A Bit about Bù 不

As promised, here’s a little bit about how you have to be careful where you put your bù (). There are some tricky things that can throw you for a loop if you’re translating English into Chinese (which is what we all do when starting out learning the language). I’m talking grammar (word order) today, but don’t worry, there will be a lot of examples. Let’s hear it for the Inductive Approach!

He will not tell anyone =

Don’t succumb to the temptation to say:

You’ve got to put the “bu” before the “hui” like this:

You shouldn’t tell her =

Same principle as above, don’t say:

Here’s the correct way:

He asked me not to tell anyone =

Perhaps you’re tempted to translate that as:

But no. You’ve got to say:

1. tā ràng wǒ bú yào gàosu biérén 他让我不要告诉别人 [he asked me not want tell others]

Or, if you prefer, you can say:

2. tā bú ràng wǒ gàosu biérén 他不让我告诉别人 [he not let me tell others].

Numbers 1 and 2 are both gramatically correct but the meaning isn’t exactly the same. Sentence number 2 really means: “He didn’t let me tell anyone.” Because that pesky, divergent “ràng” can be translated into a bunch of words, it means where you put your “bu” is important. The other thing to point out here is that for imperatives (“You! Do something!”), actually we’re talking about negative imperatives (“You! Don’t do something!”) they like that “yào” in there.

The company hopes you don’t leave =

Getting away from gàosu 告诉 for a moment, don’t translate the above as:

Rather, you’ve got to say:

I don’t think so =

Here’s a situation where both ways are correct:

1. wǒ bú rènwéi shì zhè yàng 我不认为是这样 [I not think is this way]

2. wǒ rènwéi bú shì zhè yàng 我认为不是这样 [I think not is this way]

It helped a lot when I found out both are ok. But generally a Chinese person would say number 1.

I don’t think he’s polite =

1. wǒ juéde tā bù lǐmào 我觉得他不礼貌 [I think he not polite]

2. wǒ bù juéde tā lǐmào 我不觉得他礼貌 [I not think he polite]

Apparently, both of these are correct as well, but the second one feels like the answer to a question (nǐ juéde tā lǐmào ma?)

What did you learn today?

To summarize what’s going on in these examples, here are some of my own observations:

1. Usually you negate the first verb in a phrase, especially verbs that are modals in English (can, should, will, etc.).

2. When negating an imperative, be sure to make it “bú yào” 不要 do something, (or you could use “bié” do something).

Anyone else have any tips about this?


  1. * (*WRONG*) tā huì bú gàosu biérén 他会不告诉别人 [he will not tell other-person]

    This is definitely wrong, but the other examples you gave as wrong are not necessarily wrong (and are attested in Baidu), but simply unusual, and point to alternate perspectives:

    wǒ bú rènwéi shì zhè yàng 我不认为是这样 “I don’t think it’s like this.”
    wǒ rènwéi bú shì zhè yàng 我认为不是这样 “I think it’s not like this.”

    Where you put “not” in English is important too, but there certainly is flexibility. And just like in English, there are certain verbs with negative forms, like “can’t”, so in English you can say “can not” but not “not can”, and in Chinese you can say “不会” but not “会不”.

  2. Albert — very cool stuff and you indeed deliver on your promises even if it does take a VERY long time B^)

    I was kinda dubious about Randy’s assertion, particularly wrt the following, which he was claiming could be grammatical.

    (*WRONG*) nǐ yīnggāi bú gàosu tā 你应该不告诉她 [you should not tell her]

    Certainly the more common way would be “…bu yinggai gaosu…”

    But could the other way work? Per his suggestion, I searched Baidu for “应该不”. Many of the examples don’t apply, being just a snippet of 应该不应该. But some seem to be pretty close, e.g.

    短期内应该不会征收资本利得税” from a news article.

    I glossed this as “In the short term it’s probably the case that it’s unlikely to levy a capital gains tax.”

    Then I glossed what would happen if you flipped it around — 短期内不应该会征收资本利得税 — as “…shouldn’t levy a capital gains tax”

    As I played around with it, I thought that the following might work as a rule:

    you can make 应该不 work as long as 应该 has the meaning of “probably” but not for meaning “should”

    But then there’s another page that addresses this specific bu-before-vs-after question specifically, saying: “你应该不来你不应该来”. After looking thru some of this, I’m convinced that Randy’s onto something.

    For the record, here‘s the website, but watch out for weird porn malware/advertisements that work sort of like popup windows if you’re opening this on a work computer. [Obviously this is perfectly good ad targeting. Anyone who cares about the finer points of the Mandarin grammar of negation is sure to be having a hard time finding porn — so why not put it right on the grammar site!]

  3. No matter他不会告诉~ or 他会不告诉~, both make sense anyhow, although you can hardly hear the native speaker say the latter.

    Now, pay attention to these traps,

    Bùyīdìng shì nǐrènwéide nàyàng 不一定是你认为的那样 The situation might be not as you think.
    yídìng búshì nǐrènwéide nàyàng 一定不是你认为的那样 Certainly not as you think.

    tā bùgǎn jiǎng 他不敢讲 He did not dare to say.
    tā gǎn bùjiǎng 他敢不讲 he have to say, even though he is unwilling to.

    wǒ bùxiǎng tā zhīdào 我不想他知道 I do not want him to know.
    wǒxiǎng tā bùzhīdào 我想他不知道 I suppose he did not know.

    nǐ bùxiǎng qùma 你不想去吗 You don’t want to go, do you?
    nǐxiǎng búqùma 你想不去吗 Don’t you want to stay?

    Zhèbúshì wǒxiǎng shuōde 这不是我想说的 This is not what I mean.
    zhèshìwǒ bùxiǎngshuōde 这是我不想说的 I do not hope to say this.

    wǒ búquèdìng shìtā 我不确定是他 I’m not sure it’s him.
    wǒqǔ̀dìng búshì tā 我确定不是他 I’m sure it’s no him.

    nǐ bùnéng gàosu tā ma 你不能告诉他吗 Can’t you tell him by yourself ?

    tā bùyīnggāI zhīdào zhèjiànshì 他不应该知道这件事 He need not be aware of this matter.
    tāyīnggāI bùzhīdào zhèjiànshì 他应该不知道这件事 He probably did not know this matter.

    bùhǎoyìsi 不好意思 I’m sorry.
    hǎoyìsību 好意思不 shame on you, him, etc.

    7. 你能不告诉他吗
    1. nǐ néng búgàosu tāma (imperative) Don’t tell him, will you?

    2. nǐ néngbúgàosu tāma (a rhetorical question) There is no way to avoid to tell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *