This is from the story 草船借箭 in 三国演义。


In English we can say, "How can I help you?" which may have 2 meanings, depending on how we say it.

Meaning 1. In what way can I be of service to you?

If we put strong emphasis on 'I' and 'you', Meaning 2. 'I really don't think I am able to help you."


  • 1
    The 2nd one. Especially after "你不要为难我". – songyuanyao May 14 '17 at 3:36

Meaning 2 is right. It is a rhetorical question to express negation.



我怎么帮得了你? = 我帮不了你。 Such kind of statement called 反问句, usually the one ask this question already know the answer. The intent of such sentence is strengthen mood or emphasize the speaker's point.

反问句 in English

  • Is 得了 always 不了? – Pedroski May 14 '17 at 21:27
  • @Pedroski no, “得了” is not equal to "不了". It depends on the context it used in. In this scenario, “question word(怎么) + 得了" = "no question word + negative word(不了)". “我怎么帮得了你?” is a Rhetorical question(反问句), usually Rhetorical question can be converted to Declarative Scentence( 陈述句), in which the meaning is more straightforward. – caisil May 17 '17 at 11:29

得了 is more "can" and 不了 is more often than not "cannot."

In 鲁肃’s rhetorical question, "我怎么帮得了你?" would mean "How can I (possibly) help you?" And, as in caisil's answer, "我帮不了你" would mean "I cannot help you."

So, as a general rule of thumb, "得了" doesn't equal "不了," in fact, they are opposites in meaning.

P.S. Still, note that the 了 in both "得了" and "不了" is pronounced liao(3), instead of le(neutral tone), which would make the meanings of both phrases different.

  • I thought 得了 should mean 'can', except when used rhetorically of course, but I haven't seen it used much. Maybe it is old-fashioned. I've heard people say '用不了‘ but I've never heard '用得了’. But I don't have much experience really. – Pedroski May 16 '17 at 22:06
  • In fact, “得了” can be used in the phrase "用得了,” as a response to somebody asking you "这个用得了吗?” This exchange roughly translates to the question "Can this thing be used?" and the answer "this can be used." This usage also isn't uncommon, especially in the context of usability. – Q Z May 18 '17 at 1:03

for "Meaning 1. In what way can I be of service to you?" what people usually would say in Chinese "我怎么帮你?" Remove 得了. And "了(liao3)" kinda means "finish or done". 得了 could mean "something you could get it done (past, present or future)" while 不了 is something you could NOT get it done.

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