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.
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)
These forms will be our starting point for forming potential complements.
Subj. + Verb + 得 + Complement
- 你 没 戴 眼镜 ，看 得 清楚 吗 ？You didn't wear glasses. Can you see clearly?
- 他 这么 粗心 ，做 得 好 吗 ？He'a so careless. Can he do it well?
- 你 这么 聪明 ，肯定 学 得 会 。You're so smart. You can definitely learn this.
- 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 get up?
- 这么 高 的 山 ，你 爬 得 上去 吗 ？The mountain is so high. Can you climb to the top?
The only difference between the affirmative and negative forms is swapping a 得 for a 不.
Subj. + Verb + 不 + Complement
- 你 的 声音 太 小 了 ，我们 听 不 见 。Your voice is too soft. We can't hear you.
- 这里 太 暗 了 ，我 看 不 清楚 。It's too dim here. I can't see clearly.
- 这个 自行车 太 破 了 ，谁 都 修 不 好 。This bike is so beaten up. Nobody can fix it.
- 她 的 腿 受伤 了 ，站 不 起来 了 。Her leg is injured. She can't stand.
- 包 太 小 了 ，手机 放 不 进去 。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 得 懂 上海话 吗 ？Can you understand Shanghai dialect?
- 她 这么 小 ，看 得 懂 这 本 书 吗 ？She's so young. Can she really understand this book?
- 我怕 我 做 不 好 这份 工作 。I'm afraid that I can't do this job well.
- 这 种 手机 现在 买 不 到 了 。You can't buy this type of cell phone now.
- 这本书 我 一个星期 肯定 看 得 完 。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.
Sources 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