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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.

(Tā shí suì zuǒyòu.)
She’s 10 years old, give or take.

(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).

(Tā dàgài yǐjīng wǎnle sānshí fēnzhōng.)
She’s already about half an hour late.

(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…

(Wèntí bù dà. Yīnggāi jiù kuài hǎole.)
It’s not a big problem. It ought to be fixed shortly.

(Yīnggāi kěyǐ.)
You should be able to do that / It’s probably OK。

(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:

(Bǎobao de yùchǎnqí shì sì yuè 9 hào qiánhòu.)
The baby is due around April 9th

(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.

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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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