Differentiating similar words in Mandarin

When learning Mandarin, I often encounter vocabulary with an identical English translation. As an example, Pleco gives ‘frugal’ as the meaning of 節省, 節儉 and 節約. Yet, native speakers use these words in different contexts.

How can you find out where the differences are? And when should you use which word? Below I’ll share my answer to these questions.

Google it in Mandarin

To make it short, my solution is to google it in Mandarin.

If you want to know the difference between characters X and Y, search for

X Y 差別

Let’s see what we get for the words above!

Running a search for ‘節省 節儉 節約 差別’ gets us the following:


Clicking on the link leads to a page with the following explanation1


We learn that 節省 means to economize things in your daily life. Like 節省開支, cutting down on your expenses.

Additionally, we see that 節約 is used for being thrifty. For things that you’re rationing because you don’t have enough of them. The example they give is 節約糧食, rationing food.

節儉 is used for money. So you could use it to describe that someone lives a very thrifty lifestyle, 生活很節儉.


To use this tip you have to be able to read and type Chinese characters. If you’re not there yet, it’s best to find a native speaker that can answer your question. You can also go to italki and ask your question in English.

Most search results will be in simplified characters. I’m learning traditional characters. That’s why I had a hard time using this technique in the beginning. If you’re having trouble reading one or the other character set, there are a lot of converters all over the internet. I use this one.


  1. Which I converted to traditional characters for my own convenience. 

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