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In the context of getting onto an elevated highway, I've heard a misunderstanding between two native speakers about the phrase 我上不去.

For one of the speakers, the phrase meant an impossibility: the subject had tried and failed to get on, or at least it was clearly impossible to get on the highway.

For the other, the phrase just meant that the subject would not get on, but didn't imply impossibility. The reason for not going might have been because it was impossible, or it might just have been that the subject didn't want to go.

Which is the correct meaning? Is there regional variation in this respect?

  • bkrs:上不去 can't go up (higher, or on) #26269 (usage frequency) see grammars on potential complements 可能补语,"外国人实用汉语语法"a complement of result or direction can be considered as a potential complement when the structural particle 得 is placed before it, therefore the potential complement is also known as the potential form of the complement of result or direction. The negative form of the potential complement is made by replacing 得 by 不 , e.g. 上得去(can go up)上不去 (can't go up) ["won't get on" may be considered to mean the same in some context] – user6065 Mar 3 '18 at 20:11
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    The second one may be dialect in some area. not completely wrong, just not correct mandarin. – tsh Mar 6 '18 at 5:38
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In this context, the first one is correct - "I can't get onto the highway"

我上不去

我(subject: I)

上(verb: get)

不(potential particle: indicate 'unable')

去(result/ direction particle: onto)

上去= get onto; 上得去=(can get onto); 上不去= (can't get onto)

see comment from user6065 explaining potential complements (there's only two: 得 and 不)

For the other, the phrase just meant that the subject would not get on

For this interpretation to be correct, the phrase had to be "我不上去"

In other context, "上去" could mean "go up" or "advance"

Example:

"上(二樓)去" = "go up to (second floor)"

"上(前面)去" = "advance to (the front)"

"上(高速公路)去" = "get onto (the highway)"

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