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I remember once being told that there are differences in usage and meaning between 能 and verb + 得了.

他能来。 他不能来。
他来得了。 他来不了。

EDIT: Maybe my examples above weren't that good. Here are some new ones:

小孩搬不了这个大花盆。 小孩不能搬这个大花盆。
这儿声音太大,我听不了。 这儿声音太大,我不能听。

When should I use each? What are the differences in meaning?

Thanks in advance!

  • is 了 here read as le or liao ? – Abdul Al Hazred Oct 13 '15 at 21:39
  • Definitely liao. – Ringil Oct 13 '15 at 23:48
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I think the difference is mostly in formality. For the first 2 examples you've given, both would be acceptable grammatically, but 能 definitely sounds more formal.

However, I think there are examples where they can't completely be used interchangeably.

我吃不了了 can be used to indicate that one can't keep eating (because one is full/doesn't like the food). But to indicate the same with 能 you probably need to say, 我不能继续吃了

This might fall in a general category of idioms where you can't use 能 instead of a construction involving 得. For example, 我看不起他 really can't be replaced easily with 能

  • cf。Chinese grammars,e。g。"实用现代汉语语法" 能愿动词(八)能、能够 1。表示主观上具有某种能力。例如:1刚来中国的时候,我连一个汉字也不认识,怎么能看中文书呢?2这个机器的马达坏了,不能开动了。3打猎的越来越近,都能听见马跑的声‌​音了。2。表示具备某种客观条件。例如:1今天气温低,水能结成冰。2时间还早,九点钟以前能赶回。3。表示情理上许可,多用于疑问和否定句。例如:1天这么晚了,我不能让‌​你走!2陈胜对吴广说:"我们不能去渔阳送死,应该起义反抗。"3病人病情危急,不能坐等。4。表示"准许",多用于疑问句和否定句。例如:1没有我的命令你不能动!2那是‌​集体的财产,我怎么能让你随意破坏?在陈述句中,第3,4二义的肯定形式用"可以"。5。表示估计。例如:1今天小刘能到北京吗?2电影已经演了一半了,他不能来了。6。表‌​示善于做某事。例如:1他能说会道,能写会算。2老师傅可真能睡。。。。可能补语 二、B 类可能补语(一)B 类可能补语表示的语法意义 B 类可能补语是由"得/不+了"构成的。"了"的本义是"完"、"结束",由"得/不+了"构成的可能补语用在某些动词后。"了"有时仍表示"完、掉"等结果意义。例如:1‌​这个西瓜太大,咱们俩吃不了。(吃不完)2这件事我总也忘不了。(忘不掉)这类"得/不+了"与A 类可能补语所表示的意思是一样的,所以应属于A类。 – user6065 Oct 14 '15 at 21:56
  • I don't see what you're trying to say by copying that other than there are more things you can express with 能.... – Ringil Oct 14 '15 at 22:03
  • Q is about difference between 能 and 得/不+了,incidentally preceding earlier was positioned below,but after correcting 能源 to 能愿 could no longer be moved to the previous position。 – user6065 Oct 14 '15 at 22:33
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The main difference between -得了 and 能 is that -得了 can only be used with a fairly small subset of verbs, while 能 can be used with most verbs; for example, we can say 能看見, but 看見得了 sounds quite odd to me.

I believe this is because -得了 has a more specific meaning than 能, which is as generic as you can get, but I can't immediately provide a reference for this. Another important difference is that 能 can be used with a whole clause:

他還能一邊唱一邊跳, 真厲害. He can sing and dance at the same time, impressive!

There is no way to stick -得了 into this kind of sentence; it is a verbal affix, so can only be used as part of a relatively simple sentence.

Later note: I changed the example above from 能看 to 能看見. This may work better. I Still haven't found leading references, but here is one article that discusses some of this: 郝維 2001〈補語的可能式研究綜述〉,《漢語學習》3:29-34. In particular, the article notes that -得了 is usually used for actions that can be completed. This seems right, so in the zillions of cases where we want to speak of general ability, -得了 is often inappropriate. An example:

他能彈鋼琴 He can play the piano. (ok)
?? 他彈得了鋼琴 He can (finish) playing the piano. (odd)

  • I feel like you can just say 看得见 to express nearly the same meaning as 能看见。 For example: A: 你做的地方能看见老师吗? B: 看不见。 – Ringil Oct 14 '15 at 9:48
  • Also, A:你能弹钢琴吗?B:弹不了。Maybe it just works for questions. Though I feel for cases where you want to express ability 会 might be utilized more than 能. – Ringil Oct 14 '15 at 11:01
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Whichever you please. 不能 is more general, but also means cannot, must not, ought not, should not. Likewise, 能 is often an inherit trait, as in 你能说汉语吗?

  • 由"得/不+了"构成的B类可能补语,"了"本身不表示结果意义,整个"得/不+了"表示"主、客观条件是否容许实现(某种动作或变化)"。例如:1钻机没有水就动不了。(客观条件不容许)2今天下雨,去不了颐和园了。(客观条件不容许)3你这么大年纪了,连山上的草都拔不了,怎么能搬走这两座大山呢?(主观条件不容许)4今天阿里病了,上不了课了。(主观条件不容许)"得/不了"还可以表示对情况的估计。例如:1我看小刘比小陈大不了几岁。2敌人是兔子的尾巴,长不了。表示"情理上是否许可"或"准许不准许"意义时,不能用 B 类可能补语,只能用"能"。例如:1一个人不能去,会掉在沟里!*一个人去不了,会掉在沟里!2你的要求是错误的,我不能答应。*你的要求是错误的,我答应不了。B类可能补语在陈述句中也主要用否定形式,表达相应的肯定意思时,多用"能"。例如:二哥,属老虎的才能干这种事,属耗子的干不了。2今天晚上我能去,阿里去不了。B类可能补语主要用于口语,书面语或在正式场合更多的是用"能/不能+动词",A 类可能补语或其他方式。(二)B 类可能补语与A 类的区别 虽然在表达"主,客观条件是否容许实现"这一点上 A 类可能补语与B 有相同之处,但 A 类总与动作的结果或趋向相联系,而 B 类则与结果或趋向无关。试比较:1今天晚上我有事,看不完这本书了。(A 类,不能实现"看完")2今天晚上我有事,看不了这本书了。 – user6065 Oct 14 '15 at 3:13
  • Hm, so does it make sense to say 看得了这本书了? How about 看見? We can say 能看見, can we say 看見得了? ps: long detailed answers like this really would be better as answers than comments, otherwise its very easy to overlook. – wpt Oct 14 '15 at 4:31
  • according to above quotation (unfinished),得/不+了 (B type potential complement)can be used if dependent on subjective/objective conditions, possibility or impossibility based on reason (情理上)requires 能/不能,(thus answer depends on context) moreover in the case of affirmative declaration as opposed to negation or question 能 is anyhow more common than 得+了. – user6065 Oct 14 '15 at 6:30
  • 3rd last comment continued, (B类,不能实现"看")(三)包含B类可能补语的句子,结构特点基本与包含A类可能补语的句子相同,值得提出的有以下两点:1。动词或形容词与B类结合要比A类得容易,结合也宽些,连某些动补式动词(如"扩大、延长、埋没、提高"等),前面有状语的动词甚至有其他补语动词都可以带B类补语。例如:1我们这里埋没不了人才。2他这个人,早来不了。3这些土地是我们的,谁也抢不了去!这是因为B类可能补语主要用于口语,所以只有口语中不常用的动词,如"逾、著、恭候、寻(找)。。。"、表示使令义的"使、让、叫"以及能愿动词等不能带B类可能补语。不能带B类可能补语的形容词有以下两类:A。某些口语中不常用的,如"肮脏"、"错误"、"丑陋"、"衰败"、"高大"等。B。非谓形容词,如"男"、"女"、"雌"、"雄"、"正"、"副"、"横"、"竖"、"夹"、"大型"、"初级"、"多项"、"个别"、"共同"、"主要"、"新生"、"慢性"、"新式"、"四方"、"万能"、"天然"、"人为"、"袖珍"、"高频"等。2。B类可能补语中间不能插入程度副词。*)A类可能补语:由"得/不+结果补语/趋向补语"构成的,叫A类可能补语。 – user6065 Oct 14 '15 at 22:35

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