I am under the impression that Chinese multi-character words form their meaning from that of the characters that form these words. (Let me know if I am mistaken!)

I know that 不得已 means "to have to". But consider each character, as described on wiki:

  • 不, "not"
  • 得, "particle to connect verb with modifying clause/to have to"
  • 已, "already/then/to stop"

How do these three characters form the meaning of the whole expression? Or is there no rule to this?

Also, my understanding is that 得 (dė) is a particle, yet 得 (děi) means "to have to". That said, would the pronunciation of 得 in this expression be děi?

Thanks in advance!

  • as far as pronuciation is concerned, this of course is easily answered by any number of dictionaries,e。g。现代汉语词典,iciba (which often does not supply pronunciation, does in this case [bù dé yǐ],(cf。answer#2),小马词典,汉语水平考试词典,etc。
    – user6065
    May 7, 2015 at 12:13
  • 不得已 involves knowledge of Literary Chinese, you can search about this.
    – shonminh
    May 26, 2015 at 18:14

3 Answers 3


the usage is classical and shows up at least as far back as mencius: 吾豈好辨哉?吾不得已也。Here the meaning is quite literally "I cannot (不) achieve/obtain (得) an end (已)" to my argumentativeness. In other words, i have no choice but to argue. You might compare it with the much more colloquial 不得不.

By the way be careful about the whole multi-character words thing. Some (not I) would insist that they are mere syllables, the characters accidental byproducts of the spoken language. Better comparison would be with a language composed entirely of words like "counterproductive".


得 also means 可以 (allowed, permitted), such as 不得吸烟(no smoking)

  • 不(bù): not
  • 得(dé): allowed
  • 已(yǐ): to stop

so not allowed to stop [something] becomes [something] must happen becomes to have to


不得已 can be considered as a word, just like the single English word, so there is no rule to this. And here the pronunciation of 得 in this expression is "de ".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.