If you are a beginner or intermediate Chinese learner trying to learn Chinese grammar, you might get confused with words and structures that seem to have the same meaning.
How do you tell the difference? And how do you choose which one is correct?
Don’t worry! We are here to help. In this article, we will break down the difference between the two Chinese structures meaning “to be able/unable to do sth.”
1. 能 + verb
能 (néng) means “can”, “to be able to”. You might be familiar with the structures:
- 能 (néng) + verb | to be able to do sth.
- 不能 (bù néng) + verb | not be able to do sth.
These structures help express the general possibility/impossibility of doing something.
2. verb + 不/得 + result complement
But if you want to emphasize the possibility/impossibility of doing an action as a result of doing it, then you can use another structure:
verb + 不/得 (bu/de) + result complement
For example, let’s take the verb 看见 (kànjiàn). The original meaning of “看见 (kànjiàn)” is “to see”. If you want to stress that you “can” or “cannot” see something by looking at it (maybe the weather is foggy, maybe you didn’t wear your glasses, or maybe the object you’re looking at is located too far), then you can use the following structures:
- 看得见 (kàn de jiàn) | to be able to see sth.
- 看不见 (kàn bu jiàn) | not to be able to see sth.
1. Imagine pointing at a bird in the sky and trying to bring your friend’s attention to it. Your friend looks into the sky; when he/she is already doing the action of looking, you can ask:
(Nǐ kàn de jiàn ma?)
Can you see it?
2. Imagine you’re hiking with a friend, and you’ve spotted a human figure very-very far away – maybe on top of a mountain. When you’ve drawn your friend’s attention to it, you can ask:
(Nǐ kàn de jiàn nà gè rén ma?)
Can you see that person?
3. Imagine you are looking for a specific character on a page of text. If you fail to find it on this page, you can say:
(Wǒ kàn bu jiàn zhè gè zì.)
I can’t see this Chinese character.*
*You could also use this sentence if you went to an ophthalmologist to test your eyesight, and he/she pointed a very small character and asked you to name it. (Or if your grandma asked you to help her read a character on the screen that was too small for her to read.)
In all the examples above, the result of “not seeing” happened after people actually tried looking. And if you use 能 (néng), you will refer to the person’s general ability to do the action – regardless of whether or not they have tried it at the moment of speaking.
Other Similar Verb Phrases
Similar phrases that are frequently used in Chinese people’s daily lives are:
- 听得见 (tīng de jiàn) = can hear
- 听不见 (tīng bu jiàn) = can’t hear
- 看得懂 (kàn de dǒng) = can understand (when reading or watching something)
- 看不懂 (kàn bu dǒng) = can’t understand (when reading or watching something)
- 听得懂 (tīng de dǒng) = can understand (when listening to something)
- 听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng) = can’t understand (when listening to something)
- 找得到 (zhǎo de dào) = can find
- 找不到 (zhǎo bu dào) = can’t find
- 买得起 (mǎi de qǐ) = can afford
- 买不起 (mǎi bu qǐ) = can’t afford
- 吃得下 (chī de xià) = can eat up
- 吃不下 (chī bu xià) = can’t eat up
- 打得开 (dǎ de kāi) = can open
- 打不开 (dǎ bu kāi) = can’t open
- 关得上 (guān de shàng) = can close
- 关不上 (guān bu shàng) = can’t close
- 记得住 (jì de zhù) = can remember
- 记不住 (jì bu zhù) = can’t remember
Now let’s take a look at a few examples in order for you to better understand how to use these phrases in different situations:
(Wǒ tīng bu dǒng Zhōngwén).
I can’t understand Chinese.
(Wǒ tīng bu jiàn nǐ shuōhuà.)
I can’t hear you.
(Tā hěn yǒuqián, mǎi de qǐ fángzi.)
He’s very rich, and he can afford a house.
(Nǐ jì de zhù tā de míngzi ma)?
Will you be able to remember his name?
(Wǒ chī bu xià zhème duō bāozi.)
I can’t finish all these steamed buns.