There's quite a few "v. 不好 n." phrases in Chinese, such as:


They all seem a bit ambiguous to me: the 不好 could modify the verb to imply the verb is performed poorly, or the 不好 could modify the noun to imply the noun is "bad" in some way.

If we add a 了, the 不好 seems to modify the noun:

睡了不好觉 (slept a bad sleep)
写了不好字 (wrote a bad hanzi)
讲了不好故事 (told a bad story)
唱了不好歌 (sung a bad song)
弹了不好吉他 (played a bad guitar)

But if we reorder the sentence and add in a 得, the 不好 modifies the verb:

觉睡得不好 (poorly sleep a sleep)
字写得不好 (poorly write characters)
故事讲得不好 (poorly tell a story)
歌唱得不好 (poorly sing a song)
吉他弹得不好 (poorly play the guitar)

Hence this makes me think the original phrases are ambiguous. Hence the question...

Question: Are "v. 不好 n." sentences inherently ambiguous in that 不好 could modify the verb or noun?

I ask this question because I encountered 很多小学生学不好代数 at Tatoeba, and here it seems fairly clear from context that 不好 modifies the verb ("poorly studied algebra") and not the noun ("studied bad algebra"). I'm not sure how to wrap my head around this.

4 Answers 4


Are "v. 不好 n." sentences inherently ambiguous in that 不好 could modify the verb or noun?

In general, you would not confuse "不好" used as an adverb modifying a verb with "不好的" used as an adjective modifying a noun. For example,

(1) 外边噪音很大, 我睡不好觉. - I could not sleep well due to the noise outside.

(2) 我昨天晚上做了一个不好的梦. - I had a bad dream last night.

If you slept well, you can say:

(3) 屋里很安静,我睡得很好. - It is so quiet. I slept very well.

But people do not say "屋里很安静,我睡好觉". This is not an error, just not the common practice. People always say "今天睡好觉,明天有精神", here "好" is an adverb.

With "了", people do not say "我睡了不好觉", nor "我睡了不好的觉". Instead, you can say:

(3) 我睡了一觉,但是睡得不好。- I slept a while, but not very well.

Putting the objective "觉" before the verb "睡" is a common practice when there is an adverb following the verb. for example,

(4) 昨晚我觉睡得不好。I did not sleep well.

This sentence can be simplified as:

(4.1) 昨晚我睡得不好.

(4.2) 昨晚觉睡得不好.


It is not ambiguous. When inserting 不好 between a verb and a noun, or between a separable verb (made up of a verb and a noun), it always modifies the verb

睡觉(v) --> 睡[不好]觉 = [not] sleeping [well]

写字(v) --> 写[不好]字 = [not] writing [well]

讲故事(v) --> 讲[不好]故事 = [not] telling story [well]

唱歌(v)--> 唱[不好]歌 = [not] singing [well]

弹吉他(v) -->弹[不好]吉他 = [not] playing guitar [well]

If we add a 了, the 不好 seems to modify the noun:

In the Chinese language, 不好 is not used to modify a noun

好人 (O)

好刀 (O)

好酒 (O)

好孩子 (O)

不好人 (X) --> 坏人 (O)

不好刀 (X) --> 劣刀 (O)

不好酒 (X) --> 劣酒 (O)

不好孩子 (X) --> 坏孩子(O)

Question: Are "v. 不好 n." sentences inherently ambiguous in that 不好 could modify the verb or noun?

I mentioned 不好 is not used to modify a noun, there is no ambiguity here

睡了好觉 (O)

写了好字 (O)

讲了好故事 (O)

唱了好歌 (O)

弹了好吉他 (O)

睡了不好觉 (X)

写了不好字 (X)

讲了不好故事 (X)

唱了不好歌 (X)

弹了不好吉他 (X)

睡了很差的一觉 (O)

写了很差的字 (O)

讲了很差的故事 (O)

唱了很差的歌 (O)

弹了很差的吉他 (O)

  • just to add on, to say a noun is bad, usually you will use a term like 衰 or 壞 to show its badness. rather than the 不好 OP is attempting to apply.
    – zagrycha
    Nov 19 at 18:40
  • 不好 can be used to modify "nouns," but is place after the "nouns," such as 人不好, 酒不好 Nov 20 at 2:44

The pattern "v + 不好" shall be interpreted as "not able to perform the act well".

  • 睡不好觉 - not able to sleep well.

  • 写不好字 - not able to write the letters well, or not able to write good letters.

  • 讲不好故事 - not able to tell the story well.

  • 唱不好歌 - not able to sing well.

  • 弹不好吉他 - not able to play guitar well, or not able to play good guitar.


Are "v. 不好 n." sentences inherently ambiguous


How do you know for sure what category of phrase 不好 is and what it is pointing at?

The Western distinction noun verb is not helpful in analysing Chinese language. Just as sleep may be called a noun or a verb, many words in Chinese can be either category without any orthographical change. The key question is: does the word actually change its nature? 朱德熙 said no.

You can of course describe nouns using 不好. The phrase 不好 may be placed before or after a noun.



With "了", people do not say "我睡了不好觉", nor "我睡了不好的觉".

Why not? Language is old.

觉 jiào: 〈动〉睡醒: [wake up]
觉 jiào: 〈名〉俗称睡眠为睡觉 [sleep]

觉 jiào, for reasons unknown to me, acquired 2 contradictory meanings: wake up and sleep. Perhaps a period of sleep, 睡觉, was: sleep then wake.

In "睡不好觉" 不好 comes after 睡 and before 觉 See above: when describing nouns, 不好 may come before a noun: 不好的, or after a noun: 不好.


With "了", people do not say "我睡了不好觉", nor "我睡了不好的觉".

觉 jiào is either sleep or wake up:

睡了不好觉: sleep 了 bad wake up What is bad wake up?
睡了不好的觉: sleep 了 bad sleep Either you slept, or you woke up. A bad sleep means you were awake a lot.

To circumvent this unclear language, as PdotWang says:


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