The sentence below is translated as "I can't find it."

我 找 不 到 了 。

But google translates 到 as arrive, and I can't figure out its role in the sentence above.

5 Answers 5


The lexical meaning "arrive" is grammatized to a coverb:

① until 到那时 (until then);

②implying that the purpose or result of the action is achieved, which is used in your example. It's used as a predicate complement. To negate, 不 is put in between the verb and 到。e.g. 看到、看不到、听到、听不到

You can think of the difference of 找 and 找到 as look for vs. find.

  • 1
    I learn by trying to understand grammar as literally as possible. I interpret 我 找 不 到 as meaning "I, in searching, don't arrive at it." In idiomatic English, it's simply "I can't find it." Chinese tends to have verbs and verbal constructions that keep the separate stages of an action distinct, such as an action and its result or goal. In 找 不 到, the action of 找 does take place (i.e., searching takes place), but the result expressed by 到 (arriving at/getting to it) does not take place, and so the negation 不 goes only before the latter character. Jan 21, 2022 at 16:00
  • Yep. As in classical Chinese we say 寻而不得, it’s two full verbs. But diachronically the colloquial language has lost the conjunction and V+(NEG)+COV construction is used instead. It still has some property of verb, that’s why we call it a coverb. But understanding it literally as "I, in searching, don't arrive at it." doesn’t fit the native intuition, since the main verb is search, and not obtaining it is the complement. Perhaps switching the roles of them in translation is better.
    – lilysirius
    Jan 21, 2022 at 17:51

我 找 不 到 了 sounds a bit wrong in some way. We say 我 找 不 到 or我 找 不 到 它了 to mean "I can't find it". The object can't be omitted in this case.

我 找 不 到 了 could also mean I am lost, I can't be found in some case.

  • I just searched "arxiv.org/abs/1009.2634". It got 1,000,000 hits, which is less than a widely used phrase would likely get. More, most of the first several pages were clearly not colloquial and actually looked machine generated rather than written by people. Jan 22, 2022 at 14:00
  • I heard it many times, but what they really wanted to say was 我没找到了. Jan 22, 2022 at 14:36

我 找 不 到 了 。

The structure contained in this sentence is called potential complement (可能补语), indicating whether an action is possible or not. 到 indicates that the action can achieve its purpose or can have a result.

找得到: affirmative
找不到: negative

The potential complement cannot be followed by 了, 着, or 过.

The potential complement is not to be confused with the complement of result (结果补语):

找到: affirmative
没找到: negative
不找到: negative in conditional sentences

is the action
is the result of the action

Again, here 到 indicates that the action achieves its purpose or has a result.

So, 找不到 and 没找到 have different meanings.

We can say that:

找不到 = 不能找到

About the use of the 了 particle, 我没找到了 would be correct.


Not sure you may always think of 到 as arrive (a word originally meaning 'to the shore'), maybe it is more like 往 or 去.

數字從 1 到 5


Found your passport?

How will you negate this? You can negate find:

Still haven't found it.

Or indicate you looked, so far without success:

Still haven't found it.

看见: see
看不见: can't see
听懂:(hear and) understand
听不懂:(hear and) not understand

  • 1
    I don't agree with what you say about its lexical meaning being 往,去. ①An example I think of is 到北京去. In this case 到 still keeps some of its lexical meaning arrive, but being used as a coverb. The main predicate is 去, while 到北京 modifies it. ②If using 到北京 alone, then the speaker is in Beijing, not other place. ③In Handian, there is one entry of meaning 往. 百川东到海. But even in this case, I think it's still arrive. 往,至也。You replace with 至, 百川东至海, there's no difference in meaning and syntactic structure.
    – lilysirius
    Jan 22, 2022 at 2:56
  • Furthermore, 往 doesn't express the original meaning of rivers REACH the sea, a destination is implied while 往 only specifies the direction.
    – lilysirius
    Jan 22, 2022 at 2:57
  • In 數字從 1 到 5, 到 is still a coverb, gramaticalized from arrive,can be translated to until.
    – lilysirius
    Jan 22, 2022 at 3:00
  • "arrive" originally meant "to the shore", I did not mean 往。Maybe that was unclear. For the original meaning of 往, ask the Chinese etymologists here!
    – Pedroski
    Jan 22, 2022 at 3:04
  • I also don't agree that 'to the shore' is the original meaning. In glyph, 到 is comprised of 至 and 刀, nothing indicating a shore. 到,至也. This is what 说文 documents. Could you please provide a source?
    – lilysirius
    Jan 22, 2022 at 3:09

The use of the verbal suffix 到 does not necessary lead to the interpretation of "can/could do something" or "manage/managed to do something". For example:

  1. 他昨天见到校长。- He came across the principal yesterday.
  2. 我收到一条诈骗短信。- I have received a scam message.
    • 你随便抽一张牌吧。- Pick a card, any card.
    • 好的... 我抽到黑桃8,然后呢?- OK. I got a black spade 8, and then?

In these examples, the actions are done at random or without intention. We have a kind of interpretation similar to "It so happens that...".

The idea of "achievement" or "success" appears only when the context involves "an expected result" or "a target". For example:

  1. 他昨天终于见到校长了。- He finally managed to see the principal.
  2. 我收到你的钱了。- I have already received your amount.
  3. 我终于抽到黑桃A了!- I finally managed to draw the black spade A!

In these examples, the use of 终于 and the sentence particle 了 indicates that the process is associated with an objective. Since there is an objective, there is a risk of failure, which paradoxically give rise the the idea of success: one can miss or meet the target.

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