This question focuses on the differences between 了and 到.

  1. What's the difference between verb + 不了 and verb + 不到?
  2. Do the differences also apply to Cantonese?


  • 收不到 vs 收不了
  • 幫不到 vs 幫不了
  • 來不到 vs 來不了

1 Answer 1


The differences are contextual. I do agree it is very subtle.

到 is used when the verb, (action), produces a response from a purely physical perspective. Whereas, 了 is from a non-physical moral, legal, ethical standpoint.

So, in 收不到 vs 收不了, the former connotes the physical impossibility of receiving whatever is sent, perhaps it was physically destroyed in an air accident; hence 不到, (physically not arrive) The latter connotes the non-physical inability or refusal to accept for some moral, legal, ethical reason; perhaps it was seen as a corrupt bribe, hence 不了, (can't)

Here is an example to illustrate the point further:-

(a) 起不了 vs (b) 了不起

The former is physically impossible to rise up.

The latter means something amazing or superlative.

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