One of our students recently asked us this question:
I notice that in Chinese there are many ways of saying often. I came across the words “changchang, jingchang, tongchang, pingchang” so far. Can you tell me what is the difference between them?
We will certainly try.
You are correct, there are many ways of expressing frequency in Chinese, and as you can see, all of the words mentioned above contain the same word ‘Cháng’ (常) which in itself means ‘often’ and can be used by itself!
As for the nuances between the words that you’ve mentioned, the good news first: the first two, ChángCháng (常常) and JīngCháng (经常) are interchangeable for most of the time (there are some differences in future tense use, for example, but we will not discuss them at this point). They can both be translated as ‘often’.
- 我经常去图书馆学习。(Wǒ JīngCháng Qù TúShūGuǎn XuéXí.) I often go to the library to study.
- 我常常去图书馆学习。(Wǒ ChángCháng Qù TúShūGuǎn XuéXí.) I often go to the library to study.
- 我经常打篮球。(Wǒ JīngCháng dǎ LánQiú.) I often play basketball.
- 我常常看书。(Wǒ ChángCháng KànShū.) I often read books.
You can also just use Cháng (常) in the example sentences above. Just Cháng is especially common in spoken Chinese.
TōngCháng (通常) is used to describe things that happen frequently, particularly at certain points in the day (in the mornings, in the afternoon, on holiday). We can translate it as ‘usually’.
- 我早上通常吃煎饼。(Wǒ ZǎoShang TōngCháng Chī JiānBing.) I usually eat JianBing in the morning. (Jianbing is a popular Chinese pancake with egg and herbs, sold by the street vendors in the mornings)
- 你通常什么时候起床？(Nǐ TōngCháng ShénMe ShíHou QǐChuang?) When do you get up, usually?
- 我通常六点回家。(Wǒ TōngCháng LiùDIǎn HuíJiā.) I usually return home at six.
The last one is PíngCháng 平常 which we can translate as ‘ordinarily’.
- 你平常都做些什么呢？(Nǐ PíngCháng Dōu Zuò Xiē ShénMe?) What do you do, ordinarily?
- 我平常很少吃辣的。(Wǒ PíngCháng Hěn Shǎo Chī LàDe.) I ordinarily don’t eat spicy food.
- 她平常很用功。(Tā PíngCháng Hěn YòngGōng.) She ordinarily studies very hard.
I hope this clears things up for you a little bit. All the best in your studies and let us know if you have any other questions!