When Good isn’t Always Good: 好 with Adjectives

​I'm sharing a tip that I not too long ago discovered that will give your spoken Chinese a little boost towards more native sounding conversation. Watch the video and read on for a quick guide to using 好 to modify adjectives.

Everyone that has studied Mandarin for more than a few weeks knows these two words:

很 = very

好​ = good

很 (hěn) expresses “very”, and is used before any adjective as you’d expect

好 (hǎo) we also learn very early on means “good” or “well”.

Let’s go even one better. We all know we can put them together, hěn hǎo = very good.

Ok. So far so 好...

Basic Mandarin Right?

For quite a few months I believed I had these two simple, staple words of the language down. But then something happened.

I made a new Chinese friend who appeared to use the word 好 A LOT. (This is Clover from the video above)

When you’re a learner listening to Chinese, you really don’t have time to dwindle on a single word’s meaning when being subjected to the machine gun pace of Mandarin coming at you from a native speaker.

I first thought she must just be a super positive girl that threw around the word “good” to spread her happy vibes, but as I spent more time listening to her and finally catching a short sentence, I realised something that made my world crumble around me (way to be dramatic Simon).

The sentence I caught one day was: 我好累! (wǒ hǎo lèi), which she announced in a miserable, exaggerated tone of voice. 

wǒ hǎo lèi!

(lèi means tired for the new beginners reading. If you don’t know what wǒ means I suggest instead of reading this, going to page 1 line 1 of your textbook!)

I’m good tired?

That can’t be right!

I broke my Chinese only rule as I wasn’t letting it slide this time.

“How can you be good tired? This doesn’t make sense”

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好 Can Mean 很, Just Don't Ask Me Why

She was a little confused by my question, after all, by this point we’d already had several conversations, so she probably presumed I knew the meaning.

"It means I'm sooooo tired, I'm very tired"

Clover predicted my next question and tried her best to explain why this is possible, but it was ultimately an  “I don’t know why, it just is” answer.

Before writing this I wanted to look around on the web for some grammar experts to quote (steal) from, but I’ve actually struggled to find anything at all.

The best I could find was a small example on Wikipedia. Unfortunately it doesn't go into details on why 好 can be used, but at least it provides proof we haven't made this all up.

From Wikipedia

她很漂亮 (tā hěn piàoliang)

她好漂亮 (tā hǎo piàoliang)

她真漂亮 (tā zhēn hěn piàoliang)

她非常漂亮 (tā fēicháng piàoliang)

At least in this example using the word for "beautiful", it kind of makes sense as the adjective is positive, but for bad things like hǎo lèi or hǎo wúliáo, what gives?

I’ve gotten used to hearing and using hǎo before adjectives now, but I finally got around to asking one of my teachers at to what the difference is (if any). Had to do it via WeChat as it’s currently the summer holidays.

Her reply:

形容词前加“好”意思和“很”差不多,但是“好”更多用在口语里;在表示“很”的意思时,“很”可以放在形容词前,也可以这样用:“形容词+得+很”比如:漂亮得很,帅得很;但是“好”不能这样用。

Her reply here confirms what Clover shared with me.

Basically they are the same, but using 好 before adjectives is much more common in spoken Chinese. She also pointed out a difference, while you can use adjective + 得 + 很, the same is not true for 好.

In the video Clover explains that using 好 with an adjective is usually more informal, and using 很 is perhaps more formal and serious.

If you’ve just started learning Chinese, I wouldn’t worry too much about this just yet, it’s not something that takes long to adjust to and because the majority of beginner courses use 很 in these situations, it’s better to follow that while you’re taking on board lots of new information.

If you're looking for a resource that does cover this way of using 好, I think (though don't quote me on this) Assimil with Ease and Glossika both sometimes use 好+adjective in some of the dialogues/sentences, as they are more focused on conversational Chinese.

Give it a Try!

If you weren’t familiar with this, practice swapping out 很 for 好 with your teachers/speaking partners/friends and get comfortable with it. This will also help with your listening comprehension as I'm sure you'll hear it more and more as you progress like I have.

Also remember to use the different modifiers to express the different degrees, I got comfortable just using 很 before all adjectives even after learning all the words available to me, so now I'm making a conscious effort to mix things up and sound less boring.

真 (zhēn), 非常 (fēicháng), 十分 (shífēn),  Adj.+极了 (jíle) and Adj.+死了(sǐle)

Any questions or comments please leave them below. I'm particularly interested in hearing an explanation from someone as to WHY we can use 好 like this, as I'm sure there's some a reason for it. Not important but I'm curious!

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