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

If you’re learning Chinese, you might have heard the words “本来” (běn lái) and “原来” (yuán lái) being used in daily conversations to talk about something’s original state or how it should be. Although these two terms are sometimes interchangeable, their usage also varies depending on the context. In this article, we’ll explore the proper ways to use “本来” and “原来” in different situations.

(For more information on the differences between 本来 and 原来, check out these HSK grammar tutorial videos.)

本来(běn lái)

1. As an adjective

You can use 本来 as an adjective to mean “original.”

For example:

这不是我本来的用意。
(Zhè búshì wǒ běnlái de yòngyì.)
This is not my original purpose.

2. As an adverb

a. You can use 本来 as an adverb to mean “originally,” “at first,” or “to begin with.” It can be placed before or after the subject in a sentence.

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” or “supposed to,” when used in the following structure:

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. As a noun

You can use “原来” as a noun to mean “the beginning” or “the past.” It implies that the situation described in the following clause or sentence is different from what it was before. “原来” can be placed before or after the subject.

For example:

她现在比原来漂亮了。
(Tā xiànzài bǐ yuánlái piàoliangle.)
She is prettier now than before.

2. As an adjective

When used as an adjective, 原来 means “original” or “unaltered.” It must be used with “的” after it when modifying a noun, and it cannot be used alone as the predicate.

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 complete the work, but we can finish it ahead of schedule.

3. As an adverb

a. When used as an adverb, 原来 indicates a specific time or period in the past and suggests that something or someone has changed since then.

For example:

她原来是记者,现在已经成为一名老师。
(Tā yuánlái shì jìzhě,xiànzài yǐjīng chéngwéi yìmíng lǎoshī.)
She was journalist , (but) now she is a teacher.

b. 原来 can also indicate the discovery of a formerly unknown situation. It is often used to emphasize what the speaker has accidentally found out or realized. It’s similar to saying “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.)
So it turned out to be you! I thought it was Xiao Li!

Keep in mind that the discovery is based only on the speaker’s perception, not the situation itself. For instance, it was actually Xiao Li all along, but the speaker only realizes it now.

As a final note, “原本” as an adverb has the same meaning as “本来,” but is more formal and less commonly used in spoken Chinese.

Summary

Similarities:

1.  Both 原来 and 本来 can function as adjectives to mean “original” or “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.)
You can’t tell what the original color was.

2. Both 原来 and 本来 can also be used as adverbs to indicate that the current situation is different from the past, and they 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 used as an adverb, 原来 can indicate a formerly unknown situation that has been discovered, while 本来 can indicate that something should have been a certain way.

For example:

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 out to her, but she never looked back. When l stood next to her, 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.

While 本来 (běn lái) and 原来 (yuán lái) can be used interchangeably in some contexts, there are some nuances in their usage that should be noted. 本来 is often used to indicate something that was originally intended or planned, while 原来 emphasizes a situation that was different in the past. Both can also be used as adjectives and adverbs to indicate something that was original or unchanged. However, 原来 can also be used to indicate the discovery of a formerly unknown situation. While these differences may seem subtle, mastering the use of these two words can greatly improve your fluency in Chinese conversation.

PRACTICE!

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

Fill in the blanks 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.

Key:

  1. 原来
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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.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Hi there! Thank you for writing such a helpful and informative article on the differences between “本来” and “原来” in Chinese. As a language learner, I often struggle with understanding the nuances of certain words and phrases, and your article has provided a clear explanation that I can refer to in my studies.

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