Again and again

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A note from Cullen Schaffer:

As a student of Mandarin, I'm fascinated by the fact that the language translates the word 'again' differently in these two cases:

He did it last month and yesterday he did it again (又).
He did it last month and tomorrow he'll do it again (再).

It seems bizarre to me to distinguish repetition in the past and future in this way.  Can you or anyone else contributing to Language Log tell me (1) if this feature is unique to Mandarin or if there are parallels in other not-too-closely-related languages (2) how this distinction came to be a part of modern Mandarin?

I recall that, when I began the study of Mandarin back in the 60s, I and all of my classmates were also perplexed by this seeming redundancy, and our teachers spent a lot of time and effort trying to distinguish between yòu 又 and zài 再, both of which are often translated as "again".  However, now that I've "been in the business" for so long, yòu 又 and zài 再 seem like completely different adverbs with separate functions that cannot be confused.

It is very common to explain zài 再 as pertaining to the future and yòu 又 as pertaining to the past.  See, for example, this page on Chinese Grammar Wiki.

I think that is not the best approach to the problem of how to distinguish between yòu 又 and zài 再.

Mandarin language teachers go to great lengths to show how yòu 又 and zài 再 are used.  See, for example, the many explanations given on these web pages.

Yet students go away from the plethora of illustrative sentences confused and without a clear sense for when to use yòu 又 and when to use zài 再.

I suppose that all good teachers have an effective way to communicate the difference between yòu 又 and zài 再 to their students.  Here are some of the techniques I use for keeping them straight in my own mind:

yòu 又 basically conveys the sense of "also", "(once) more", "in addition" — the character used to write this word is simple (two strokes); it depicts a hand

zài 再, in contrast, signifies "further", "another time", "still", "anew","repeat", "twice", "second time" — has more strokes (six), suggesting multiplicity, but it is unclear what the oracle bone form is supposed to depict

An ancient, formal term formed with zài 再 is zàibài 再拜 ("to do obeisance again; bow twice; make / perform a double obeisance; an ancient ritual in which one does obeisance, and then does it again, in order to show even more respect"")

Zài 再 forms an enormous number of compound expressions, much like re- in English.  See the lengthy list at the bottom of this page.  The most common of these is zàijiàn 再见 (lit., "see [you] again", i.e., "good bye"), which is familiar even to those who know no other Mandarin than perhaps nǐ hǎo 你好 ("hello") and xièxiè 谢谢 ("thanks")

Whereas yòu 又 often connotes something unwanted, zài 再 frequently conveys the notion that something is wanted or expected.  Thus, yòu láile 又来了 ("[there he / she / it] comes / goes again") and zàilái 再来 ("do it again").

I hope that these notes are helpful in distinguishing between the various usages and nuances of yòu 又 and zài 再.  These are merely my own tricks for how to separate the two main words for "again" in Mandarin (there are others! — e.g., chóng 重 and fù 复).  Others may have their own tricks for keeping yòu 又 and zài 再 separate.  The best way to master them is simply to encounter and use them again and again in context.


  1. Jason Cullen said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 12:44 pm

    It's not strange at all for a language to have two different forms which differ in future or past.

    I assume Cullen Schaffer's first language is English. In English, we have two different words with the same meaning, but different lexical forms, depending on whether we are talking about an event in the recent past or an event in the immediate future:

    "Hey, is Mark here?" "You JUST missed him, he was here about 2 minutes ago."
    "He is Mark here?" "He'll be here SOON; he texted and said he was running a few minutes late."

    So we have two words, 'just' and 'soon'. Both words say "a short time from the present," but they differ in a) time frame ('just' for the past, 'soon' for the future) and b) syntax ('just' immediately precedes the lexical verb, while 'soon' usually terminates a clause).

