VI. Potential Complement And Degree Complement In Contrast


What are the features that distinguish the complement of degree from the potential complement? Look at the following pairs of complements in their positive and negative forms and ask yourself what complements they are.


A. zuò de hěn hǎo做得很好              and              zuò de hǎo做得不好

B. zuòdehǎo做得好                          and              zuòbùhǎo做不好

C. zuòhǎo做好                                  and              méi (yǒu) zuòhǎo()做好



A. Complement of Degree: assessment of the action; description of the action or state


zuò de hěn hǎo做得 很好                                    zuò de hǎo做得 不好

negative:      negation on stative verb

stress:          on the complement - highlighted part


B. Potential Complement: can or can’t do something in certain way; can or can’t attain a purpose;


          zuò de hǎo做得好                                               zuò hǎo做不好

          negative:      replace dewith

          stress:          on the verb - highlighted word


C. Complement of Result: the result of an action initiated by the verb. The complement announces the result of the action.


zuòhǎo做好                                                         méi (yǒu) zuòhǎo()做好

negative:      negation on the verb


Among these, A and C can be hard to understand. The focus in A is on assessment. The speaker expresses his/her opinion ABOUT the action. The focus in C is on announcing the result of the action. Perhaps this analogy will help you to understand the difference. Example A is like the teacher telling his student whether she did well or not; example C is like the teacher telling his student the letter grade she received.


The following table shows how different complements behave in positive, negative and interrogative sentences. Highlighted words are stressed in speech.





Degree Complement


Potential Complement




  xiě de hěn hǎo 


...write well



...can write well




xiě de hǎo 


...write badly



...cannot write well




xiě de hǎo ma?


...write well?

xiědehǎo ma?


...can write well?


Choice-type Question

xiě de hǎo hǎo?


             ...write well?

xiědehǎo xiěbùhǎo?


...can write well?


Verb taking an object

xiě Hànzì xiě de hěn hǎo


...write characters well

xiědehǎo Hànzì


...can write characters well


Degree Complement or Potential Complement? Try these two sentences.


1. Zhèi ge zhème nán, xiědehǎo ma? 


2. Lǎoshī shuō zhèi ge Xiǎo Wáng xiě de hěn hǎo. 




1. This character is so difficult, can he write it well? (potential)

2. The teacher said that Young Wang wrote this character well. (degree)


Note that when the complement of degree is a stative verb, it is often modified by an adverb, but the potential complement can never take any adjunct before or after it. For example:


Complement of Degree

          Lǎoshī shuō zhèi ge Xiǎo xiě de fēicháng hǎo.                  (The stress is on the complement.)



Remember that another difference between the potential and degree complements lies in the fact that the sentence stress falls on different elements in the two sentences, affected by the two kinds of complement:


Potential Complement

xiě de hǎo.                  (The stress is on the verb.)


He can write well.


Degree Complement

xiě de hěn hǎo.           (The stress is on the complement.)


He writes well.


The potential complement has a fixed form; that is, it consists only of  a single adjective or verb (or verbal construction, such as qǐlái起来, xiàqù下去etc.), such as tīngbùqīngchu听不清楚---can’t hear clearly, chīdewán吃得完---can finish eating\can eat up the food, xiǎngdeqǐlái想得起来---can remember. A verb with a potential complement can take an object (e.g. zuòbùwán gōngkè做不完功课cannot finish homework), but the degree complement cannot be followed by the object of the verb. (For example, you can’t say ‘ chàng de hěn hǎo 他唱得很好歌He sings [songs] well’, you must say ‘ chàng chàng de hěn hǎo他唱歌唱得很好---no objects can be placed after hǎo.). Moreover, the degree complement has different forms---it may be a single word or a subject-predicate construction. For example:


Degree Complement

shuō de dàjiā dōu xiàoqǐlái le. 


          He spoke in such a way that everyone broke into laughter.