This question focuses on the differences between 了and 到.
- What's the difference between verb + 不了 and verb + 不到?
- 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
Chinese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
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.