Or in Chinese With 还是 háishi & 或/或者 huò/huòzhě

Connectors are what linguists call “conjunctions.” The Chinese word for them is “连词 liáncí – ‘connect + word.’ They serve to take separate thoughts and show how they are connected. Examples in English are words like “and,” “or,” “because,” etc. Chinese connectors are one of the most straightforward elements of the language to understand, so be sure not to overthink them too much :). Today’s post covers the Chinese Conjunctions 还是 háishi and 或/或者 huò/huòzhě (or in Chinese).

Or in Chinese – 还是 háishi

Take a look at these two sentences in English:

“You can have Cheerios or eggs.”

“Do you want Cheerios or eggs?”

Both sentences contain the word “or,” but one sentence is a statement, and the other is a question. In Chinese, you’ll use a different word depending on whether it’s a statement 或/或者 huò/huòzhě (or in Chinese) or a question 还是 háishi (or in Chinese).

NOTE: There’s an exception to this rule that we’ll illustrate with each example sentence in this article. What’s the exception? You may have a question embedded in a statement. For example: 

Wǒ bù zhīdào xiǎng chī Cuìgǔlè háishi jīdàn.
I don’t know if I want to eat Cheerios or eggs.

This is technically a statement, but you’ll still use 还是 háishi (or in Chinese) because whether or not the speaker wants to eat Cheerios or eggs is still a question that needs answering. We’ll provide more examples of this in the sentences below:

Sentence 1:

小王: 你去过中国,对吧? – Level 14
Xiǎowáng: Nǐ qùguo zhōngguó, duìba?

Bill: 去过。
Bill: Qùguo.

小王: 去年还是今年?
Xiǎowáng: Qùnián háishi jīnnián?

Bill: 去年一月和今年二月。
Bill: Qùnián yīyuè hé jīnnián èryuè

Xiaowang: You’ve been to China before, right?
Bill: Yes.
Xiaowang: This year or last year?
Bill: January last year & February this year.

In this dialogue, Xiaowang presents two options: 

Option A: 去年 qùnián Last year
Option B: 今年 jīnnián This year

Because Xiaowang wants to know which year it was that Bill went to China, it’s framed as a question and thus uses 还是 háishi (or in Chinese). 

Now, suppose that Xiaowang was talking to a third person before speaking with Bill, they might say:

Wǒ bù quèdìng Bill qùnián háishi jīnnián qùguo zhōngguó.
I’m not certain whether it was last year or this year that Bill went to China.

Again, we have a question that needs answering embedded within a statement, so you still use “还是 háishi (or in Chinese).”  

Or in Chinese – Sentence 2:

你想打包还是在这儿吃呢? – Level 17
Nǐ xiǎng dǎbāo háishi zài zhèr chī ne?
Do you want take out or dine in?

Ah, a classic question you’ll hear at any fast food restaurant.

Option A: 打包 Take out
Option B: 在这儿吃 Eat in

Perhaps you respond with:

Ò, wǒ bù zhīdào xiǎng dǎbǎo háishi zài zhèr chī. Ràng wǒ xiǎng yi xiǎng…hǎo! Zài zhèr chī ba.
Oh, I don’t know if I want take-out or dine-in. Let me think for a sec…OK! I’ll eat here.

Technically, “我不知道想打包还是在这儿吃 wǒ bù zhīdào xiǎng dǎbǎo háishi zài zhèr chī” is a statement, but a question is still embedded in it, hence the use of “还是 háishi (or in Chinese).”

Sentence 3:

走东边还是西边? – Level 19
Zǒu dōngbiān háishì xībiān?
Walk to the east or the west?

You get the idea! When using “or” in questions (or questions embedded in statements), use 还是 háishi!

Note: As a beginner, you may want to add “呢 ne” to the end of questions using 还是 háishì (or in Chinese) to remind you that it’s a question and also to add a tone of politeness, but it’s not required.

Now let’s move on to “or” in statements that don’t have any embedded questions. Sometimes, you are merely putting forward two possibilities, in which case you’ll use 或 huò or 或者 huòzhě (both mean “or in Chinese). 

Or in Chinese – 或/或者 huò/huòzhě

Sentence 4:

我用勺子吃面或面包。 – Level 13
Wǒ yòng sháozi chī miàn huò miànbāo.
I use a spoon to eat noodles or bread.

In this super simple sentence from Level 13, you’ll notice that the speaker makes bizarre choices when it comes to utensils. Who eats bread with a spoon? Regardless, because the speaker is not asking a question, you’ll use 或 huò (or in Chinese) here. 

Sentence 5:

他们考得好的话,你还得送他们现金或者一些很贵的东西。 – Level 22
Tāmen kǎodehǎo de huà, nǐ háiděi sòng tāmen xiànjīn huòzhě yīxiē hěnguì de dōngxī.
If they do well on their tests, you have to give them cash or something expensive.

No question about it, if Chinese kids do well on the 高考 gāokǎo (College entrance examination), you’d best reward them.

Possibility 1: Cold hard cash

-OR 或者 huòzhě-

Possibility 2: Something expensive.

You might be wondering, “Is there a difference between 或 huò and 或者 huòzhě (or in Chinese)?” There’s barely any difference, other than 或 huò by itself is a wee bit more common in written Chinese than spoken Chinese. Gotta save on that ink!

Sentence 6:

或者你走,或者我走。 – Level 27
Huòzhě nǐ zǒu, huòzhě wǒ zǒu.
Either you go, or I go.

The final point about using 或者 huòzhě (or in Chinese) is that you can place it in front of BOTH possibilities if it’s the entire point of the sentence or phrase. There’s only one thing to say: Either you go, or I go. 

Note that it’s less common to say “或者 huòzhě (or in Chinese) + Possibility 1, 或者 huòzhě (or in Chinese) + Possibility 2” compared to the more colloquial “要么 yàome + Possibility 1, 要么 yàome + Possibility 2,” however, 要么 yàome can feel a bit more “hardline.”

Also, don’t forget there is no such thing as “learning” grammar, it is more about acquisition. You can read more about how to acquire Chinese grammar in a natural way in this post.

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Chinese Conjunctions
3 May , 2021
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