The difference between 对不起 (duìbuqǐ), 请问 (qǐngwèn), 麻烦你 (máfan nǐ) and 劳驾 (láojià) in Chinese: "sorry" and "excuse me"

The four words 对不起 (duìbuqǐ), 请问 (qǐngwèn), 麻烦你 (máfan nǐ) and 劳驾 (láojià) can be a stumbling block for people learning Chinese, as they seem to have similar and overlapping meanings. All of them might be translated as “sorry” or “excuse me” in various contexts in English.

To summarise them a little brutally:

  • 对不起 is used to actually apologise for actions or situations
  • 请问 is used before asking a question
  • 麻烦你 is used to make requests of people, particularly requesting them to do something
  • 劳驾 is similar to 麻烦你, but more formal

If you’re feeling more confused then ever, fear not! We’ll now look at each of these words in turn and go into detail about the ways they can be used.

对不起: “I apologise”

对不起 can be the equivalent of “I’m sorry”, “I’ve let you down”, “forgive me” and so on in English, and is used to make apologies. Some examples:

对不起,我来晚了。

Duìbùqǐ, wǒ lái wǎnle.

Sorry I'm late.

对不起,我把你的花瓶弄破了。

Duìbùqǐ, wǒ bǎ nǐ de huāpíng nòng pòle.

Sorry, I broke your vase.

对不起,我没法帮助你。

Duìbùqǐ, wǒ méi fǎ bāngzhù nǐ.

I'm sorry, there's no way I can help you.

对不起,你好像打错了。

Duìbùqǐ, nǐ hǎoxiàng dǎ cuòle.

I'm sorry, you seem to have the wrong number.

对不起,都是我的错。

Duìbùqǐ, dōu shì wǒde cuò.

I'm sorry, it's all my fault.

对不起 is not generally used to get someone’s attention, preface a request or question, or to ask for someone to repeat something. We have to use the word “generally”, though, because as with everything in language, there are always exceptions.

For example, you might hear someone say something like:

对不起,你可以帮我个忙吗?

Duìbùqǐ, nǐ kěyǐ bāng wǒ gè máng ma?

Sorry, could you help me with something?

That seems very much like 对不起 is being used to mean “excuse me”! Didn’t we just say that it was for apologies? We did, and in our view it’s probably best to view the above example as someone first apologising for intruding or annoying the listener, and then making their request. So 对不起 is still being used as an apology.

These sorts of confusions are unavoidable when learning languages, and you’ll rarely find a hard and fast rule that you can memorise. Instead, the best thing you can do is focus on input - reading and listening - to try and develop your own natural feel for the language.

请问: “May I ask?”

Hopefully you’ll find 请问 a bit more straightforward than 对不起. The easiest way to understand 请问 is to break it down into the literal meaning of its characters:

  • 请: please, requesting
  • 问: ask

So literally 请问 is “please can I ask” or “requesting to ask”. Thinking of it this way makes its purpose clear: it’s for asking questions in a polite way. The classic example in textbooks is always asking for directions:

请问,邮局在哪里?

Qǐngwèn, yóujú zài nǎlǐ?

Excuse me, where is the post office?

This is one of those sentences that appears in every textbook for every language in the world, but that you hardly ever use in real life!

As you can see, we’ve translated 请问 as “excuse me” in the example above, because that’s the equivalent in English. In other words, 请问 and “excuse me” serve the same function, but they don’t actually mean the same thing. Remembering this point will help you to use 请问 correctly.

Because 请问 actually means something like “please can I ask”, its uses are much narrower than “excuse me” in English. It always has to come before questions:

请问 + [question]

Have a look at some more examples:

请问,这里有洗手间吗?

Qǐngwèn, zhè li yǒu xǐshǒujiān ma?

Excuse me, is there a toilet here?

请问,这里可以刷卡吗?

Qǐngwèn, zhèlǐ kěyǐ shuākǎ ma?

Can I pay by card here?

请问,香港中路怎么走?

Qǐngwèn, xiānggǎng zhōnglù zěnme zǒu?

