bié 别 vs. bú yào 不要

In my last (real) post there was a whole lot of “bu yao-ing” going on to tell someone not to do something. Well, now I’m going to ask a question that I feel I’ve never really gotten to the bottom of:

What’s the difference between “bié” do something and “bú yào” 不要 do something?

I’ve asked various informants over the years and gotten answers ranging from “there’s no difference” to “I can’t explain the difference” to “one of them is more formal” but disagreeing on which one is. So now, I shall attempt to employ the power of the blogosphere to find out whether there is a difference and what that difference is.

To assist, I offer the following examples:

A. bié shuōhuà le 别说话了 = stop speaking / be quiet

B. bú yào shuōhuà le 不要说话了 = stop speaking / be quiet

Questions (for ya’ll):

1. Which one would an elementary teacher be more likely to say to a room full of noisy kids?

2. Which one would a friend be most likely to say to another friend when hiding during a game of hide and seek?

3. Which one would a mother say to comfort a crying daughter who keeps going on about the goldfish that just died?

4. Can anyone think of a situation or example where “bié” do something would be ok but “bú yào” 不要 do something wouldn’t? Or vice versa?

5. When in doubt, which one should I use?

If you’ve got an idea, feel free to weigh in with your answers. Let’s see just how muddy this water can get!

7 Replies to “bié 别 vs. bú yào 不要”

  1. and 不要,exactly the same meaning and function,except for the former being more colloquial.

    In the following situation, most native Chinese speakers would prefer the usage of the former:
    (pointing a gun at his captive)
    Don’t you move! Hands up!

    The usage is OK but maybe too wasteful of time and energy. ^_^

  2. 1) …elementary teacher be more likely to say to a room full of noisy kids… 不要

    2) …friend … hide and seek… both is ok, but people would usually use

    3) Both is fine; I think in a social context, it would really depend on the education level of the mother, but even then, both.

    I think, mostly, you would use 不要 in a more formal/polite context; no one would ever say 請你別.

  3. As an imperative, and 不要 are like “don’t” and “do not” in English. is a contraction of 不要. The meaning is the same, but there may be a slight difference in mood or tone of voice. (The uncontracted form can be used in more formal situations, or for emphasis, or perhaps for politness.) In the three situations you pose (and in any situation I can think of), the speaker could use either one.

    Note that this is only for imperatives. is not used as a contraction for 不要 in declarative sentences.

  4. Just a Chinese learner here however buyao finishes with a fourth tone so if I had to shout it I would opt for buyao simply for me I can hit it harder.

    The fourth tone thing often seems to work in Chinese too sometimes so personally buyao would work in shouty or angry mode. ke3shi4 often seems to serve in more polite situations (like when contradicting someone) but the double fourth tone dan4shi4 (or dan4) can be wielded with a little more force when desired.

    A lot of songs seem to use buyao over bie also but maybe that is just my perception.

    Next month I will probably feel differently.

    Just to mess with your head do you ever find that when put on the spot and asked similar questions in English you struggle to find the right answer to give your Chinese colleague. Later however (after they have gone) it seems obvious….. This always makes me doubt some of the advice I get even from my informants.
    Once you start “thinking” how to use a language, even your native tongue, you lose the flow.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. They’ve just confirmed what I suspected: there’s basically no difference.

    I think the most helpful thing is Jim Mahler’s “don’t” and “do not.” Both are correct, one may be TECHNICALLY more formal, but both are used in formal spoken contexts (news, speeches, etc.).

    Also, as Tom pointed out, “Don’t move!” sounds better than “Do not move!” coming from a gunman.

  6. This is not an informed opinion because you certainly know and have studied a lot more Chinese than I have. And I’m even back in the USA now after living in China for four years. When I lived in China, however, my Chinese friends (who were basically Cantonese speakers speaking Mandarin as their second language) preferred to use the word “bie” when they were directing an action. For instance, my friend taught my little daughter to say “Bie mu wo” (don’t touch me) when she didn’t want a stranger to touch her. I think “Bu yao” is a little stronger and also a little more generalized, as in “I don’t want to be touched.” Do you agree? My friends instructed me that if someone didn’t understand “bie x,” (which is to politely ask), then I was to progress up the ladder of escalation, so to speak, and say “bu yao x” (more of a demand).

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