The following sentences contain common mistakes my students make with 能:
- Incorrect: 我不能听见你。
- Correct: 我听不见你。
- Incorrect: 我不能看见你。
- Correct: 我看不见你。
- Incorrect: 我不能说好汉语。
- Correct: 我说不好汉语。
- Incorrect: 你听我？
- Correct: 你能听到我么？
- Incorrect: 你看我？
- Correct: 你能看到我么？
- Incorrect: 你可以听我？
- Correct: 你可以听见我么？
Why are these mistakes so common? Having given this question some thought, it is my opinion that these mistakes are due firstly to the teaching method, and secondly, there is no equivalent English word for the Chinese character 能 that can translate every meaning of the character. This also happened to me when I learned English. I had to learn each word one meaning at a time.
Many teachers like to use some formula for sentence patterns to make it easy for foreign students. But, no matter how precise the formula is, there will always be an exception. What I like to tell my students in class is that no matter what I teach you, there might be an exception. Don’t be surprised, who knows when a new word might be created and suddenly become popular.
So, here I want to talk about one such example: the result complement with the character 能。
结果补语 (result complement)
This is a complementary element following a verb predicate, indicating the result of an action. Some examples of this include:
The first character is a verb that shows the main meaning / the action. The second character is also a verb, but it is used for indicating the result of the first verb.
Sentences with a result complement and the two negative forms
- Negative Form 1: 我看不见你。
- Negative Form 2: 我没看见你。
Negative form 1 means I cannot do something because of some reason (for example, I do not have that kind of ability). Negative form 2 shows that the result was not achieved, and 没 also emphasizes that the event described occurred in the past.
- Negative Form 1: 我看不见你。I cannot see you right now. Perhaps if you stand up I might be able to.
- Negative Form 2: 我没看见你。I did not see you just now.
- Negative Form 1: 我学不会汉语。It means I cannot learn Chinese, maybe it is because I don’t have the gift for it.
- Negative Form 2: 我没学会汉语。It means I did not master Chinese. Perhaps I have been learning it for one day or one year. The result is that I still do not fully speak Chinese at the moment. But if I keep learning it for another year, or learn from another teacher, this may change.
See if you understand what I’m saying with the following examples:
- Negative Form 1: 我听不见你说话。
- Negative Form 2: 我没听见你说话。
- Negative Form 1: 我看不完书。
- Negative Form 2: 我没看完书。
- Negative Form 1: 我写不完作业。
- Negative Form 2: 我没写完作业。
- Negative Form 1: 我学不会汉语。
- Negative Form 2: 我没学会汉语。
- Negative Form 1: 我听不懂你的话。
- Negative Form 2: 我没听懂你说的话
- Negative Form 1: 我记不住这个汉字。
- Negative Form 2: 我没记住这个。
- Negative Form 1: 我吃不完饭。
- Negative Form 2: 我没吃完饭。
Asking questions using 能 with complementary of result. 能加结果补语的疑问句。
I hope you can see the difference between Chinese and English. Here’s an example:
你能看见我吗？(Can you see me?)
- Affirmative Form: 能，我能看见（你）(Yes, I can see)
- Negative Form: 不能，我看不见（你）(No, I can’t see)
The affirmative form is easy. However the negative form is different from English. In English, you can simply answer, “No, I can’t.” If you directly translate this from English to Chinese, it is, 不, 我不能看见你. However, a native Chinese speaker won’t say this in most conversations. This is the kind of mistake I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
We know that in Chinese we can often add 不 or 没 before the verb to make it into the negative form. The negative form of 能 is 不能. But as shown in the example sentence, this is not appropriate.
The sentence 你能看见我吗？ emphasizes two points: 能/不能 and 看见/看不见. While in Chinese you can’t just answer 我不能听见, you cannot use the negative form 2 of ...，没... either, because your answer would then be describing a past event. However, the negative form 1 is able to correctly describe the two points.
See if you can understand what I am saying with the following sentences:
- Affirmative Form 能，我能听见（你）。
- Negative Form 1 不能，我听不见你（你）。
Maybe you are calling your friend. Negative form 2 我没听见你 describes a past event。An example of this might be:
你为什么不接我电话？(Why aren’t you answering my phone?)
对不起，我没听到铃声。(Sorry, I did not hear it.)
Here are some more examples for you:
- Affirmative Form 能，我能看完。
- Negative Form 不能，我看不完。
- Affirmative Form 能，我能写完。
- Negative Form 不能，我写不完。
- Affirmative Form 能，我能学会。
- Negative Form 不能，我学不会。
- Affirmative Form 能，我能听懂。
- Negative Form 不能，我听不懂。
- Affirmative Form 能，我能记住。
- Negative Form 不能，我记不住。
There still are some circumstances where you can use the sentence 你不能+verb。
- 你不能进去。You can not get in.
- 你不能说出答案。 You can not find the answer out.
In these sentences 不能 means forbid.
Here are some examples of dialogue to help you understand better on the usage of 能:
You are walking with your friend on the street. Your friend then tells you he saw Shakira, but you did not see her. So here is the conversation:
You are walking with your friend on the street. Your friend then told you someone was calling your name. So here is the conversation:
Your child puts a lot of food in his bowl, but you do not think he can eat up all the food.
You ask him whether he can finish it. He says yes. It turns out later though, that he can’t.
You are walking with your friend on the street. Your friend sees a beautiful flower, and wants to pick one up to wear. So, here is the conversation: