For example, "我不能睁开我的眼睛" and "我睁不开我的眼睛" (不 obviously being the negation of the 得 potential form). What is the difference in nuance between these two sentences?

  • regarding difference between modal verb 能 and potential complement, note following excerpts from "外国人实用汉语语法": "能 " (1)表示具备某种能力。例如:我能开汽车。张老师能教化学。他能看中文小说。(2)表示环境或情理上许可。例如:圣诞节你能来吗?。。能。他能参加运动会吗?。。不能。星期天不能借书。 可能补语 :(一)什么叫可能补语。在谓动词后面,补充说明动作能否达到某种结果或情况的词或词组叫可能补语。In particular in the sense of (1) 能 cannot be replaced by potential complement (also search site for previous discussions of this question). – user6065 Mar 4 '17 at 0:08
  • CCG 10.2 Potential complements ... Sentences with potential complements tend to take an objective stance and the ability or inability to carry out the action expressed in the verb may arise at least in part from circumstances beyond the control of the speaker.Potential complements are therefore essentially expository. 18.Modal verbs ...reflect the mood or attitude of either the speaker or the subject of the sentence from the perspective of the speaker.This speaker-oriented stance makes all utterances that incorporate modal verbs evaluative in nature, which means that these verbs, – user6065 Mar 15 '17 at 3:29
  • like those in expository sentences, do not occur with aspect markers. regarding 能 18。1。1Permission 能 is used interchangeably with 可以,particularly in questions: 我能走了吗?他可以回家了吗?In negative statements, 不能,probably for rhythmic reasons, is colloquially more often used than 不可以:你不能走。user:therefore if 能、不能 is used for permission it apparently cannot be replaced by potential complement, e.g. 我不能睁开我的眼睛 may apply to a patient in a dentist's office – user6065 Mar 15 '17 at 3:32
  • who is given a composite filling with the help of curing light (harmful to patient's eyesight). 牙科医生用复合填料和固化灯给患者的牙洞填补的时候,因为固化灯会对眼睛有害,患者闭上眼睛是必要的 – user6065 Mar 15 '17 at 3:32


This sentence means, "I cannot open my eyes," with the implication that the speaker is not allowed to or otherwise constrained.


This sentence means, "I am physically incapable of opening my eyes." (睁不开 sounds like, "[my eyes] are unopenable").


The 得/不 potential form is used with result verbs. As in your example:

我睁不开眼睛 ---> 开 (open, separated) is the result of 睁

Therefore the potential form tends to express an objective ability or inability to do something. Eg:

我打不开门 I can't open the door (it is too heavy, blocked, broken...)
我睡不着 I can't sleep (too anxious, there's noise...)
今晚我做不了饭 Tonight I can't make dinner (I'm too tired)

The 能 form sounds more like a subjective ability. It is used with generic actions that don't have a result (in the sense of a result complement), polite requests, to express moral/legal constraints. Eg:

你能想象吗 Can you imagine it? (subjective non-physical ability)
你能帮我忙吗 Can you give me a hand? (request)
今晚我不能做饭 Tonight I can't make dinner (generic action)
我丢了驾照,我不能开车 I lost my driver's license, I can't drive.


The opposite of '我睁开我的眼睛'(I can't open my eyes) is '我睁开我的眼睛'(I can open my eyes)

[不] and [得] are [potential particles]. They have to be placed after the verb.

For example: 去到/去

去(go) is the verb; 得/不(can/cannot) is the potential particle; 到(arrive) is the resultative particle

The opposite of "我不能睁开我的眼睛" (I can't open my eyes) is '我睁开我的眼睛'(I can open my eyes)

[能] and [不能] are [auxiliary verbs] (can; able to/ can't; unable to). They have to be placed before the main verb

For example: 去 / 不能

能(able to/can) is the auxiliary verb; 去(go) is the main verb


我睁不开我的眼睛 -- I'm not able to open my eyes

我不能睁开我的眼睛 -- I cannot open my eyes (even though I am able to do it. Maybe I do not want to see something, or be threatened not to do so, etc.)


The first sentence may have two possible meanings: that one is not able to open his eyes, or that he is not allowed to. The second one may only infer the first meaning noted above.

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