Do You Ask For Permission Correctly?

Word of the week: kě yǐ

The other week I was chatting to a friend in the gym about how Chinese gym members don’t seem to return weight disks after using them. Within a couple of minutes of having said that the two Chinese guys working out at the other side of the room immediately put away all the yǎ líng (dumbbells) that they had been hording.

It just goes to show that you can’t stereotype. About a week earlier I’d been telling a friend that Chinese people don’t share equipment with strangers in the gym after which a bloke came over and pointed at the gāng líng (barbell) I was using and said yī qǐ kě yǐ ma? (together okay?)

Not only did it prove you can’t tar all Chinese people with the same brush, but it also solves the question of what to say when you want to share gym equipment. Just go up to the person, point at the equipment and say yī qǐ kě yǐ ma? If you want to make it extra clear you can add the verb lún líu (alternate) and say yī qǐ lún líu kě yǐ ma?

This somewhat direct and seemingly grammarless sentence structure is actually very useful in multiple situations. You just add kě yǐ ma? to the end of a verb to ask permission. For example shuā kǎ kě yǐ ma? (swipe card okay? / is it okay to pay by card?)

English speakers usually want to put the word kě yǐ 可以 (can) at the start of the sentence since that’s how English grammar would have it, but in Chinese it often sounds more natural to put it at the end, particularly for a slightly longer sentence. For example, kě yǐ zhè lǐ chōu yān ma? (can here smoke? / can I smoke here?) is a perfectly acceptable sentence but zhè lǐ chōu yān kě yǐ ma? (here smoke can?) just sounds a bit better.