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对不起 is one of the first phrases any student learns.

We learn it as a set phrase, and don't question why it has this meaning.

But we also learn the phrases;

听得懂 - "hear and understand"

听不懂 - "hear but don't understand"

So is there a literal meaning to 对不起?

And is there an opposite to it - 对得起?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The compound 不起 is not just limited to this particular construction. It's a bit like a suffix that succeeds a verb, meaning 'not within one's power' or 'can't afford to due to the possibility of dire consequences'.

Some examples of compounds that use 不起 include:

  • 吃不起 (Can't afford to eat - either due to financial constraint or social constraint)
  • 住不起 (Can't afford to live in - in a similar vein to the previous example)
  • 受不起 (Dare not accept - probably in fear of its consequences)
  • 伤不起 (Can't afford to suffer injury).

对 here means to face or to confront. So combining the two, you have 对不起, which literally means 'not having the capacity to face or confront'. The verb usage of 对不起 can also be explained in a similar fashion, which can be translated into 'to wrong' or 'to let down'. 对得起 would be a perfect antonym for the verb definition.

Reference: See definition 6 here.

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well explained. –  Matthew Rudy 马泰 Apr 2 '13 at 9:04
    
Note that this is only true in Mandarin. (北京官話, or more commonly known as 普通話) In other branches of Chinese, for example, Cantonese, it's 「對唔住」. However, you cannot say 「住唔住」 in Cantonese because it means something else than "can't afford to live in", instead, it means "to live in or not?". –  Derek 朕會功夫 Apr 23 '13 at 7:20
    
@Derek朕會功夫 You can assume that Mandarin is what Matthew was looking for, as you have pointed out yourself the difference in how it's expressed in Cantonese. Just a side note, my answer also applies to Wu. Thanks for the extra info however. –  deutschZuid Apr 23 '13 at 7:57
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对不起 literally means "cannot face (someone)", implying "let down", "disappoint" or "betray".

Your guess is right, there is 对得起, which is actually a common phrase. It literally means "can face up to", implying "regret-less", "can justify", "be worthy of".

Examples using 对得起:

做人最重要是对得起自己的良心。One's primary duty is to obey the dictates of his conscience.

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