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总是 VS 一直: “Always” is not always the same in Chinese

If you’re learning Chinese, you might have come across two words that both mean “always”: “总是(zǒngshì)” and “一直(yīzhí)”. While these two words share a similar meaning, they are not interchangeable and have distinct differences in usage. Understanding these differences can help you use these words correctly and express yourself more accurately in Chinese.

In this article, we will explore the nuances of “总是(zǒngshì)” and “一直(yīzhí)” and provide examples to help you master them.

1. “一直(yīzhí)” emphasizes a stable or continuous state.

For example

I’ve always liked her.
我一直很喜欢她。(Wǒyīzhíhěnxǐhuantā.) (√)
我总是很喜欢她。(Wǒzǒngshìhěnxǐhuantā.) (×)

2. “总是(zǒngshì)” emphasizes a high probability or frequency.

For example:

Truth is always in the hands of a few.
真理总是掌握在少数人手中。(Zhēnlǐzǒngshìzhǎngwòzàishǎoshùrénshǒuzhōng.) (√)

3. Here are two examples that show the difference between these two words:

The rain never stopped during the past couple of days.

It has been raining the past few days. (but there were intervals when it didn’t rain).

他总是对的。(Tāzǒngshìduì de.)
In most cases, he is right. (This doesn’t exclude the cases where he was wrong). 

他一直是对的。(Tāyīzhíshìduì de.)
He has always been right and never wrong. 

4. There are two other uses of “一直(yīzhí)” that don’t apply to“总是(zǒngshì)”.

(1) Emphasizing an action never changed direction.

Go straight ahead.

(2) Emphasizing a full scope of reference.

从数学、物理、化学一直到外语,他的成绩都不错。(Cóngshùxué, wùlǐ, huàxuéyīzhídàowàiyǔ, tā de chéngjīdōubùcuò.)
From mathematics, physics, and chemistry to foreign language, his grades are all good.

5. “总是(zǒngshì)” has two other uses that cannot be done with “一直(yīzhí)”.

(1) Emphasizing what the final result will be.

时间长了,他总是会理解的。(Shíjiānchángle, tāzǒngshìhuìlǐjiě de.)
In a while, he will always understand.

(2) Emphasizing that no matter what happens, the conclusion is the same.

I always think of a solution when I encounter a problem.

While both “总是(zǒngshì)” and “一直(yīzhí)” can be translated to “always” in English, they have subtle differences in meaning and usage. “一直(yīzhí)” emphasizes a stable or continuous state, while “总是(zǒngshì)” emphasizes a high probability or frequency.

Additionally, each word has unique usages that the other does not have. It is important to use them correctly to convey your intended meaning accurately. By understanding the differences between these two words, Chinese learners can improve their language proficiency and avoid common mistakes in communication.

Now, let’s do some exercises.Fill in the blankets.

  1. ________ 向前走就到我家了。(________ Xiàngqiánzǒujiùdàowǒjiāle.)
  2. 我_______很喜欢养小猫。(Wǒ_______hěnxǐhuanyǎngxiǎomāo.)
  3. 从老师_______到同学,都很关心他。(Cónglǎoshī____dàotóngxué, dōuhěnguānxīntā.)
  4. 他_______第一个到办公室。(Tā____dì yī gè dào bàngōngshì.)
  5. 你不能_______迟到。(Nǐ bùnéng_______chídào.)


  1. 一直
  2. 一直
  3. 一直
  4. 总是
  5. 总是

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Zhang Yu

After graduating from University majoring in Teaching Chinese As A Second Language in 2011, Zhang Yu worked as a book editor about Chinese traditional culture and juvenile reading for 3 years. In 2015, she became a graduate student of Beijing Foreign Studies University, and continued to study international Chinese education. Now she is a Chinese teacher in Confucius institute in Palacký University, Olomouc in Czech Republic.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. 遇到问题总是得想办法 means ‘I always think of the problem’? It seems to me it means something like: ‘When one encounters a problem, you have to deal with it/find a solution (办法).

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