    I'm also a student of Mandarin, but I don't really see the fascination with this phenomenon. I do, however, have to compliment Mr. Schaffer on an extraordinarily wonderful name! It makes me think of undead serial killers and sparkly vampires! :-)

  2. david said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

    I see what you did there ;o)

  3. January First-of-May said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

    Russian has (at least) two words for "again", опять and снова.
    I would probably use the former in the first example sentence (Он сделал это месяц назад, а вчера он опять это сделал), and definitely use the latter in the second example sentence (Он сделал это месяц назад, и завтра он снова это сделает).

    The word "снова" is clearly related to words meaning "new". I'm not sure about the etymology of "опять", however.

  4. Ferenc said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

    This sounds similar to Hungarian megint/újra, which also have a connotation of past/future. They are often interchangeable, but e.g. in "Már megint itt vagy?" (Geez, you are here again.) and "Kérjük, próbálkozzon újra." (Please try again.) they are not.

  5. FM said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 1:58 pm

    @J. F.-of-May: опять is related to пятиться, to back up, and вспять, backwards.

  6. Ian said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

    Another example of semantically-subtle distinctions between words translated into English as "again" could be Finnish jälleen, uudestaan, uudelleen, and taas. All of these are nearly synonymous, but convey subtle aspectual and volitional differences. Not necessarily past/present, but typically how an action relates to another potential action in the past.

  7. JS said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

    As far as the historical picture is concerned it might be that neither you4 nor zai4 began meaning 'again' as such. You4 in classical was conjunctive adverb-ish ('moreover, on top of that, in addition'), a usage retained in Mandarin. Zai4 was less common and meant specifically 'twice'. When saying "verb again," it seems to me that fu4 復 was the word of choice: just looking at Mencius, "When a sage rises again…" 聖人復起…; "[Will you] realize again the accomplishments of Guanzhong and Yanzi?" 管仲、晏子之功,可復許乎?

  8. JS said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 2:15 pm

    And I just recalled the famous 壯士一去兮不復還…

  9. Pat Barrett said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 2:17 pm

    Interestingly, op'at' derives from p'ata, the back part of the shoe, the heel, and is used in some Slavic languages from 'back', Ru. nazad. (Fasmer, Etimologicheskii slovar' russkogo yazyka)
    In line with Cullen's request for parallels I would mention Russian again with pochemu and zachem for why, the former why for past action and the latter why for future action, that is, why did you do that vs what are you doing that for.
    On the opposite track, i.e. using one adverb to denote past or future, Urdu uses kal for yesterday and tomorrow, depending on the verb tense, context, etc. (aj is today and ajkal is 'these days').
    Spanish uses manana for morning and for tomorrow.
    I'll try to think of more. Oh, and many languages, including Russian, Latin and Urdu use "and" to mean both the conjunction and the sense of "more", "also", "too".

  10. Cullen Schaffer said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the long, thoughtful response. I'm still wondering, though, if any language not closely related to Mandarin would translate the word 'again' differently in the example sentences:

    He did it last month and yesterday he did it again.
    He did it last month and tomorrow he'll do it again.

  11. mike said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    Spanish: "otra vez" and "de nuevo."

  12. D.O. said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

    I think January First-of-May is onto something. From what I feel about Russian опять and снова and what I understood from Prof. Mair explanations about 又 and 再 the most important thing is not when 2 actions took place (past-present or present-future), but which is the main action and which is just the reference point. In the first pair (опять, 又) what is important happened before and then is simply repeated, while for the second pair (снова, 再) important is what happened after and what was before is just a mere commentary.

    I have no idea whether it is true for mandarin, but in Russian the distinction is very subtle and the 2 words can be interchanged in most contexts

  13. Cullen Schaffer said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    I somehow missed all the relevant responses in the comments; excuse my previous comment asking again for parallels.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    Pat Barrett said:

    Urdu uses kal for yesterday and tomorrow, depending on the verb tense, context…

    The Gothic cognate of English 'yesterday', gistratagis, means 'tomorrow'. I wonder if you can see the seed of this kind of evolution in small children who regularly (in my experience anyway) use 'yesterday' to cover both.

