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I read a story where a child dropped a berry into a bucket full of berries and then tried to take it back. When she reached in to pick up her own berry, she grabbed a handful of the other berries. In Chinese, it says, 一不小心,抓出来一大把。

I know that 小心 means "careful", so I thought that 一不小心 meant, "a little bit carelessly". When I asked a Chinese speaker, however, she said that wasn't quite right. She said there was something about the situation that was unavoidable, but she couldn't explain it clearly.

What does 一不小心 mean here?

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一 in this context just means 'as soon as'. Often it is used with 就. For example, 我一看到她(的)男朋友就知道他不是好东西 = as soon as I saw her boyfriend I knew he was no good. –  user2251 Nov 16 '12 at 7:01
    
It means like: When you are careless about it, then ... (something happen) –  mrjimoy_05 Nov 16 '12 at 11:24
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3 Answers 3

一不小心 means in an unguarded moment. Depending on the context you can translate it as unguarded, carelessly or accidentally.

Some examples (with a more free translation):

  • 然后你加一点点辣椒粉,但要小心——一不小心就加得太多了。Then you add a little cayenne pepper, but be careful - it's easy to overshoot the mark.
  • 一不小心,他把柔嘉的酒杯碰翻,柔嘉“啊呀”一声,快起身躲,新衣服早染了一道酒痕。 While doing so, he accidentally knocked over Jou-chia's wine glass.With a cry, she quickly stood up and jumped aside, but not before her new dress had been dyed with a trail of wine stains.
  • 最后,他大事花小,只是简单地说明,他招待朋友时喝晕了头,发现保险柜是开着的,竟然把钱拿了出来,一不小心将保险柜锁上了。He finally narrowed it down to an assertion that he was light-headed from entertaining friends, had found the safe open, and having gone so far as to take the money out, had accidentally closed it.
  • 一不小心,还可能引发全新的争执和冲突。 A careless move may well trigger an all new debate and conflict.
  • 他一不小心打翻了蚕匾,桑叶散满了一地。
    He carelessly knocked over the silkworm tray, leaving the floor covered with folia mori
  • 他一不小心被玻璃丝划破了手。
    He accidentally cut his hand on the glass silk.
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There are variations of this like 一不当心 or 一不留神. –  deutschZuid Nov 15 '12 at 21:54
    
"He carelessly knocked over the silkworm tray, leaving the floor covered with folia mori" that's not the kind of thing you say every day ;) –  Cocowalla Nov 16 '12 at 15:01
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The use of 一 here means "as soon as" or "just as" and it can be used in quite a few ways. The 一 is similar to 一下子 so it is also pointing to "just in that instant", there is something immediate to it.

The thing that the Chinese speaker was trying to explain, I think, is that the phrase also points to the fact that in the case where the phrase is 一不小心 that they were trying their best to be careful (小心) but in the instant that it happened there was a consequence.

This is different from just being careless, someone 一不小心 might be sweating from trying hard to avoid something, but someone careless could knock over a glass of milk. I think in the case of the glass and being careless you could use 一不当心 rather than 一不小心. With 一不当心 being "in a moment of carelessness" rather than as a result of someone trying to be careful (小心).

Here are some examples of the use of 一 with a similar meaning:

  • 我一看到他 (As soon as I saw him)
  • 我一碰到他 (As soon as I touched it)
  • 我一想到他 (Whenever I think of him or as soon as I think of him)
  • 我一下班回家 (As soon as I finish work and return home)
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I totally agree that in this sentence you should just focus on the fact that 一 means "as soon as". Too many examples of 一不小心 may not only overwhelm you but will also distract you from learning the general meaning of 一 and the various ways it is used.

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