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I'd never seen or heard this before until I recently watched a TV series and had to ask my wife to explain.

My initial guess was that it meant "I feel sorry for you" when in fact it means something like "I'm very sorry" (in the direction of the listener).

"I dislike you" which is I ...verb... you is correct English

But 我对不起你 seems like "I sorry you" which is I ...adjective... you which is incorrect English

So, have I got the wrong meaning of 对不起 (in this context), is there a verb meaning which I am missing or is this a sentence structure unique to Chinese?

Wiktionary has a listed under verb the following meanings:

To cause someone embarrassment; to screw someone over; to do something to a person that would demand an apology later on

But I don't think "I caused you embarrassment" or "I screwed you over" is a very adequate translation of 我很对不起你.

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Perhaps it is not clear to you that 对不起 is a potential complement and hence naturally a verb? –  Jon Sep 7 '12 at 18:52
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9 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think the Chinese language has always been very consistent here. Consider the following:

  • 我很对不起你。
  • 我很讨厌你。
  • 我很爱你。

The subject-verb-object sentence structure is very consistent. In English, the last two sentences can be translated directly with:

  • I hate you very much.
  • I love you very much.

The reason why the first sentence could not be translated directly is due to the lack of such a verb in English and not due to the peculiarity of the Chinese language.

The third meaning in the Wikitionary article you quoted captures more of the essence of this verb "对不起" than the first two:

to do something to a person that would demand an apology later on

To elaborate, "我很对不起你" is not a statement of apology but a statement that you owe someone more than just an apology. This is logically so, because the subject would have easily apologised with a simple sorry (对不起) when speaking directly to the other party.

To extend this further, "你很对不起她" is another valid statement to mean you owe her more than just an apology. Example:

她为了你付出了这么多,你却这样糟蹋她。你真的很对不起她。

She has done so much for you, yet you treated her so badly. You really owe her more than just an apology.

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In this sentence, "对" is basically a verb, while "起" is an adv meaning "live up to". If someone says "对得起你", that means he/she did sth benefited you or sth good to you, or lived up to your expectations. So "对不起你" means he/she failed you or did sth bad to you. "很" means "very much", normally placed in front of the verbs.You can use other words like "非常、真的" to emphasize your sincere apology. See below, 我真的很对不起你!我非常对不起你! Therefore it's not a unique sentence structure though. Each Chinese character has it meaning and function, so you just separate them and get it~ :)

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+1 Nice explanation. –  Question Overflow Sep 20 '12 at 14:06
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This sentence can be used independently. It reads "I'm terribly sorry". The speaker is apologizing sincerely.

很 is an adverb that emphasize the extent of the adjective/verb that comes after it. It doesn't have to be translated to "very". For example,

我很想要那个玩具

I want that toy badly.

Update

对不起 in most cases is only used to offer apology or excuse for some fault, failure, or injury. It's a verb, but can be translated either to an adjective, "sorry", or verb, "apologize". The adjective version is grammatically wrong in this sentence, so we can consider the verb version.

However, saying "I apologize to you" still sounds strange. That's because when we apologize to someone directly we usually won't add the "to you" part, but in Chinese, it is essential.

"I feel sorry for you" is

我为你感到难过

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I've updated my question, hopefully it makes better sense what I am after. –  xiaohouzi79 Sep 7 '12 at 1:34
    
I've updated my answer. Hope it helps. –  nfang Sep 7 '12 at 2:08
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It's a classical Chinese sentence.

I'm very sorry to you.

我: subject

很: adjective

对不起: predicate

你: object

The classical Chinese sentence structure is: subject [adjective] predicate object [adjective].

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Hi,I don't know how to express the feelings of the sentence"我很对不起你"as a native Chinese speaker.it means I'm very sorry indeed.But in most cases if one use it ,he/she is to express one's guilty,in which case the fault speaker has made have no way to remedy.and there is also no way to get back the relationship between speaker and listener.As I known this is always used between lovers and friends.

For example,if a boy and a girl break up and because he treated her so badly ,notice here,normally,he won't say "我很对不起你"when they just break up ,he will say"我很对不起你" when he want to get back with her but find there is no possibility that she will forgive him.this sentence always use in a very sad scene.in TV.not in real life.

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很 as simple means "Very much"

我很爱你 I love you very much
我很讨厌你 I hate you very much
我很嫉妒你 I am envy you

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Here 对不起 is a verb and you can understand it as "feel sorry". So the sentence "我很对不起你" is I feel sorry to you very much("very much" --> “很”).

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对不起 is a verb not an adjective in Chinese. It is commonly translated into "sorry" to preserve meaning but not word class. A verb translation could be "let down" or "disappoint". If you see 我对不起你 as "I disappointed you", then 我很对不起你 is "I disappointed you so much", which makes sense.

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A literal translation of 我很对不起你。is something like, "I'm deeply in debt to you," or "I'm very much obligated to you," which figuratively translates into "I'm very sorry (for what I did to do). It is a passive, not active construction.

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protected by Alenanno Sep 22 '12 at 9:00

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