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I need help with sorting out the difference between 了, 著 and 到 when used as verb complements. I have learnt most of my Chinese in Taiwan and in my experience, Taiwanese people don't use 著 as a verb complement very often, except in some common phrases like 睡不著 and similar. I don't think I've ever heard anyone here say 買不著 or 見著. Most explanations I find online are next to useless, saying more or less the same thing, i.e. that these complements indicate the possibility of an action or if a result/goal has been attained.

I don't have much of a problem with 了 and 到, but I don't know how to use 著.

In order to have something to play with, here are some examples I found online for 著:

(1) 听说你想买一本汉英词典,**买着**了吗?
(2) 我去的时候,车已经开了,我没**见着**他们。
(3) 在那儿什么东西都**买得着**。
(4) 有些东西你带了也**用不着**。
(5) 我的药呢?刚才还在桌子上,怎么**找不着**了?
(6) 我经常**找不着**北。
(7) 这是十年前流行的衣服,现在已经**买不着**了。

睡著 is the only sentence where I would use 著 naturally without thinking too much about it. When should 著 be used? What's the difference between that and using 到 (or 了 in some cases)?

Drawing from the examples above, what's the difference between:

(3) 在那儿什么东西都**买得着** and 什麼東西都**買得到**
(4) 有些东西你带了也**用不着** and **用不到**
(5) 我的药呢?刚才还在桌子上,怎么**找不着**了? and **找不到**了?
(7) 这是十年前流行的衣服,现在已经**买不着**了 and **買不到**了

In the above cases, I would always opt for the second version and they seem to mean pretty much the same thing to me. Please help!

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3 Answers 3

了 and 到/著(着) (zháo) serve different functions in sentences.

了 used after verbs implies a sense of "stopped, finished,completed, or done" on the action.

到 and 著(着) used after verbs indicate the result of the action.

  • 找(不/得)着, 找(不/得)到
  • 够(不/得)着, 够(不/得)到
  • 吃(不/得)着, 吃(不/得)到

I can't really tell the difference between 到 and 著(着), but it seems to me that 到 sounds a little bit more formal than 著(着).

In some cases, 著(着) seems emphasizing on the ability of doing something, while 到 seems focusing on the result of doing something.

  • 书架最上层的书,我够不着. vs 书架最上层的书,我够不到.
  • 我跟你说话呢,你听不着吗? vs 我跟你说话呢,你听不到吗?
  • 家里有这么多活儿,你看不着吗?vs 家里有这么多活儿,你看不到吗?
  • 你打不着我. vs 你打不到我.
  • 找不着北了. vs 找不到北了.

But there are some cases where one is more likely used than the other.

Case A) In the following sentences, using 到 is good, but using 著(着) sounds awkward.

  • 这个办法, 我早想到了.
  • 演唱会的门票, 我终于搞到了.
  • 这个赌, 我最终赢到了.

Case B) In the following cases, only 到 is used.

  • 说到做到.
  • 说得到做得到.
  • 说得到做不到.
  • 请同学们说一下,你在这幅画中看到了什么, 又想到了什么.
  • 尽到责任.
  • 货送到了.
  • 话我是带到了啊,去不去由你.
  • 收到信了.
  • 受到好评.
  • 遭到敌人的伏击.

Case C) In the following examples, only 著(着) is used, to show something (not) getting into a continuous state.

  • 他睡着了.
  • 他翻来覆去睡不着.
  • 出了这么大的事他居然还睡得着觉.
  • 他的衣服烧着了.
  • 他把油灯点着了.
  • 油灯没油了,点不着了.
  • 他把炉子引着了.
  • 他把发动机起着了.
  • 他把打火机打着了.
  • 打火机坏了,打不着了.

Case D) In the following examples, only 著(着) is used.

  • 我爱怎样怎样,你管不着(or 你干涉不着).
  • 有话好好说,用不着这样鼻子不是鼻子脸不是脸的.
  • 这事儿还真让你说着了.
  • 哼!这次算你捡着了,下次可就没这么好运了!
  • 丈二和尚,摸不着头脑.

