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How do verb complements work in Chinese?

Many beginners in Chinese learn phrases like:

我听得懂
Wǒ tīng de dǒng
I can understand (when listening)
Literally: I hear/listen [and the result is] understanding

我听不懂
Wǒ tīng bu dǒng
I can’t understand (when listening)
Literally: I listen not understand

我看得懂
Wǒ kàn de dǒng
I can understand (when reading)
Literally: I look/read [and the result is] understanding

我看不懂
Wǒ kàn bu dǒng
I can’t understand (when reading)
Literally: I look/read not understand

In all of these sentence examples, there is a verb (听 tīng,看 kàn)followed by the result of that verb. This can be called a result complement or a verb complement.

In the middle, you saw 得 (de – this character can’t be translated, but is used before the result or ‘extra’ information about the action), or 不 bù meaning ‘not’ (the result has not or cannot happen)

Why use this structure in Chinese? Why not simply say ‘I can’t understand’ like in English?

In fact, you can say:


我懂,我不懂
Wǒ dǒng, wǒ bù dǒng
I understand, I don’t understand

我明白,我不明白
wǒ míngbai, wǒ bù míngbai
I understand, I don’t understand

Some more examples:

我听得到 or 我听得见
Wǒ tīng de dào / wǒ tīng de jiàn
I can hear

我听不到 or 我听不见
wǒ tīng bu dào / wǒ tīng bu jiàn
I can’t hear

Different verbs take different complements, but here are some of the main ones and some *rough* meanings

到 dào – completion (literally ‘arrive’)
着 zháo – completion of an action
完 wán – completion (literally ‘finish)
了 liǎo- the ability to do something physical
见 jiàn – the ability to perceive something
起 qǐ – the ability to afford something
下 xià – go down
住 zhù – keep, remain
好 hǎo- doing something well
起来 qǐlái – rising up, starting
进去 jìnqù – going in
出去 chūqù – going out,…out
上去,shàngqù 上来 shànglái – going up
下去,xiàqù 下来 xiàlái – going down

到 dào – completion (literally means ‘arriving at’)

我买得到 Wǒ mǎi de dào I am able to buy it.
我买不到 Wǒ mǎi bu dào I am not able to buy it.
我买到了 Wǒ mǎi dào le I (successfully) bought it.

我做得到 Wǒ zuò de dào I can do it.
我做不到 Wǒ zuò bu dào I can’t do it.
我做到了 Wǒ zuò dào le I (successfully) did it.

着 zháo – completion

他睡得着 Tā shuì de zháo He can get to sleep.
他睡不着 Tā shuì bu zháo He can’t get to sleep
他睡着了 Tā shuìzháo le He has gone to sleep/is asleep.

我找得着 Wǒ zhǎo de zháo I can find it.
我找不着 Wǒ zhǎo bu zháo I can’t find it.
我找着了 Wǒ zhǎo zháo le I have found it.

完 wán – completion (literally ‘finish’)

他做得完 Tā zuò de wán He can finish it.
他做不完 Tā zuò bu wán He can’t finish it.
他做完了 Tā zuò wán le He finished it.

我吃得完 Wǒ chī de wán I can finish it (the food)
我吃不完 Wǒ chī bu wán I can’t finish it (the food)
我吃完了 Wǒ chī wán le I have finished eating.

了 liǎo – completion (connected with physical ability, number or amount of something)

他拿得了 Tā ná de liǎo He can carry/take it.
他拿不了 Tā ná bu liǎo He can’t carry/take it.
他拿了 Tā ná le He took it.

我等得了 Wǒ děng de liǎo I can wait.
我等不了 Wǒ děng bu liǎo I can’t wait.

见 jiàn – the ability to perceive something

我听得见 Wǒ tīng de jiàn I can hear it.
我听不见 Wǒ tīng bu jiàn I can’t hear it.
我听见了 Wǒ tīngjiànle I heard it.

我看得见 Wǒ kàn de jiàn I can see it.
我看不见 Wǒ kàn bu jiàn I can’t see it.
我看见了 Wǒ kànjiàn le I saw it.

起 qǐ – the ability to afford something

我买得起 Wǒ mǎi de qǐ I can afford it.
我买不起 Wǒ mǎi bù qǐ I can’t afford it.

下 xià – go down

我吃得下 Wǒ chī de xià – I can eat it. (Get it down)
我吃不下 Wǒ chī bu xià – I can’t eat it.
我吃了 Wǒ chī le – I ate it.

这里放得下 Zhèlǐ fàng de xià – It can be put here 
(it can go here).
这里放不下 Zhèlǐ fàng bu xià – It can’t be put here.

住 zhù – keep, remain

我站得住 Wǒ zhàn de zhù – I can (keep) standing.
我站不住 Wǒ zhàn bu zhù – I can’t keep standing/can’t stand steadily.
我站住了 Wǒ zhànzhù le – I kept standing.

好 hǎo – do something well

我做得好 Wǒ zuò de hǎo – I can do a good job of it.
我做不好 Wǒ zuò bu hǎo – I can’t do a good job of it.
我做好了 Wǒ zuò hǎo le – 
I’ve finished it (and did a good job).

我说不好 Wǒ shuō bu hǎo I can’t say for sure.

出来 chūlái – come out

说得出来 
Shuō dé chūlái – can speak out
说不出来 
shuō bu chūlái
 – can’t speak out (don’t know how to say it/put it)

起来 qǐlái – rising up, lifting up, starting

我拿得起来 Wǒ ná de qǐlái – I can pick it up.
我拿不起来 Wǒ ná bu qǐlái – I can’t pick it up.
我拿起来了 Wǒ ná qǐláile – I picked it up.

我站得起来 Wǒ zhàn de qǐlái – I can stand up.
我站不起来 Wǒ zhàn bu qǐlái – I can’t stand up.
我站起来了Wǒ zhàn qǐlái le – I stood up.

The subtle differences between complements

I can’t take/hold it/them

我拿不到 
Wǒ ná bu dào (too far away, can’t reach it)

I can’t hear it/them

我听不到 
Wǒ tīng bu dào (the sound is too far away)
我听不见 
Wǒ tīng bu jiàn (I can’t pick out the sound)
我听不清楚 
Wǒ tīng bu qīngchu (the sound is not clear)

I can’t eat it/them

我吃不到 Wǒ chī bu dào (can’t get hold of it)
我吃不了 Wǒ chī bu liǎo (too many/much to eat)
我吃不下 Wǒ chī bu xià (I can’t get it down, too full)
我吃不完 Wǒ chī bu wán (I can’t finish it)
我吃不起 Wǒ chī bu qǐ (I can’t afford it)