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Potential complement

Verbs can take potential complements to indicate whether or not an action is possible. Potential complements contain a 的 (de) or a 不 (bu) immediate after the verb being modified, and are quite common in everyday spoken Mandarin.

Affirmative Form

Structurally, potential complements are closely related to both result complements and direction complements, so it helps to be familiar with those first. The most important and commonly used potential complements are derived from other complements such as the following:

These forms will be our starting point for forming potential complements.

Structure

Subj. + Verb + 得 + Complement

Examples

  • 你 没 戴 眼镜 ,看 清楚 吗 ?Nǐ méi dài yǎnjìng, kàn de qīngchu ma?You didn't wear glasses. Can you see clearly?
  • 他 这么 粗心 ,做 吗 ?Tā zhème cūxīn, zuò de hǎo ma?He'a so careless. Can he do it well?
  • 你 这么 聪明 ,肯定 学 Nǐ zhème cōngming, kěndìng xué de huì.You're so smart. You can definitely learn this.
  • 早上 五点 出发 ,孩子们 起 吗 ?Zǎoshang wǔdiǎn chūfā, háizi men qǐ de lái ma? We're leaving at five a.m.. Will the kids be able to get up?
  • 这么 高 的 山 ,你 爬 上去 吗 ?Zhème gāo de shān, nǐ pá de shàngqù ma? The mountain is so high. Can you climb to the top?

Negative Form

The only difference between the affirmative and negative forms is swapping a 得 for a 不.

Structure

Subj. + Verb + 不 + Complement

Examples

  • 你 的 声音 太 小 了 ,我们 听 Nǐ de shēngyīn tài xiǎo le, wǒmen tīng bu jiàn.Your voice is too soft. We can't hear you.
  • 这里 太 暗 了 ,我 看 清楚Zhèlǐ tài àn le, wǒ kàn bu qīngchu.It's too dim here. I can't see clearly.
  • 这个 自行车 太 破 了 ,谁 都 修 Zhège zìxíngchē tài pò le, shéi dōu xiū bu hǎo .This bike is so beaten up. Nobody can fix it.
  • 她 的 腿 受伤 了 ,站 起来 了 。Tā de tuǐ shòushāng le, zhàn bu qǐlái le.Her leg is injured. She can't stand.
  • 包 太 小 了 ,手机 放 进去Bāo tài xiǎo le, shǒujī fàng bu jìnqù.The bag is too small. I can't fit the cell phone in it.

Potential Complement with Objects

Objects in sentences with potential complements can occur either after the complement or at the beginning of a sentence.

A few examples:

  • 你 听 上海话 吗 ?Nǐ tīng de dǒng Shànghǎi-huà ma?Can you understand Shanghai dialect?
  • 她 这么 小 ,看 这 本 书 吗 ?Tā zhème xiǎo, kàn de dǒng zhè běn shū ma?She's so young. Can she really understand this book?
  • 我怕 我 做 这份 工作 。Wǒ pà wǒ zuò bu hǎo zhè fèn gōngzuò.I'm afraid that I can't do this job well.
  • 这 种 手机 现在 买 了 。Zhè zhǒng shǒujī xiànzài mǎi bu dào le.You can't buy this type of cell phone now.
  • 这本书 我 一个星期 肯定 看 Zhè běn shū wǒ yī gè xīngiqī kěndìng kàn de wán.I can definitely finish reading this book within one week.

Advanced Potential Complements

There are actually quite a few potential complements out there, and this article touches on some of the simplest and most common ones. Be aware that there are many more, but they all follow the same basic pattern outlined here. You can also refer to our article on advanced potential complements.

See also

Sources and further reading

Books

Websites

Yale