Saying ‘no’ is an important skill to develop when learning a new language. Because Chinese does not have one simple way to say ‘no’, a bit of effort is needed to master the negative, particularly with verbs.
There are two ways to say ‘no’ in Chinese: 没有 (méiyŏu) and 不 (bù). The pronunciation of没有 (méiyŏu) is does not change, but in everyday speech the 有 (yŏu) is often dropped. On the other hand, 不 (bù) does change when followed by a second-tone character (see Bu Pronunciation for details). Otherwise the rules for when each is used are actually fairly simple.
First, 没有 (méiyŏu) can never be used with是 (shì). This rule is completely reliable, so simply memorize it and live by it.
• 今天不是一月一号。Today is not January 1.
• 姐姐不是十岁。My younger sister is not 10 years old.
Next, the difference between不 (bù) and没有 (méiyŏu) has to do with when the action or activity described by the verb takes (or took) place. Chinese verbs are uninflected, meaning that they do not change form to reflect tense, modality, or aspect. Unlike English, French, or Arabic, Chinese verbs are invariant, but the negating words do change depending on the when and how of the verb.
不 (bù) is used for the present and future time, as well as for habitual activities. Often the adverbs of time, including words like today, tomorrow, next week, usually, or regularly, indicate which of these is meant.
• 他现在不在。 (He’s not home now.)
• 我不吸烟。 (I don’t smoke; I’m not smoking now. I’m not going to smoke)
• 他不喜欢吃。 (He does not like to eat.)
• 明天我不上课。(I’m not going to class tomorrow.)
• 我不喝酒。 (I don’t drink (as a habit, in general).)
• 你不高。(You are not tall.)
没 (méi) is used when talking about the past. As with不 (bù), adverbs of time, including words like yesterday, last month, last year, before, or once long ago, are used to indicate when in the past something did not happen. Also, the past here includes the perfect tenses, those forms that used ‘have’ plus the past participle, as in ‘I have never been to Beijing’ or ‘He hasn’t eaten Dimsum recently’.
• 我没有去。(I didn’t go; I haven’t gone.)
• 他没有看那个人。(He didn’t see that person; He hasn’t seen that person.)
• 昨天我没有上课。(I didn’t go to class yesterday.)
Also, 没(méi) is always used with the verb有 (yŏu), which is how the没有 (méiyŏu) negation formed.
• 我没有钱。(I don’t have money.)
• 他没有时间。(He doesn’t have time.)
• 我没有男朋友。(I don’t have a boyfriend.)
Don’t forget that in spoken Mandarin the有 (yŏu) is often omitted from没有 (méiyŏu) when forming the negative. All of the examples with没有 (méiyŏu) above can be recreated without the有 (yŏu).
Finally, don’t be confused by words like never (从来, cónglái), which do not affect tense. The rules above remain the same.
• 我从来不上课。(I never go to class.)
• 他从来不看电影。(He never watches movies.)
With a little practice producing the correct negative form in Chinese is easy. Very easy, even, given that the verbs do not change at all and there are only two ways to create the negative. But this simplicity is often confusing at first, since native English speakers by habit go looking for things that exist in English but not Chinese. Keep in mind the rules above and listen out for negative verbs, and it’ll all come together quickly.