobs. Most people can’t explain why their own language does what it does.) So I thought about it more, and here’s my first theory about the reason.

Our boring sentence just tells us about one time, like this:

. . . . Learn to speak (2) . . . .

However, our other sentences are actually about two times: the explicitly mentioned age when the child learned to speak and the age the child is expected to learn to speak, which is not explicitly mentioned. Our 就 (jiù) sentence tells us this:

. . . . Learned to speak (1) . . . . Expected age of learning (2) . . . .

Our 才 (cái) sentence tells us this:

. . . . Expected age of learning (2) . . . . Learned to speak (3) . . . .

So our 就(jiù) sentence tells us that the event of learning was completed at the explicitly mentioned time, before the expected time. Our 才(cái) sentence, on the other hand, tells us that the event was completed at the explicitly mentioned time, but at the expected time, the event hadn’t been completed yet. So the 了(le) in this construction is about completion– but not with respect to the explicitly mentioned time. Our 就(jiù) sentence requires a 了(le) because the event is completed before the expected time arrives. Our 才(cái) sentence forbids a了(le) because the event isn’t completed before the expected time arrives.

For added fun, my teacher tells me that if I want to really emphasize that an event happened earlier than expected, I can add 才(cái) to a 就(jiù) sentence. This is just like the 就(jiù) sentence given above, except 才(cái) is added in before the time phrase. For this one, however, I have no explanations at all.

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2 Responses to “Grammar notes: 才and 就”


  1. 1 Sharon March 6, 2011 at 4:11 am

    Funny explanation, nice try dude! As a native Mandarin speaker, I feel Mandarin so ambiguous somehow. I try to express my opinion on this topic despite my bad English.

    Actually the meanings of 就 and 才 are more than hundred, and they vary in a divers way with context. The way you explain it works pretty well, but you’ll find it confused when you go further in Mandarin if you keep taking it that way. Why not simply realize that it’s no more than a pattern. (maybe you won’t agree with me as you’re a linguist..)

    When you use 就 in that situation, the 了 particle is important because the speaker wants to emphasize the action has started/finished/done before a certain time (it’s not necessary to be a completed action). Only the mentioned moment is before a certain time, so the 了 particle emphasize the action “has happened”(←the 了 particle here for this reason only) by then. So I could also use the same sentence structure with a future time adverb.

    As for the 才 sentence, the speaker wants to emphasize the belated time, so the action is not important enough to add the particle 了.

    For the 3rd sentence to add 才 before the time phrase, the 才 particle simply means “only”. Then..I guess here comes your “aha” moment… Then again, like I said, 就 and 才 have tons of meanings…

    Let’s put it this way, I always have to memorize English sentence means different thing in different situation that I take them as “patterns”. For example, “the other way round” means way different depends on the context….

    The long and short of it, welcome to Mandarin world!!!


  1. 1 就 and 才 in Mandarin: as early as, not until « « East Asia Student Trackback on April 20, 2011 at 2:33 am

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