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“Roughly speaking” in Chinese

The Chinese are famously pretty vague in giving answers. As most will readily admit, they prefer to offer estimations rather than specifics, especially if there may be consequences involved. Instead of getting frustrated, we straight-talking foreigners can benefit from adopting the “vague” approach ourselves.

In order to help give your own answers an authentic air of enigma, here are four ways to say “roughly speaking”, “about” or “probably” in Mandarin:

(Besides, you can also check the detailed explanation video about the use of 应该as well as more HSK3 related grammar tutorial videos at here.)


1. 左右 (zuǒyòu)

左右 literally means “left right”, which is a fun way to express “around about”. Add this word after your response to emphasize it’s an approximation.

  • 她十岁左右.
    (Tā shí suì zuǒyòu.)
    She’s 10 years old, give or take.
  • 那个箱子很重,八十公斤左右.
    (Nà ge xiāngzi hěn zhòng, bāshí gōngjīn zuǒyòu.)
    That box is heavy, about 80kg.

2. 大概 (dàgài)

大概 includes the character 概/gài, which means “general” or “approximate”. It’s mostly interchangeable with左右 and means “around about” and also “probably”. Note that you use it before the object of your approximation.

  • (那儿) 离这儿大概有二十分钟车程.
    ((Nà’er) lí zhè’er dàgài yǒu èrshí fēnzhōng chēchéng.)
    It’s probably a 20-minute drive from here (to there).
  • 她大概已经晚了三十分钟。
    (Tā dàgài yǐjīng wǎnle sānshí fēnzhōng.)
    She’s already about half an hour late.
  • 这大概是件好事.

(Zhè dàgài shì jiàn hǎoshì.)
This is probably a good thing.


3. 应该 (yīnggāi)

This is a great word for when you’re really not ready to commit to a yes, no or exact response! 应该 means “ought to be” or “should be about”. Warning: In my experience, if you hear this word used as reassurance, such as “It’s probably going to be OK”, it might actually be a hint that all is NOT fine…

  • 问题不大。应该就快好了
    (Wèntí bù dà. Yīnggāi jiù kuài hǎole.)
    It’s not a big problem. It ought to be fixed shortly.
  • 应该可以.
    (Yīnggāi kěyǐ.)
    You should be able to do that / It’s probably OK。
  • 他应该快到了.
    (Tā yīnggāi kuài dàole.)
    He’ll probably arrive soon.


4. 前后 (qiánhòu)

This is a word that indicates that the time given is “around about” or  a during a period of time. For example:

  • 宝宝的预产期是四月9号前后。
    (Bǎobao de yùchǎnqí shì sì yuè 9 hào qiánhòu.)
    The baby is due around April 9th
  • 我们预计新店会在六月前后开业。
    (Wǒmen yùjì xīndiàn huì zài liù yuè qiánhòu kāiyè.)
    We anticipate the new shop will open around June.

So that’s it, 左右! Please try out these phrases and see how they work for you. I hope it’s of help as you navigate the sometimes confusing, always engaging, wonderful world of Mandarin.

Sarah Soulié

Sarah Soulié

Sarah Souli é is British and lives in Los Angeles, after six years in Shanghai working in online marketing within EdTech. She has been learning Chinese since 2008, and currently contributes to the Speak Up Chinese blog. Speak Up Chinese is a newly-launched service based in Beijing. Their mission is to help you speak authentic Chinese with confidence, through 1-1 and group online lessons.

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