Chinese Grammar: Expressing potential with Potential complements
This is part III of our Series on Chinese Complements: expressing potential with complements
Little dragon, can you manage more about complements? Are you able to learn some more on Chinese Complements? The answer is yes! I have no doubts about your ability to do so but do you know how to discuss your ability to achieve something in Chinese? No? Then why don’t we learn how to talk about potential results with potential complements?
Ability to achieve an action and to move in a direction
Just like result complements, Mandarin Chinese speakers use potential complements to express the possibility of something being achieved. Potential complements are called in Chinese 可能 补语 (kěnéngbǔyǔ), you might also run into them as potential verb complements; they are used to talk about hypothetical actions and what would happen if they were carried out. Potential complements are often translated as “can manage”; “able to”; or “unable to” in English.
Potential complements can be used to express two ideas: the ability to achieve an action, a goal and the ability to move in a certain direction.
It comes in particularly handy with potential complements: it is one of the two words you can use to create potential complements:
Potential complements are often used negatively for things that were unable to happen. Affirmative potential complements are somewhat rare, and often are answers to questions.
Use result and direction complements
In the previous two lessons, we learned about result and direction complements. Guess what? These are what you’ll be using to form a potential complement.
Most result complements (aside from 错) and direction complements can be turned into potential complements, by adding 得 or 不 between the verb and the complement. Direction and result complements turned into potential complements express different things.
Here are a few common potential complements:
Verb Result Complement Directional Complement Affirmative Potential Complement Negative Potential Complement Meaning 看 见 看得见 看不见 Able / Unable to see 听 到 听 得到 听不到 Able/ Unable to Hear 听 懂 听得懂 听不懂 Able / Unable to Understand 上 来 上 得 来 上 不 来 Able / Unable to come up 下 去 下 得 去 下 不 去 Able / Unable to Go Down
Using potential complements in a sentence
Potential complements with objects
Potential complements can also be used to talk about an Object. To use potential complements with an Object, you have two options: the Object can either be placed after the complement, as usually does, or it can also be placed in front of the Subject in the sentence.
Short simple Objects can usually be placed after the complement, whereas for longer, more complex, Objects, it is stylistically preferable to place the Object at the very beginning of the sentence. It makes the sentence a lot easier to read, too!
Structure with an object
Subject + Verb + Potential complement + Object or
Object + Subject + Verb + Potential complement
Other things to know about potential complements
Being about hypothetical actions, potential complements cannot be used with the Completed 了.
Change of state 了 can still be used at the end of the sentence.
Potential complements, again being about unrealized actions, cannot be used in 把 sentences.
You form questions about potential complements just like you would do any other questions.
When using the “Choice Verb” question form (aka Verb Not Verb form), use the full verb + complement, like so:
Do pay attention: the negative form is expressed directly in the form “V + 不 + potential complement”, so no need to express it elsewhere in the sentence, or your sentence will mean something else.
他 写不好: He was unable to write. ==> this is a correct negative potential complement
他不写 好: He didn’t write it properly ==> this isn’t a proper negative potential complement. That’s a negative result complement
他 写得不好 ==> This isn’t a proper negative potential complement. That’s a negative degree complement.
她不吃得了 ==> this is incorrect grammatically. To negate an affirmative potential complement, use its negative form.
This may seem a little surprising to you but you can absolutely use verbs like 可以 and 能 with a potential complement to indicate the possibility of something. It may sound redundant to you, but the Chinese language accepts and likes semantic redundancy: it reinforces the message.
A quick summary
To form a potential complement, you’ll need several things.
- Are you talking about an affirmative sentence or a negative sentence?
There are two structures for potential complements. One, 得 is for affirmative complements, and the other, 不, is for negative complements.
- Are you talking about the ability to achieve an action or the ability to move in a certain direction?
Use V+ 得/ 不 Result Complement to talk about the ability to achieve something
and V+ 得/ 不 + Direction Complement to talk about the ability to move in a certain direction.
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