Case E) When there are place/time coming after verbs, only 到 is used.

  • 爬到树上
  • 睡到天亮
  • 牛皮吹到天上去了
  • 你这话说到我心里去了.
  • 你这话,说到点子上了.

Case F) When there are objects coming after verbs, in some cases both 到 and 著(着) are ok.

  • 我没碰着他. 我没碰到他.
  • 我没见着他. 我没见到他.
  • 我没买着那本书. 我没买到那本书.
  • 再也吃不着这样好吃的菜了. 再也吃不到这样好吃的菜了

But in the following cases 到 is more preferrable.

  • 听到一阵枪声
  • 看到一块巨石

By the way, 着 (zhe) is used to descibe a continuous action.

  • 看着她跳舞
  • 打着手势
  • 撇着嘴

Note: I polished my answer with some good points from other answers or comments.

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Neat! This basically means that I can think of 著 as a slightly more colloquial version of 到 in most cases (except in some fixed expressions and some situations where there seems to be an established habit of saying one over the other). In sentences like 睡到天亮 isn't just a simple complement, so those don't pose a problem. However, what about sentences with objects? In the examples above, we have several with objects which seem to violate your explanation of Case D: (2) 我去的时候,车已经开了,我没见着他们。 (6) 我经常找不着北。 Are these bad examples or is there something else going on? –  Olle Linge Apr 25 '13 at 0:33
    
@OlleLinge: sorry, I made a mistake. Corrected it already. –  孤影萍踪 Apr 25 '13 at 6:12

Since your difficulty relates more to the differences between 着(zháo) and 到(dào), I will just concentrate on these two in cases where they are used as a complement after a verb to indicate that a goal has been attained or that there is a result. Although both 着 and 到 are used for similar purposes, there are differences, and often, one is preferred over the other. Specific to the examples you have brought up, this would be how I would choose them:

  1. 在那儿什么东西都买得 着 / (什么 - affirmative)
  2. 有些东西你带了也用不 / 到 (有些 - less defined)
  3. 我的药呢?刚才还在桌子上,怎么找不 着 / 了? (药 - very specific)
  4. 这是十年前流行的衣服,现在已经买不 着 / 了 (十年前流行的衣服 - very specific)

着 is often used when the goal or the result is less defined, such as in sentence (2) or when the result is negative (i.e. used together with 不). For example, when someone tries to interfere with your affairs, you can say:

你管不着 OR 你管得到我再说 (rarely, 你管不到我)

Here, 你管不着 and 你管得到我再说 share a common objective, i.e., to ward off any form of interference. The latter has a "catch me if you can" connotation, suggesting that "you don't have the ability to interfere with my affairs", whereas the former now possesses the meaning of "none of your business" although it used to share the same meaning as the latter.

着 is also used more colloquially and has been incorporated into some idioms:

  • 用不着担心 (colloquial, same as 不用担心)
  • 用不着烦恼 (colloquial, same as 不用烦恼)
  • 摸不着头脑 (idiom, it befuddles me)
  • 偷鸡不着蚀把米 (idiom, plan backfires on oneself)
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Actually from your example, we already can know that 着(著) = 到 But i dont know why you are using some thing like that, actually it wasn't good to hear also that is not a verb, but from your sentences, it just look like a help verb. And the differences between 着 and 到.

The difference are depend on how you use it. Every word of Mandarin, it can mean of many of things, also it can change the meaning on how you put it on a sentences. Just like you example.

睡着 = Already sleep
睡到 = Sleep until

So, it mean of many things, the most important is how you hear it. If sound like awkward, then you shouldn't put it together.

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I did mention that the question related to when the complement referred to possibility of completion or of achieving a goal, so 睡到 and 睡著 isn't a good pair to compare, because 睡到 doesn't imply possibility at all, but rather duration (sleeping until [time]). Comparing 買不到 and 買不著 is perhaps more interesting. –  Olle Linge Apr 25 '13 at 2:31

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