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I came across this sentence and I assume the meaning is "how can I (learn to) sing well?". What I don't fully understand is the grammar of 唱好歌.

I know that 好 can be used as a result complement like 我做好作业了 I've finished my homework. The meaning I've learned for 好 when used this way is "finished to a satisfactory standard".

I assume that 唱好歌 is simply 唱歌 with 好 inserted in the middle because 唱 is the verb and 歌 is the object.

My first question is - is this the normal grammar for asking this type of question, or is there an alternative structure? For example, if I want to ask how can I (learn to) cook well, is 我怎么才能做好饭 correct?

Second question - does the above sentence carry a meaning of "how can I cook (this specific meal) well" or "how can I generally cook well"? Or can it be either depending on context?

Third question - I've learned that I can insert 得 or 不 between a verb and complement to make a potential complement structure. Therefore, if I want to say "I can't sing well" is it 我唱不好歌? If not, why not? If yes, what's the difference between this and 我唱歌长得不好?

Thanks very much in advance to anyone who can help!

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I think, for Western ears, 怎么才能唱好歌 is ambiguous, whereas, for Chinese ears, it just means 'How can I sing well?'

Does it mean 'sing a good song', or 'sing well'? I asked a Chinese friend, she immediately said, "All songs are good."

You could write 怎么才能把歌唱(得)好。

Q1 Yes, fairly normal grammar
Q2 我怎么才能做好饭 How can I learn to / cook well / be a good cook.

For a specific dish: 我怎么才能做好[name of dish]

Q3 我唱歌唱得不好。 or 我不会唱歌。

Do you remember an old song, 'Killing me softly'? In that song, it says, "I heard he sang a good song." There is no sense in this that he only sings one song well.

It means 'He sings well.' 他唱歌唱得很好。

Similarly, 'She bakes a mean cake.' says: 'She bakes well.' not: her cake is somehow unpleasant.

  • Thanks, this was very helpful :) I'm still a bit unsure about 我唱不好歌 and 我唱歌唱得不好 though. How about these examples: 我什么歌都唱不好 vs 我什么歌都唱得不好. And 这首歌我唱不好(or 我唱不好这首歌) vs 我这首歌唱得不好. I interpret the difference as: the 唱不好 sentences refer to the speaker's ability to learn/practice to a level they are happy with, whereas the 唱得不好 simply states that they are unable to sing well. The 唱不好 sentences imply the speaker WANTS to or is TRYING to learn to sing well, while the 唱得不好 sentences do not have this implication. Is this right? – Angus Jan 5 '18 at 10:06
  • @Angus, there isn't much difference between 唱得不好 and 唱不好. 这首歌我唱不好(or 我唱不好这首歌) vs 我这首歌唱得不好, these sentences means the same thing. – dan Jan 6 '18 at 9:20
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My first question is - is this the normal grammar for asking this type of question, or is there an alternative structure? For example, if I want to ask how can I (learn to) cook well, is 我怎么才能做好饭 correct?

In your third question, you mentioned potential complement 得, and it is what missing in the sentence.

怎么才能唱好歌 could mean "how can I sing well" or " How can I get to sing the good song"

怎么才能唱(得)好歌 can only mean "how can I sing well"

Second question - does the above sentence carry a meaning of "how can I cook (this specific meal) well" or "how can I generally cook well"? Or can it be either depending on context?

Similar to the first example,

怎么才能燒好菜 could mean "how can I finish cooking(this specific meal)" or "how can I cook well"

怎么才能燒(得)好菜 strongly imply "how can I cook well"

怎么才能燒(得)一手好菜 can only mean "how can I cook well"

Third question - I've learned that I can insert 得 or 不 between a verb and complement to make a potential complement structure. Therefore, if I want to say "I can't sing well" is it 我唱不好歌? If not, why not? If yes, what's the difference between this and 我唱歌长得不好?

Yes, you just use 不 instead of 得 as the potential complement

"I (can't) sing well" = 我唱(不)好歌

Same structure as

"I (can) sing well" = 我唱(得)好歌

For clearer expression, it is better to use a longer form:

[(1.verb + object) + (2.verb + potential complement) + (3.result complement)

[(1.唱歌) + (2.唱得) + (3.好)]

[怎么才能][唱歌][唱得好]

[怎么才能][燒菜][燒得好]

what's the difference between 我唱不好歌 and 我唱歌唱得不好?

As mentioned in this post, both"我唱不好歌" and "我唱歌唱得不好" mean "I can't sing well" just using different grammar structures

"我唱不好歌" --> [(subject 我) + (verb 唱) + (potential complement 不) +(result complement 好) + (object 歌)]

"我唱歌唱得不好" --> [(subject 我) + (verb + object 唱歌) + ( verb + potential complement 唱得) +(result complement 不好)]

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