Verbs can take potential complements that indicate whether or not the action is actually possible. They are useful in Chinese to say if an action can take place.
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:
- Verb + 见 e.g. 看见, 听见 (result complements)
- Verb + 懂 e.g. 看懂, 听懂 (result complements)
- Verb + 完 e.g. 吃完, 做完, 用完, 花完 (result complements)
- Verb + Adj. e.g. 看清楚, 听明白, 洗干净 (result complements)
- Verb + 到 e.g. 找到, 买到, 收到 (result complements)
- Verb + Direction e.g. 上来, 下去, 进去, 起来, 走过去, 爬上去 (direction complements)
Potential complements can be positive or negative. What this means is fairly intuitive - potential complements can be used to express that something can happen or that it can't.
Verb + 得 + Complement
- 他 一个人 吃 得 完 这么 多 饭 吗 ？Can he eat all the food by himself?
- 我 找 不 到 我 的 手机 了 。I can't find my cellphone.
- 在 上海 买 得 到 这 个 牌子 的 手表 吗 ？Can you buy this brand of watch in Shanghai?
- 早上 五点 出发 ，孩子们 起 得 来 吗 ？We're leaving at five a.m.; will the kids be able to come?
- 这么 高 的 山 ，你 爬 得 上去 吗 ？The mountain is so high. Can you make it to the top?
Verb + 不 + Complement
- 大家 都 看 不 懂 这 句 话 。Nobody can understand this sentence.
- 你 的 声音 太 小 了 ，我们 听 不 见 。Your voice is too soft. We can't hear you.
- 我 没 戴 眼镜 ，看 不 清楚 。When I don't wear glasses, I can't see clearly.
- 这 件 衬衫 太 脏 了 ，我 洗 不 干净 。This shirt is too dirty, I can't clean it.
- 门 太 小 了 ，我 的 车 进 不 去 。The door is too small. My car can't go through it.
Used with Objects
Objects in sentences with potential complements can occur either after the complement or at the beginning of a sentence.
A few examples:
- 我 听 不 见 你 说 的 话 。I can't hear what you said.
- 你 说 的 话 我 听 不 见 。I can't hear what you said.
- 你 吃 得 完 这 一 大 碗 面 吗 ？Can you finish eating this big bowl of noodles?
- 这 一 大 碗 面 你 吃 得 完 吗 ？Can you finish eating this big bowl of noodles?
- 你 在 上海 吃 不 到 这样 的 小吃 。You can't eat this kind of street food in Shanghai.
- 这样 的 小吃 你 在 上海 吃 不 到 。You can't eat this kind of street food in Shanghai.
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 see our article on advanced potential complements.
Sources and and further reading
- Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar (pp. 71) →buy
- Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide (pp. 191) →buy
- Boya Chinese Elementary Starter 1 (博雅汉语初经起步篇) (pp. 197) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 2 (pp. 291) →buy
- Practicing HSK Grammar (语法精讲精炼) (pp. 125) →buy
- Contemporary Chinese 2 (当代中文2) (pp. 63) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 3 (新实用汉语课本3) (pp. 99) →buy