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I have recently come across quite a few instances of polysyllabic adjectives being split up and preceded by 不s, e.g.

清楚 -> 不清不楚

高兴 -> 不高不兴

I guess this is simply a variation of not+adj. but does anyone know what the specific intention behind the construction is? Many thanks, Hashamyim

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The structure 不...不... is not standard, in my opinion. It doesn't work for all the adjectives. For example, 不高不兴 doesn't sound right.

You might have to learn those phrases by rote. Otherwise, it's easy to say something wrong. Better you hear it from others(native speakers), then you use it for safe.

  • books.google.com/… 看到他一副不高不興的樣子就知道某人想要發飆了哇,我趕緊含笑而語地討好。 – user3306356 May 1 '18 at 15:03
  • @user3306356 though 不高不兴 is understandable, it's definitely unusual. If it's spoken by someone especially by a non native speaker, I would think that they say something wrong. So, I would not suggest the non-standard phrases like 不高不兴 to the Chinese learners here. – dan May 1 '18 at 23:22
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Oxford gives three usages for this construct:

不...不...

bù...bù...

① [used to make an emphatic negative form of two words identical or similar in meaning]

不骄不躁 not conceited or rash, free from arrogance and rashness

不慌不忙 unhurried, calm, leisurely

不知不觉 unawares

② [used with two words of opposite meanings to indicate an intermediate state]

不大不小 neither too big nor too small, just right

不冷不热 neither cold nor hot

不死不活 neither dead nor alive, half-dead

③ [the first 不 is the condition of the second 不]

不见不散 We won't leave until we meet

Collins also gives three, pretty identical, definitions:

不 ... 不 ...

(bù ... bù ... )

1 (表示强式否定)

" ⇒ 不知不觉" (bù zhī bù jué) "unwittingly"

" ⇒ 不慌不忙" (bù huāng bù máng) "unhurriedly"

" ⇒ 不折不扣" (bù zhé bù kòu) "one hundred percent"

2(= 既不 ... 也不 ... ) "neither ... nor ... "

" ⇒ 不亏不盈" (bù kuī bù yíng) "neither too little nor too much"

" ⇒ 不大不小" (bù dà bù xiǎo) "just the right size"

" ⇒ 不死不活" (bù sǐ bù huó) "half dead"

3(= 如果不 ... 就不 ... ) "unless ... then not"

" ⇒ 不破不立" (bù pò bù lì) "without destruction there can be no construction"

" ⇒ 不见不散。" (Bù jiàn bù sàn.) "See you there."

  • @Hashamyim If you have Pleco (android/iOS app) you can search "不..." and you should find a good explanation for free. – user3306356 Apr 30 '18 at 14:59

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