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How to Use the Chinese Interjection 哎

Written by Vivian老师 from GoEast Mandarin.

In Chinese, some words don’t mean anything on their own yet express certain emotions, such as exclamation, calling for attention, or responding. These words include 唉 (ai), 啊 (a), 哼 (heng), 哦 (o), and 哎 (ai).

Such words are called interjections. These words simulate people’s emotional voice. Despite not having any specific meaning, they’re a natural part of the Chinese language. It’s a unique character that can convey the different emotions of the speaker. 

Today we are mainly looking at the interjection, ‘‘ (āi).

The Interjection ‘哎’ (āi)

As you might already know, Chinese characters are made up of pictograms. “哎” is an interesting Chinese character with a left-right structure, composed of (kǒu) and (ài).

口 (kǒu) means ‘mouth,’ which means that the character has something to do with the mouth. The right-hand side of 哎 (āi) shows how the Chinese character is pronounced. 艾, found on the right side, has the sound (ài), which is then adjusted to (ai) for the interjection, 哎.

So, how should 哎 (ai) be used in life? 

Let’s learn how to use this Chinese interjection together! 

How is the Chinese Interjection “哎(āi)” used?

‘哎’ (āi) can be used as an independent component or as its own sentence. Most often placed at the beginning of a sentence to express dissatisfaction, admiration, surprise, realization, or call attention to something.

1. Using ‘哎’ (āi) to express dissatisfaction.

Example sentence:

Xiao Li buys a new dress. Her colleague Xiao Mei says:

小美:这件衣服不适合你。(zhè jiàn yīfu bú shìhé nǐ.) This dress doesn’t fit you.

小丽:哎! 你怎么能这么说呢! (ai! nǐ zěnme néng zhème shuō ne!) No! How can you say this! 

2. Using 哎 (āi) to call attention to something.

Example sentence:

There is a lot of water on the floor of the office. You remind your colleagues:

哎! 地上有水! 小心! (ai! dìshang yǒu shuǐ! xiǎoxīn! ) Hey! There’s water on the ground! Look out! 

3. Using 哎 (āi) to express surprise.

Example sentence:

When you suddenly hear unexpected news, you can say this:

哎! 真是没想到! (ai! zhēnshì méi xiǎng dào!) Ah! What a surprise! 

4. Using 哎 (āi) to express realisation.

Example sentence:

If your friends teach you a new Chinese word or explain something new about Chinese grammar, you can say:

哎! 原来是这样! 谢谢你! (ai! yuánlái shì zhèyàng! xièxie nǐ! ) Ah! I see! Thank you! 

5. Using 哎 (āi) to express approval or satisfaction.

Example sentence:

If your friend just broke up with her boyfriend, but with your help, she’s feeling better, you can say to her:

哎! 这就对了! 开心最重要! (ai! zhè jiù duì le! kāixīn zuì zhòngyào! ) Yes! That’s right! Happiness is the most important thing! 

All of the above are common usages of 哎 (āi) in daily life, which can convey different emotions according to the speaker’s context and feelings. 哎 (āi) can also form new words, such as 哎呀 (āiyā) and 哎哟 (āiyo) to convey new meanings.

1. Using 哎呀 (āiyā) and 哎哟 (āiyo) to express surprise.

Example sentence:

When seeing a big apple, you can say:

哎呀! 这个苹果这么大啊! (aiya! zhè ge píngguǒ zhème dà a!) Wow! This apple is so big! 

哎哟! 这个苹果这么大啊! (aiyo! zhè ge píngguǒ zhème dà a!) Wow! This apple is so big! 

2. Using 哎呀 (aiya) to express resentment, impatience, and other emotions.

Example sentence:

You have an appointment with your friend to go to the cinema, but she is half an hour late. You might say:

哎呀! 你怎么这么慢! 电影都开始了! (aiya! nǐ zěnme zhème màn! diànyǐng dōu kāishǐ le!) Oh! Why are you so late! The movie has begun!

3. Using 哎哟 (aiyo) to express painful emotions.

Example sentence:

If you have a cold, a headache, or are experiencing discomfit, you can say:

哎哟! 我的头不舒服。(aiyo! wǒ de tóu bù shūfu.) Ouch! My head is uncomfortable. 

These are the most common uses of the interjection, 哎 (ai). Go and try them out!

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This guide is written by Vivian老师 from GoEast Mandarin. GoEast is an online Chinese language school that combines online self-learning materials with live classes from professional Chinese teachers.

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