  15. January First-of-May said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

    My own impression of the difference between опять and снова was that the former is more likely to be used when the repetition in question is perceived (by the speaker) as something negative (darn, they did it again – блин, они опять это сделали), and the latter when it is perceived as something positive (cool, they did it again – круто, они снова это сделали).
    This apparently parallels the Mandarin: "Whereas yòu 又 often connotes something unwanted, zài 再 frequently conveys the notion that something is wanted or expected."

    I wonder what the distribution of "once more" as a synonym for "again" (or the combined form "once again", for that matter) in English is…

  16. Vítor De Araújo said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    The first thing that came to my mind was the distinction between English 'still' and 'yet', which are the same word in Portuguese ('ainda') and the difference between which I find quite hard to explain, although I never mix them.

  17. Kevin Flynn said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    Dutch: weer / opnieuw

    Hij deed het vorige maand en gisteren deed hij het weer.
    Hij deed het vorige maand en morgen zal hij het opnieuw doen.

  18. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 8:26 pm

    There's a similar distinction between Irish riamh on the one hand and choíche/go deo/go brách on the other. These all translate "ever" (bzw. "never" in negative contexts), but riamh is only ever used in reference to the past, e.g. Ní fhacthas a leithéid riamh roimhe "The like had never before been seen" vs Ní feicfear a leithéid go brách arís "The like will never be seen again". As you may be able to guess from the first example, riamh is ultimately cognate with roimh "before" and that's a helpful mnemonic for remembering when to use it.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    My Mom was half Scots-Irish, and one of her favorite expressions was "Erin go brách". I could guess what it meant from the way she said it, but now I know exactly what it means.

  20. Travis said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 9:39 pm

    It's funny, I've been studying Japanese long enough that the usage of 'mata' 又 and 'futatabi' (再び、or 'sai' in compounds like 再生 saisei, to playback a recording; or 再開, saikai, to reopen) feels quite natural, and I don't think I'd ever say one when I meant the other.

    Yet, when my Mandarin professor explained these two characters to the class, and now again (又), I am confused and find it difficult to actually think about how and why they're different.

  21. Vilinthril said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 3:33 am

    @Pflaumbaum: “ I wonder if you can see the seed of this kind of evolution in small children who regularly (in my experience anyway) use 'yesterday' to cover both.”

    As far as I know, that is more likely to stem from the fact that small children don't have any concept of time (or, at most, *barely* have a grasp of it). IIRC, they develop an idea of both timespans as well as the passage of time only at a later age, so all words meaning “not today”/“not right now” kind of blur together for them.

  22. Akito said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 3:56 am

    In the "先 xiān A 再 zài B" combination, "再 zài" means something like "and (only) then". For example, "先计划再实行 Xiān jìhuà zài shíxíng" ("Plan first and then do it"). In this case, "再" indicates a second action, but not a second instance of the first action.

  23. Martin Ball said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 7:30 am

    Welsh like Irish has the same distinction for 'ever'. So 'Cymru am byth' means 'Wales for Ever', with 'erioed' being used for the past.

  24. Bean said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 7:43 am

    @Pflaumbaum, Vilinthril: I have two small children, one just at the stage of understanding and talking about time (three and a half), the other seven years old (so we just went through this with her in recent years). They have never mixed up "yesterday" and "tomorrow". But in these early stages, for the three-and-a-half year old, "yesterday" means "any time before now" so they say baffling things like "yesterday we went to the beach and ate ice cream" in February when they are remembering something from August.

    Actually, now that I'm writing about it, "tomorrow" is far more difficult for them to understand: although "yesterday" is a solid concept in the little one's mind, he doesn't talk about "tomorrow" much yet. This partially arises from the fact that he still naps halfway through the day, and doesn't understand that it's the long sleep (preceded by bath, involving darkness, wearing pyjamas, unlike the nap) that makes the day flip over to tomorrow. He may say things just before nap like "we'll go and play outside tomorrow" and I'll correct him saying, "Yes, I promise we'll play outside after nap." So "tomorrow" is a moving target for him right now.

