The following sentences contain common mistakes my students make with 能:
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。
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.
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.
See if you understand what I’m saying with the following examples:
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?)
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:
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:
There still are some circumstances where you can use the sentence 你不能+verb。
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: