Welcome to Adventures in Language

The best place online to elevate your knowledge of linguistics and proficiency at language learning and teaching.

AIL-Badge-General

Read, Watch, Listen...

Language content in the format you prefer

Subscribe to receive emails

How to distinguish conjunctions 还是 (háishì) and 或者 (huòzhě)?

Blog-Header-Mandarin-Gated-1

In Mandarin, there are two ways of saying ‘or’: 还是 (háishì) and 或者 (huòzhě). Generally speaking, 还是 (háishì) is for offering two or more choices in a question. 或者 (huòzhě), or sometimes 或是 (huòshì), is usually used in a statement. Let’s take a look at the following dialogue: 

A: 你今天想吃中餐还是西餐? (Nǐ jīntiān xiǎng chī zhōngcān háishì xīcān)
Do you want to eat a Chinese or Western meal today?

B: 我们吃西餐吧。我想吃法国菜或者西班牙菜。(Wǒmen chī xīcān ba. Wǒ xiǎng chī Fǎgúo cài hùozhě Xībānyá cài.)
Let’s do Western. I’d like to eat French or Spanish food.

In this dialogue, speaker A presents two choices in a question by using 还是 (háishì), and speaker B connects the two alternatives (i.e., French or Spanish food) with 或者 (huòzhě) in a statement. It is the general rule when it comes to distinguishing 还是 and 或者. Now, let’s take a closer look at how 还是 and 或者 are used in different contexts.

In Mandarin, there are two ways of saying ‘or’: 还是 (háishì) and 或者 (huòzhě). Generally speaking, 还是 (háishì) is for offering two or more choices in a question. 或者 (huòzhě), or sometimes 或是 (huòshì), is usually used in a statement. Let’s take a look at the following dialogue: 

A: 你今天想吃中餐还是西餐? (Nǐ jīntiān xiǎng chī zhōngcān háishì xīcān)
Do you want to eat a Chinese or Western meal today?

B: 我们吃西餐吧。我想吃法国菜或者西班牙菜。(Wǒ men chī xīcān ba. Wǒ xiǎng chī fǎgúo cài hùozhě xībānyá cài.)
Let’s do Western. I’d like to eat French or Spanish food.

In this dialogue, speaker A presents two choices in a question by using 还是 (háishì), and speaker B connects the two alternatives (i.e., French or Spanish food) with 或者 (huòzhě) in a statement. It is the general rule when it comes to distinguishing 还是 and 或者. Now, let’s take a closer look at how 还是 and 或者 are used in different contexts.

还是 (háishì) for presenting choices

In a question

As in the example above, 还是 is most commonly used in a question for presenting choices. They can be two nouns, two verbs, or even two adjectives. For example:

  • 你要红茶还是绿茶? (Nǐ yào hóngchá háishì lǜchá?)
    Do you want black tea or green tea?

  • 你周末想要看电影还是唱歌?(Nǐ zhōumò xiǎng yào kàn diànyǐng háishì chànggē?)
    Would you like to see a movie or sing (karaoke) on the weekend?

  • 学中文简单还是困难?(Xué Zhōngwén jiǎndān haíshì kùnnan?)
    Is learning Chinese easy or hard?

In a statement

Sometimes, 还是 can be used in a statement when it is tied with particular structures, such as 

1)  indirect questions, and 

2) in the structure below 

不论 (bùlùn)/不管(bùgǔan) [no matter whether] A 还是 B, ...

Let’s start with indirect questions:

Indirect questions

What is an indirect question?
Indirect questions are questions embedded in a statement. For example,

  • What does she like? (direct question)

  • I don’t know what she likes. (Indirect question)

  • 我不知道他想喝茶还是咖啡。(Wǒ bù zhīdào tā xiǎng hē chá háishì kāfē.)
    I don’t know if he wants tea or coffee.

  • 我不确定他要去英国还是美国。(Wǒ bú quèdìng tā yào qù Yīngguó háishì Měiguó.)
    I’m not sure if he is going to the UK or the US.

In these examples, 还是 is still used for presenting choices, but it is in a question embedded in a statement. Another way of using 还是 in a statement is with 不论/不管... 还是 :

不论 (bùlùn)/不管(bùgǔan) [No matter whether]

  • 不论刮风还是下雨,他从不迟到。(Bùlùn guāfēng háishì xiàyǔ, tā cún bù chídào.)
    No matter whether it is windy or rainy, he is never late.

⤷TIP: When used in a statement, 还是 and 或者 are usually interchangeable! In other words, you can use 或者 for the three examples above as well!

 
In suggestions

   IMPORTANT:

When 还是 is used in the 还是... 吧 (ba) structure, it does not mean ‘or.’  is commonly used at the end of a sentence for suggestions. The 还是... 吧 (ba) structure is for suggesting a choice after considering different options. For example,

  • 明天会下雨,我们还是别出门吧。(Míngtiān huì xià yǔ wǒmen háishì béi chūmén ba)
    It is going to rain tomorrow. We’d better stay at home.

  • 开车太麻烦了,还是搭火车吧。(Kāichē tài máfan le, háishì dā hǔochē ba.)
    Driving is too troublesome. We’d better take the train.

The first example implies that they were thinking about going out, but after considering the situation, the speaker suggested that it'd be better to stay at home. In both examples, 还是 implies that the suggestion was made after considering different options or situations.

或者 (huòzhě) for connecting alternatives

In a statement

Unlike 还是, 或者 is most commonly used in a statement to connect alternatives. It does not ask for a choice. For example,

  • 搭火车或者开车都行。(Dā huǒchē huòzhě kāichē dōu xíng.)
    Either taking a train or driving is fine.

  • 你可以跟他说中文或者英文。(Nǐ kěyǐ gēn tā shūo Zhōngwén huòzhě Yīngwén.)
    You can speak Chinese or English with him.

In both examples, 或者 connects two alternatives, or possibilities, but it doesn’t require the listener to make a choice like the case with 还是.

In a yes-no question

Occasionally, 或者 can be used in a yes-no question too, i.e., a question with 吗 (ma) at the end. For example,

  • 你去过北京或者上海吗?(Nǐ qùguò Běijīng huòzhě Shànghǎi ma?)
    Have you been to Beijing or Shanghai?

In this example, 或者 only connects the alternatives, but does not offer choices. To make this clearer, let’s take a look at the example. The question is asking, ‘Do you have the experience of going to Beijing or Shanghai?’ rather than offering choices. Let’s put this sentence in context. You might be talking about your experience living in big cities in China, and you want to ask someone ‘Have you been to Beijing or Shanghai?’ You do not want to know if they have been to Beijing or to Shanghai, but in general, you would like to know if they have been to a big city in China. In this case, you’re not using 或者 to offer choices, but to connect the two alternatives. 

As an adverb for suggestion

What is an adverb?

An adverb is a word or phrase that is used to modify another word, usually an adjective, like “very” below, or the entire sentence. For example,

  • He is very tall. (‘Very’ modifies ‘tall.’)

  • Perhaps we can go out tonight. (‘Perhaps’ modifies the entire sentence.)

Although this might not be directly relevant to the discussion of 还是 and 或者, it is useful to know that 或者 can also mean ‘perhaps’ in some cases.

  • 今天下雨,我们还是别出门吧!或者我们可以在家看电影。(Jīntiān xiàyǔ, wǒmen háishì bié chūmén ba! Huòzhě wǒmen kěyǐ zài jiā kàn diànyǐng.)
    It's raining today. We’d better not go out! Perhaps we can watch a movie at home. 

Like we said earlier, 还是 used here is for making a suggestion after considering the situation and other options. And 或者 in the second sentence functions as an adverb — meaning ‘perhaps’ — to provide an alternative.

Summary

Now is it clearer to you how to distinguish between 还是 and 或者? Although they are similar in meaning, the easiest way to distinguish them is to ask ‘is it a question?’ or ‘is it a statement?’ If you are using it in a question to present two or more choices to someone, then what you need is 还是. But if you use it in a statement to connect two alternatives, then you will need 或者 for that.  

Screen Shot 2021-12-10 at 2.50.56 PM

adventures_icon_mandarin

Adventures in Language, from Mango Languages, is the best place online if you want to elevate your knowledge of linguistics and your proficiency at language learning and teaching. This wealth of knowledge is just a couple clicks away.

Ready for a challenge? Check out this activity!

Chun-Yi Peng

5 Easy Ways to Build your Language Learning “Muscle!”
How are Russian possessives used?
Mango Languages
Written by Mango Languages

Language is an Adventure

Related Posts
Mango Languages’ Official 2020 Gift Guide
Mango Languages’ Official 2020 Gift Guide
How can teachers help students develop an intuition for target language grammar? (4 easy tips for acquiring a “feel” for grammar)
How can teachers help students develop an intuition for target language grammar? (4 easy tips for acquiring a “feel” for grammar)
Using Voice and Power to Advocate for Lasting Change
Using Voice and Power to Advocate for Lasting Change
Five Unique Characteristics You'll Develop by Learning Another Language
Five Unique Characteristics You'll Develop by Learning Another Language
Introducing Study Reminders: 3 Tips to Bust the 'Too Busy' Myth
Introducing Study Reminders: 3 Tips to Bust the 'Too Busy' Myth
Talk Like A Pirate Day 2020 | How to Celebrate Virtually as You 'Harbor-in-Place'
Talk Like A Pirate Day 2020 | How to Celebrate Virtually as You 'Harbor-in-Place'

Comments

Subscribe

Subscribe to Email Updates