    What he does get mixed up is breakfast, lunch, and supper. Again, I'm sure the nap doesn't help in distinguishing start, middle, and end of the day. Also, because his ability to plan and imagine the future is still developing, weekends are confusing. I try to remember to tell him on Friday nights "next we have TWO Mommy and Daddy days" because otherwise he assumes he's going to preschool. I can't imagine waking up in the morning and not quite being sure what's expected of me today. When it does happen to us as adults it induces a state of panic until we remember what day it is and what we're supposed to be doing. I know from experience that in a few months this will be easier for him.

  25. Nathan said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 8:15 am

    So if yòu 又 is associated more with the past and unwanted things, and zài 再 more with the future and wanted things, how do you say something future and unwanted – "Never do that again?"

  26. January First-of-May said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    In Russian, that specific example would be "Никогда больше этого не делай", where the word that corresponds to English "again" is больше (literally "more", so it's kind of like saying "never do that any more").
    I won't be surprised if the situation in Mandarin is similar (there's a third word, normally meaning something else entirely, that happens to be used in this particular situation).

  27. JS said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    bie2 zai4 V 别再 'don't again [V]', zai4 ye3 bie4 再也别 'never again [V]’, etc. I don't detect in Mandarin any real negative/positive association as described by January First-of-May for Russian; I suppose this impression is simply a function of the fact that people are wont to point out that something undesirable has happened again, meaning we hear a lot of you4 lai2 le 又来了 'here we go again [with sth bad]', etc.

  28. JS said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 10:30 am


  29. Victor Mair said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 11:57 am


    That's an excellent question you've raised about repeating something unwanted in the future. There's so much to say in reply that I'll write a separate post about it later today, probably in the evening.

  30. Daniel Barkalow said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    This reminds me, in the opposite direction, of Latin, which uses the same word to express what English renders as both "while" and "until". It's interesting to consider how you'd go about explaining which of these to use to translate "dum" to someone who didn't see a difference between them.

  31. BZ said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

    In my experience in Russian, there is barely any difference between opyat and snova, the biggest being placement in a sentence, and even then, not always.

    The difference between pochemu and zachem is not that of time. Rather, pochemu can be used in just about any context that the English why can be used, whereas zachem is more narrow, and I would translate it as "for what purpose"? So fore example "Why is the sky blue" could only use pochemu because the question is not about the purpose of the sky's blueness, but "Why are you/did you/will you do that?" could use either.

    For time-related differences, the mapping of words yesche and uzhe to yet, already, and still. "Yesche" mostly maps to "yet" in statements in the past tense (that is, it can only modify a negative value). Questions in the past tense also require a negative, even when the English translations don't. "Did you do it yet?" and "Didn't you do it yet?" differ only in the tone of voice and which words are stressed. In the present tense, it's "yet" when used with a negative, but "still" when not, as in "I'm still working on it" (this is also true with past an future progressive). In the future tense (and subjunctive), it's "still" as in "I will still do (something that I haven't yet done)". Then if "yesche" is stressed in a sentence it can mean "again" or "more" as in "I will do it again" or "I'll make more".

    Uzhe can usually be mapped to "already", except when used with negative statements. In the past tense it would denote "I haven't done it and there is no possibility that I will". In the present and future it's "no longer" as in "I no longer do that".

  32. E-Ping Rau said,

    March 23, 2016 @ 11:47 pm

    What might be interesting is that as far as I'm aware of, in Taiwanese/Hokkien the basic word "閣 koh" does not have such distinction, and it is used in both cases. However, we do have two compound words "又閣 iū-koh" and "閣再 koh-tsài", using the same characters as in Mandarin, which do have the distinction. I wonder if this due to common origin or later influence. Also I don't know what the situation is in Cantonese , Hakka etc.

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