Three uses of 才 (cái) in Chinese grammar: only, just now / not until, emphasis
The character 才 (cái) is one of those very common parts of Chinese grammar that many students find difficult because it is so common and versatile. Here we’ll separate the grammatical uses of 才 into four different types and look at it that way.
才 meaning “only”
才 can mean “only”, i.e. it implies that something is small or few in quantity. When used in this way, it very often appears with a measure word and a number. In this way it can express that “there are only x things”.
Have a look at an example:
We don’t know what these two people are talking about, but A seems to believe that B has a lot of it. B uses 才 to indicate that they don’t actually have a lot - they only have two.
Some more examples:
他才来过一次。He's only been here once before.
现在才五点，太早了。It's only five o'clock - it's too early.
我们一共才有500块钱，完全不够。Altogether we've only got 500 bucks - it's not enough at all.
Notice how in all of these examples there is a sense of a sequence. Maybe in the future there will be more, but at the moment we’ve only reached a particular amount or number.
才 meaning “not until”
The next meaning of 才 we’ll look at is “not until”. This is also very common. When used in this way, 才 is always followed by a verb or verb phrase. Another thing to note is that when 才 means “not until”, it usually means that the event is expected or anticipated.
我们十点上课，可是她十一点才来。We start class at 10, but she didn't arrive until 11.
他明天才走。He's not leaving until tomorrow.
你怎么现在才来？How come you've only just got here?
你做完作业才可以出去。You can't go out until you've finished your homework.
Always remember that when using 才 to talk about timings, you don’t use 了. The two characters 才 and 了 don’t generally play well together; it’s one or the other.
Another little tip that you might find useful is that when 才 is used with times, you could think of it as being the opposite of ‘already’. ‘Already’ can suggest that something happened earlier than expected, whereas 才 can suggest that it happened later than expected.
As well as talking about actual times, 才 can be used a little more idiomatically to talk about whether things qualify or meet certain standards. Some examples should make this idea clearer:
到北方才能吃到真正的饺子！You can only get real dumplings in the north!
这才算一个充分的理由。Now_ that's _a good reason.
这样做才对。_That's_ the way to do it. ["It's not right until you do it this way."]
As you can see, it’s not totally clear if this use of 才 is closer to “only” or “not until”. Hopefully it demonstrates how all these uses of 才 are related. They’re all have something to do with meeting certain levels or certain lines being crossed.
If you’ve seen this clip from the film Crocodile Dundee, you might be able to get a good sense of using 才 in this way. In the scene, Crocodile Dundee is not impressed by the knife a mugger is trying to threaten him with. He pulls out his own much larger knife and says “This is a knife.” In Chinese, you could use 才 in that situation:
那不是刀… 这才是刀！That's not a knife... _this _is a knife!
We don’t recommend that you go round carrying knives or trying to use them, though! Also, it’s a shame that, like a lot of Hollywood films, the clip seems to have an unpleasant racial message - why do they always have to ruin films by doing that?
Finally, you might enjoy this silly cartoon demonstrating a (rather rude!) use of 才:
Bonus points to whoever can translate and explain the cartoon in the comments!
才 meaning “just now”
A lot of textbooks separate this meaning of 才 from the others. In our view though, it’s actually just a subset of 才 meaning “not until”. When used to mean “just now”, or “a moment ago”, 才 nearly always implies that the event should have happened earlier. I.e., it’s usually saying “it didn’t happen until just now”. Therefore it’s just a subset of 才 meaning “not until”, in our view.
我才下班。I just got off work.
我才接到他的电话。I just got his call.
我才看到你的email.I just saw your email.
These all mean “just now” or “a moment ago”, but there’s clearly a sense of “only just now” as well. It feels as if the events were expected to happen sooner, but didn’t.
才 for emphasis
Finally, 才 can be used to add strong emphasis to a sentence. We know that “emphasis” is often used as a default explanation for many things when learning languages, but unfortunately in a lot of cases it is the best explanation! 才 really is just adding heavy emphasis in these sentences:
我才不会呢！I'd never do that!
我才不吃这么恶心的东西呢！There's no way I'm eating something so disgusting!
你才笨呢！Are you stupid or what?!
Notice how this use of 才 is combined with 呢 to really ramp up the emphasis.
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