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从(cóng) VS 离(lí) and 向(xiàng) VS 往(wǎng): Two Commonly Confused Chinese Grammar Structures

If you’ve spent more than a year or so learning Mandarin, you’ve probably encountered the familiar predicament where you must decide whether to use 从(cóng) versus 离(lí) or向 (xiàng) versus 往 (wǎng) when talking about distances, directions, periods of time, or the object of an action. Sometimes these two sets of prepositions can be used interchangeably, but not always. So let’s find out once and for all: when should we use 从 VS 离 and 向 VS 往?

从VS 离

When asking for distances or directions,  we often use “从(cóng)” and “离(lí)”to express the idea “from”. Both of these words are prepositions, and can make up the adverbial phrase of a sentence, but actually these two words have more differences than similarities.

1. “离(lí)” indicates the distance from a place, moment or goal. The pattern is “A+离+B+ Adjective /Numerical phrase”. For example:

  • 我家学校五百多米。(Wǒ jiā lí xuéxiào wǔbǎiduō mǐ.) 

My house is over 500 meters from the school.

  • 火车站学校不远。(Huǒchēzhàn lí xuéxiào bùyuǎn.) 

The train station is not far from the school.

2. “从(cóng)” indicates the starting point of a period of time, a distance, a process, or a sequence. This means that in addition to “from”, it can also take on the meaning “since” in certain situations. The pattern is “Subject + 从…… + verb/adjective”. For example:

  • 我们学校出发了。(Wǒmen cóng xuéxiào chūfā le.)

I departed from the school.

  • 我们是上周一开始上班的。(Wǒmen shì cóng shàng zhōuyī kāishǐ shàngbān de.)

We have been working [here] since last Monday.

Furthermore, “从(cóng)“ is often used in accordance with “到(dào)”. The pattern for this structure is “从A 到B”.This pattern is flexible and can have several different meanings. It can be put at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle of a sentence as an adverbial phrase, usually meaning “from… to…”or a slight variation of this pattern.

For example:

  • 今天明天我们放假。(Cóng jīntiān dào míngtiān wǒmen fàngjià.)

We have vacation from today til tomorrow.

  • 我们今天明天放假。(Wǒmen cóng jīntiān dào míngtiān fàngjià.)

We have vacation from today til tomorrow.

  • 理想现实需要我们付出很多努力。(Cóng lǐxiǎng dào xiànshí xūyào wǒmen fùchū hěn duō nǔlì.)

In order to go from dreams to reality, we must expend a lot of effort.

向 VS 往

Even a lot of native Chinese speakers struggle to tell the difference between these two words.  This is because at times, “向 (xiàng)”and ”往 (wǎng)” can both indicate the direction of an action, and can be completely interchangeable.

For example:

  • 前走200米就到学校了。(Xiàng qián zǒu 200 mǐ jiù dào xuéxiào le.)

Walk forward 200 meters and you will arrive at the school.

  • 前走200米就到学校了。(Wǎng qián zǒu 200 mǐjiù dào xuéxiào le.)

Walk forward 200 meters and you will arrive at the school.

However, “向(xiàng)” can also indicate the object of an action, while “往(wǎng)” doesn’t possess this same kind of usage. For example:

  • 向他点头。(the predicate is a specific movement of the body)

Nod my head towards him.

  • 往他点头。×向他学习。(√)(the predicate is an abstract concept)

Study like him.

  • 往他学习。×

Although some Chinese people may find it difficult to explain the difference between “向 (xiàng)”and ”往 (wǎng)” if asked directly, they still all know how to use them correctly in these different situations. If you want to improve your fluency and stand out from the average “laowai”, it’s important for you to learn the correct forms and different uses as well.

Now, let’s try some practice exercises and see how you do. Fill in the blanks with either从(cóng), 离(lí), 向(xiàng), or 往(wǎng).

(1) 我们应该______他学习。

We should study like him.

(2) 学校 _______ 我家只有500多米。

The school is only a little over 500 meters from my house.

(3) 我_______昨天就病了。

I have been sick since yesterday.

(4) _______ 我家到学校走路只有5分钟。

Walking from my house to school only takes 5 minutes.

(5) 你一直_______前走一千米就到了。

Go straight for 1000 meters and you will arrive [at your destination].

If you are able to correctly answer all of these questions, you should pat yourself on the back and cross another two common grammar mistakes off your list that you don’t have to worry about committing. Maybe you will impress some Chinese friends in the process as well!

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.

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