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Differences and Similarities between 本来 (běn lái) and 原来 (yuán lái)

If something was originally a certain way, or “should be” a certain way, two words, “本来” (běn lái) and “原来” (yuán lái), are often used in daily Chinese conversation. Sometimes they are interchangeable, but they are also used in different ways depending on the context. Today we will talk about how to use them correctly!

Let’s take a first look at their respective meanings:

 

本来(běn lái)

1. 本来can be used as an adjective. For example:

这不是我本来的用意。

(Zhè búshì wǒ běnlái de yòngyì.)

This is not my original purpose.

 

2. 

a. 本来can also be used as an adverb indicating “originally, at first, to begin with”. It can be placed before or after subject. For example:

他本来不喜欢这个工作,但是后来慢慢就习惯了。

(Tā běnlái bù xǐhuan zhègè gōngzuò, hòulái mànmàn jiù xíguàn le.)

At first he didn’t like this job, but later he got used to it.

b. It can also mean “naturally, it goes without saying” or “supposed to” and often used in the structure: 本来++verb. For example:

你本来就应该今天做完这些作业。

(Nǐ běnlái jiù yīnggāi jīntiān zuò wán zhèxiē zuòyè.)

You were supposed to have finished this homework today.

 

原来(yuán lái)

1. 原来can be used as a noun to mean “the beginning, the past”. It indicates that the situation described in the clause or sentence following is different from that in the past. 原来can be placed before or after the subject. For example:

原来北京没有这么多楼房。

(Yuánlái Běijīng méiyǒu zhème duō lóufáng.)

In the past, there were not so many buildings.

 

2. 原来 can be used as an adjective to mean “original, unaltered”. It cannot be used alone as the predicate. When it modifies a noun, “的” should be used after it. For example:

按原来的计划应该是两周,但是我们可以提前完成。

(àn yuánlái de jìhuà yīnggāi shì liǎngzhōu, dànshì wǒmen kěyǐ tíqián wánchéng.)

According to the original plan, it will take two weeks to finish the work, but we can finish it ahead of schedule.

 

3.

a. 原来 can also be used as an adverb to indicate “a certain period in the past”, meaning something /somebody has changed now. For example:

她原来是记者,现在已经成为一名老师。

(Tā yuánlái shì jìzhěxiànzài yǐjīng chéngwéi yìmíng lǎoshī.)

She was journalist , (but) now she is a teacher.

b. The adverb原来 can also indicate the discovery of formerly unknown situation, more used to emphasize what the speaker accidentally find out or realize. It’s similar to “as it turns out…” For example:

原来是你!我还以为是小李呢.

(Yuánlái shì nǐ! Wǒ hái yǐwéi shì xiǎolǐ ne.)

It turns out that it’s you! I thought it was Xiao Li!

 

Note that the discovery is only in the speaker’s perception, not in the situation itself. In this example, it was Xiao Li all along, but only now does the speaker realize.

 

There’s another word “原本” which has the same meaning with “本来(originally)”, while more formal than本来, it’s less commonly used in spoken Chinese.

 

Summary:

Similarities:

1.  Both can be used as adjectives, indicating “original, unaltered”. For example:

已经看不出来(这件衣服)原来/本来的颜色了.( Yǐjīng kàn bù chūlái (zhè jiàn yīfú) yuánlái/běnlái de yánsè le.)

(One/you) can’t tell what the original color was.

 

2. Both can be used as adverbs, indicating “the situation in the past is different from that at present”, both can be placed before or after the subject. For example:

本来/原来我是学英语的,后来学了法语. (Běnlái /yuánlái wǒ shì xué yīngyǔ de, hòulái xué le fǎyǔ.)

I was originally studying English, and then studied French.

Differences:

When原来 is used as an adverb, it can indicate “a formerly unknown situation has been found out”; When本来 is used as an adverb, it can indicate “it should have been like this” For examples:

 

我在后面叫她,可她一直没回头。等到了她身边,才发现原来我认错人了。

(Wǒ zài hòumian jiào tā, kě tā yìzhí méi huítóu. Děng dào le tā shēnbian, cái fāxiàn yuánlái wǒ rèn cuò rén le.)

I kept calling her, but she never looked back. When l stood by her side, it turned out I’d mistaken someone else for her!

 

这本书本来应该昨天还给你,真不好意思.

( Zhè běn shū běnlái yīnggāi zuótiān huán gěi nǐ, zhēn bùhǎo yìsī.)

This book was supposed to have been returned to you yesterday, so sorry.

 

 

PRACTICE!

Do you know how to use them now? Let’s do some practice!

Fill in the sentences with本来 or原来:

 

1. 事情总是变化着的,我们需要及时调整____的计划.

(Shìqing zǒngshì biànhuà zhe de,wǒmen xūyào jíshí tiáozhěng ____de jìhuà.)

Things always change, we need to adjust our original plan in time.

 

2. 她____学新闻,后来改学金融。

(Tā ____xué xīnwén, hòulái gǎi xué jīnróng.)

She originally studied journalism and then switched to finance.

 

3. 我____能够爬上那座山的。

(Wǒ ____néng gòu pá shàng nà zuò shān de.)

I could have climbed that mountain.

 

4. _____是你! 我几乎没认出来。

(____shì nǐ ! Wǒ jīhū méi rèn chūlái.)

It is you! I almost didn’t recognize you until just now.

 

5. ____深圳是个小渔村。

(____Shēnzhèn shì gè xiǎo yúcūn)

Shenzhen was a small fishing village in the past.

 

6. 她____说九点到,但是由于堵车九点半才到。

(Tā ____shuō jiǔ diǎn dào, dànshì yóuyú dǔchē jiǔ diǎn bàn cái dào.)

She said she would arrive at 9 o’clock, but (due to the heavy traffic) she didn’t turn up until half past.

Rita Zhang

Rita is a professional Mandarin teacher, has been teaching more than 8 years. She enjoys digging more about Chinese grammar and culture work and helping more learners. Now she is working at the one-on-one online Chinese school TouchChinese.

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