Only in Chinese With 只有……才- Zhǐyǒu……cái

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 article will cover the grammar structure of 只有……才 Zhǐyǒu……cái (Only in Chinese).

Only If….Then in Chinese – 只有……才 Zhǐyǒu……cái

When sitting down to write this post, I thought of an old American campaign to help prevent forest fires. Their mascot was a cartoon bear called “Smokey the Bear,” and his catchphrase was “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”

What Smokey was getting at is that ‘only if’ (只有 zhǐyǒu) all of us individually take responsibility, THEN (才 cái) we can achieve the desired outcome of forest fire prevention.  

When you run into this situation where there’s only one way to get what you want, using 只有…才 Zhǐyǒu…cái is the perfect structure:

只有 zhǐyǒu (only in Chinese) + Necessary Condition + 才 cái + Conditional Outcome

Here are some examples:

Sentence 1:

只有看这本书才能明白。 – Level 20
Zhǐyǒu kàn zhè běn shū cái néng míngbái.
Only by reading this book will you understand.

Suppose you are trying to understand something so niche that there’s only ever been one book written about it. Perhaps you want to know how the unique plumbing system in Moscow functions. Well, ONLY by meeting the condition of reading this book (只有看这本书 Zhǐyǒu kàn zhè běn shū), can you reach the outcome of being able to understand (能明白 néng míngbái).

Note that in English, there’s no direct translation of 才 cái, but in Chinese, it’s the separator between the condition and the outcome.

Only in Chinese – Sentence 2:

多练习口语,才会说得流利。 – Level 27
Duō liànxí kǒuyǔ, cái huì shuō de liúlì.
Only frequent speaking practice will get you to speak fluently.

As we’re sure you’re used to by now, you can sometimes omit grammar elements if the context is clear enough. Despite not adding in 只有 zhǐyǒu (only in Chinese), we can assume that “多练习口语 duō liànxí kǒuyǔ” is the necessary condition for achieving the conditional outcome of spoken fluency. The “才 cái” is what gives it away.

(Psst…also, if we were to be even more accurate, we’d say “Only by first getting loads of comprehensible input followed by frequent speaking practice can you speak fluently 😉 )

Sentence 3:

只有会玩儿,才会工作。 – Level 28
Zhǐyǒu huì wán er, cái huì gōngzuò.
Only if you know how to play (relax), will you know how to work. 

As you can see, this sentence is a bit more rhetorical. In Sentence 1, we had an objective measure of understanding (reading the book 看这本书 kàn zhè běn shū). Here, the speaker has more of a rhetorical flare. Depending on the opinion of the speaker, you could switch it to “只有会工作,才会玩儿 Zhǐyǒu huì gōngzuò, cái huì wán er – Only if you know how to work will you know how to relax.”

Only in Chinese – Sentence 4:

父母的工作日都很忙,只有周末才能陪孩子。 – Level 28
Fùmǔ de gōngzuòrì dōu hěnmáng, zhǐyǒu zhōumò cái néng péi háizi.
Mom and dad are very busy with their job. They only have time for their child/children on weekends.

We’ll end with this cultural anecdote of a sentence. In China, it’s common for grandparents to be responsible for raising children while the parents work. Thus, the weekend (necessary condition) is the only chance for these parents to be with their kids (conditional outcome).

Look Out For 才 cái

When reading and listening, looking out for 才 cái is your best bet for noticing this structure. Sure, not every usage of 才 cái indicates a conditional outcome, but it tends to stand out in a sentence and allow you to notice and comprehend. 加油 jiāyóu!

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
10 May , 2021
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