Can you tell me the way to Hong Kong Middle Road, please?

Using 请问 is a very nice way of asking questions, especially of strangers, and it can be a good way to get the attention of someone you don’t know. In more familiar situations, though, 请问 is usually not necessary. People you know might find it a bit odd if you said 请问 to them. You often just don’t need to be that polite in Chinese!

Be careful with the pronunciation of 请问 (qǐngwèn)!

A quick note about getting the pronunciation of 请问 correct. Because it’s used before questions, it can be tempting to let the pitch of your voice go up at the end. This can be embarrassing, because it turns qǐngwèn (third tone, fourth tone) into qǐngwén (third tone, second tone). If you do that, it sounds like you’re saying “请吻”. That isn’t really a word, but it could sound like a bizarre way of saying “please kiss” or “requesting a kiss” - probably not what you meant to say!

麻烦你: “Could I trouble you…?”

The next phrase on our list is 麻烦你 - literally “trouble you”. A very common use of 麻烦你 is to request that someone does something. You’re saying “could I trouble you to [do something]?”

麻烦你 + [verb phrase]

This is more polite than the request on its own, because by using 麻烦你 you’re acknowledging the hassle that you’re creating for this person. Let’s have a look at some examples:

麻烦你开个门。

Máfan nǐ kāi gè mén.

Could you open the door for me?

麻烦你替我问候。

Máfan nǐ tì wǒ wènhòu.

Please pass on my regards.

麻烦你帮我看看这个。

Máfan nǐ bāng wǒ kàn kàn zhège.

Could you take a look at this for me, please?

However, 麻烦你 can also precede questions or other statements - it isn’t just for requesting actions. Just remember that whilst 请问 can only come before questions, 麻烦你 can come before questions or instructions, e.g.:

麻烦问一下,北京大酒店怎么走?

Máfan wèn yīxià, běijīng dà jiǔdiàn zěnme zǒu?

Sorry to trouble you - how do I get to the Beijing Hotel?

Finally, also note that 麻烦你 can be used on its own just to acknowledge that someone else has gone to trouble for you, or is going to go to trouble. This is commonly done after some discussion of a request or instruction. Once the action to be taken is decided on or has been done, the person requesting it will say 麻烦你 to show recognition of the hassle they are creating (even if it’s not really that much hassle).

A quick example:

*A:* 小李,你可以帮我把这些箱子拿到三楼去吗?

Xiǎo Lǐ, nǐ kěyǐ bāng wǒ bǎ zhèxiē xiāngzi ná dào sān lóu qù ma?

Xiao Li, could you take these cases up to the third floor, please?
*B:* 可以啊,没问题。

Kěyǐ a, méi wèntí.

Yep, no problem.
*A:* 谢谢,麻烦你哦!

Xièxiè, máfan nǐ ó!

Thanks [I'm troubling you]!

Notice how the meaning of 麻烦你 isn’t something we would really express directly in English.

You may also hear the phrase “辛苦你了” being used in similar contexts. “辛苦你了” focuses on the hard work of the person, rather than the trouble they are going to.

劳驾: “excuse me”, “could I trouble you”

Finally, we come to 劳驾. Of the other words listed here, 劳驾 is most similar to 麻烦你. Another literal breakdown might be helpful:

  • 劳: labour, toil
  • 驾: harness, to drive

You can see the similarity to 麻烦你 - both these words acknowledge that they are putting someone to trouble or giving them extra work to do. Like 麻烦你, 劳驾 can be used to make requests and ask questions.

However, 劳驾 is frequently used to get someone’s attention as well as make a request of them. This is different to 麻烦你, which can’t really be used to get someone’s attention. 劳驾 can also be used to preface common requests that are expected in context (such as requests from staff or servers).

Have a look at some examples:

劳驾,给我倒杯茶。

Láojià, gěi wǒ dào bēi chá.

Excuse me - could you pour me some tea? (In a tea house or restaurant)

劳驾, 把这十块钱换成零钱。

Láojià, bǎ zhè shí kuài qián huàn chéng língqián.

Could you change this ten dollar bill, please?

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