The difference between 终于 (zhōngyú) and 最后 (zuìhòu) in Mandarin Chinese: 'finally' vs 'the last'

The words 终于 (zhōngyú) and 最后 (zuìhòu) in Chinese can be difficult for beginners to distinguish, because both of them can mean “finally” or “in the end”. Remember that there is a lot of overlap between these words: they are not totally separate in meaning.

However, there is some difference between the two. The key difference is that 终于 puts more emphasis on “finally” as in “the work is finally done”, whilst 最后 is simply “the last” or “in the end”. Let’s have a look at each word in turn.

终于 (zhōngyú): finally, at last

The word 终于 has a close range of meanings: “at last, in the end, finally, eventually”. 终于 can be used to emphasise that a lot of time has passed or a lot of effort has been expended, and something is finally done.

At long last, this thing has been done, and it wasn’t easy, or it took ages. Because of this, 终于 sometimes implies that what happened was desirable or wanted.

Let’s have a look at some example sentences for 终于:

他终于来了。

Tā zhōngyú láile.

He's finally here!

他当老师的梦想终于实现了。

Tā dāng lǎoshī de mèngxiǎng zhōngyú shíxiànle.

He finally realised his dream of becoming a teacher.

他要访华的愿望终于实现了。

Tā yào fǎnghuá de yuànwàng zhōngyú shíxiànle.

His wish to visit China has at last come true.

我终于时来运转了。

Wǒ zhōngyú shíláiyùnzhuǎn le.

Finally things are looking up for me.

As you can see, in each of those situations, something has finally happened that seemed to take a lot of effort or time.

Remember, though, that 终于 isn’t totally distinct from 最后, as it can also mean “at last” or “in the end”, and be used to talk about neutral or bad things happening:

那位运动员终于击进了一球。

Nà wèi yùndòngyuán zhōngyú jī jìnle yī qiú.

At the last moment the player was able to hit the ball in.

她终于由巨富沦为赤贫。

Tā zhōngyú yóu jù fù lún wèi chìpín.

In the end, she fell from great wealth to abject poverty.

This is very similar to the words “finally” and “at last” in English. They are slightly distinct, but there is also a lot of overlap between the two words.

最后 (zuìhòu): the last, in the end

The word 最后 has meanings like “final, last, finally, ultimate”. As mentioned above, there’s clearly a lot of overlap with 终于.

The difference, though, is that 最后 is usually neutral compared to 终于. It simply states that something happened last or in the end, but doesn’t necessarily imply that it took a long time or a lot of effort. It was just the final thing that happened.

最后,我们的项目成了拍卖会上最特别的一项。

Zuìhòu, wǒmen de xiàngmù chéngle pāimàihuìshàng zuì tèbié de yīxiàng.

Finally, we come to the most special item in this auction.

这是最后一招。

Zhè shì zuìhòu yī zhāo.

This is a last resort.

最后,他们只得放弃了。

Zuìhòu, tāmen zhǐdé fàngqìle.

In the end, they had to give up.

在“狼来了”的这个故事中,最后当这个男孩真正遇到危险时,再也没人愿意相信他了。

Zài “láng láile” de zhège gùshì zhōng, zuìhòu dāng zhège nánhái zhēnzhèng yù dào wéixiǎn shí, zài yě méi rén yuànyì xiāngxìn tāle.

In the story of the boy who cried wolf, when in the end he encountered real danger, no-one would believe him.

Hopefully you can see that whilst 最后 also means “finally” or “in the end”, it doesn’t have the implication that this was the result of a long wait or a lot of effort like 终于 does.

Got questions or suggestions? Please share them in the comments!

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