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不错 is a composite word of 不 and 错, the former means "NOT" and the latter means "wrong", if I understand it correctly.

However, when I look up 不错 in my dictionary (macOS's built-in dictionary), it only shows "right" and "pretty good", and not "not bad".

Is 不错 never used to express "not bad"? And do you have nothing to do but just look up in the dictionary and memorize them one by one in case of these composite words? I happened to look it up today, but without that I would keep misunderstanding its meaning...

  • 不错 = not bad, decent (as in satisfactory). – mootmoot Jun 26 '17 at 11:11
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In addition to the other answers:

The exact phrase 不錯 is almost always used to mean "pretty good". But there are variations on the phrase that mean "not wrong", "not mistaken" without having the same positive implication:


沒錯

This one is still somewhat positive, but it's more of an agreement than an endorsement:

他說得沒錯 - What he said is correct.
他說得不錯 - He said it well / what he said is good.


不是錯的

Use this phrase if you just want to say "not incorrect" without implying anything else about the quality:

這個答案很不錯 - This answer is pretty good.
這個答案不是錯的 - This answer is not wrong.


In response to your general question, most composite words do mean exactly what you'd think from looking up each individual character. But when it comes to this kind of nuance in their usage, you'll have to learn each compound word individually.
Occasionally you'll find a compound word where the meaning is quite far removed from the component characters, but this will normally be apparent from context.

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Depends on which dictionary you use, on google translate:

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不错 = pretty good, not bad, right, correct

Give you a few examples:

这人不错 = This guy is not bad

这事做的不错 = Pretty good job/Not a bad job

你说的不错 = What you are saying is not wrong/What you are saying is right

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Some compound word's extended meaning is more prominent than the literal one.

Take 不错 for example, '不'= not; '错' = wrong; therefore '不错' literally means 'not wrong' in other word: 'right'.

By extension, if something is not done wrongly, it is 'not done badly'. That's how the meaning of 'not bad' is carried by '不错' (and 'not bad' implies it is 'decent' or 'good')

Depend on context, people do use the phrase '不错' for 'not wrong/correct'. For example: Q: "你十八岁?" (you eighteen years old?) A: "不错!" (correct!)

But we mainly use '不错' as an adjective for 'not bad' in day-to-day conversation. For example: "这辆车不错" (this car is not bad)

More examples:

(大= big); (力= force) '大力' literally means 'big force'. In other words 'strong force'.

By extension, '大力' is used as (1.) an adjective for 'strong' or (2.) an adverb for 'strongly'

Is 不错 never used to express "not bad"? And do you have nothing to do but just look up in the dictionary and memorize them one by one in case of these composite words?

Most of the time 不错 means 'not bad'.

You do have to memorize the meanings of each compound word, but those meanings are all extensions from the literal meaning (they are logically connected). Therefore, it wouldn't be too hard to remember.

  • Thanks but "not bad" is definitely not "pretty good" in other words. It is just a negation of "not bad", which might be a "pretty good" or "great" or just "so-so". – Blaszard Jun 27 '17 at 12:20
  • Yes, 'pretty good ' should be '很好' in Chinese. – Tang Ho Jun 27 '17 at 15:22
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In British English, “not bad” can fairly often be used as a synonym for “pretty good”. It usually means something better than “so-so” / “medium” / “mediocre” / “ok” / “passable”. Particularly in "not bad at all" which for me (a native British speaker) means “really quite good”.
I suspect that “not bad” is not often used in this way in American English.

I think the question is related to “not bad” literally meaning “negation of bad”. But I’m not sure what that is. I can think of this: “It is not bad but also it is not good” but that is a quite an artificial example.

It’s a bit of a grey area in English.

Evidence/reference for the above: http://forum.wordreference.com/threads/pretty-good-not-bad.19966/ http://www.wordreference.com/definition/not%20bad “not (half, so, or too) bad, somewhat good; tolerable: not half bad for a first effort.”

So my answer to the question ‘Is 不错 never used to express "not bad"?’ is: No! Actually, “not bad” is often a good translation of 不错, at least in British English. But it may well be clearer and less ambiguous to translate it as “pretty good” instead.

Regarding another question: “And do you have nothing to do but just look up in the dictionary and memorize them one by one in case of these composite words?”. In this case, 不错 is a commonly-used expression in spoken Mandarin and by familiarising yourself with sample texts / dialogues you can learn to get a feeling for its meaning and the context it tends to be used in; this feeling can be more valuable than the knowledge gained by looking it up in a dictionary.

If you think about it, it’s quite natural to equate “negation/not” plus “bad” as something that is at the least ok (passable). So you can get the meaning from individual characters in this case; I think Chinese maps quite closely to (British) English here.

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