While it is typically not our practice to teach multiple characters at a time, we feel these three are important enough to be taught together. In addition, these three guys share what we'll call an "inside joke" between them where by themselves, they can have one meaning, but when next to each other, they can have different meanings.

不 (Bù)

不 (Bù) very simply can be translated as "no", but also works as "not", "non"' and "un" at the same time. It is, for all intents and purposes, the negator of the language. See it in action right here.

不 (Bù) : The Basics

Negates most words in Chinese, can be translated as "no", "not", "non", or "un-" among others.
tā búshì wǒ de nánpéngyǒu
He is not my boyfriend
wǒ bú huì tán gāngqín
I can't play piano
zhèige dá'àn bú duì
This answer isn't right
tā de shuōfǎ yǒu yīdiǎr bù qīngchǔ
The way he said things was a bit unclear (not-clear).

得 (Dé) or 得 (Dĕi)

得 (Dé)is actually a bit involved, but has some basic rules. We'll show you them all, but for right now, know that there are two common meanings: "to get", and "to be able"

1) It can be pronounced as (dei) to mean "to have to" or "must".

得 (Dĕi) : The Basics

to have to do something, must
nǐ dĕi qù yīyuàn
You must go to the hospital

2) Pronounced as (Dé) or sometimes with the neutral tone. When used with other characters, like 觉 (jué), it helps give an idea like "to get".

得 (Dé) or (De): Gives an idea like "to get"

dé or de
Expresses an idea like "to get" in combination with certain characters
wǒ juéde
I get the feeling that, I think that, What I get from it is
tā huòdé yígè jiǎngpǐn
He received a prize
wǒmen de jìhuà qǔdé le chénggōng
Our plan was met with success/ Our plan was successful
3) It can also mean "can", and this is its most frequent use when hanging out with its buddy 不 (bù). We'll discuss this a bit more below.

4) It can also be pronounced as "de" to mean "complete", but we will cover this idea in later lessons.

了 (Le or Liao)

Ninety-five percent of the time you see it, 了 is pronounced (le). It is a character which trasnlates an idea better than a word. The easiest way to think of it is the "-ed" suffix on English verbs. It indicates that something has either changed or a past action has been completed. We will introduce the basics here, but you will see and learn more about this guy all along your Chinese studies. Here are some examples when it acts like "-ed".

了 (Le): Idea of change, can be liked English "-ed"

Indicates change, typically with a past action like "-ed" in English.
wǒ bānjiā le
I moved (to a new home/city)
wǒ è sǐ le
I am (now) starving to death! (Whereas before you were not)
wǒ tīngshuō Zhōu tàitài huáiyùn le<
I heard that Mrs. Zhou is pregnant (has become pregnant)

So what's the deal with saying liao instead of le? It goes back to the inside joke we were talking about earlier.

The Inside Joke Between 不 (Bù) and His Friends 得 (Dé) and 了 (Le)

Now, what is special about these three characters is that you can think of them as "high school buddies". More specifically, think of them as three guys who share lots of inside jokes together that only "they" would get. Think of 不 (Bù) as their "ringmaster", because the other two, 得 (Dé) and 了 (Le), will always show up with 不 (Bù), but not essentially with each other. Whenever you see 不 (Bù) in combination with 得 (Dé) or 了 (Le) (i.e. next to each other in writing), they will take on a "secret" meaning, that normally they wouldn't have if they weren't right next to their buddy.

When 不 (Bù) teams up with 得 (Dé), the 得 (Dé) will typically take its third basic meaning of "can". Now, if you're smart, you may have already figured out that together, they mean "unable". Now, you won't hear this all the time to express the idea of "unable", which is more typically expressed with ideas like 不可以 (bù kěyǐ) or 不会 (bú huì).

Expressing the idea of "unable"
bù de
Formal way to express idea of "unable to", especially in commericial uses.
bù kěyǐ
More common way to express idea of "unable to", closer to the idea of having permission (versus having the right skill)
bú huì
More common way to express "not able to" or "not possible", closer to the idea of not having an ability (versus having permission)
bú néng
More common way to express "can't right now", the idea being that normally, someone can do something, but for right now, because of some situation or obstacle, can't.

But what sets these two guys ,不 (Bù) and 得 (Dé), apart is that they often tag along with an "old high school buddy", which are a certain set of verbs you will learn to recognize over time. In fact, 不得 (bù dé) is almost restrained to this set of expressions, so you will much more likely hear 不可以 (bù kěyǐ),不会 (bú huì), or 不能 (bú néng) in most common speech. Having seen this distinction, let's look at some special cases where you will see this "inside joke".

不得 (búde): Some of the "inside jokes"
hèn búde
to wish you can do something, itching to do something, dying to do something (Lit. hate (that) not able (to)
wǒ hèn búde qù Chángchéng
I wish I could go to the great wall, I'm dying to go to the Great Wall
shě bùde
to hate to see leave, to not want to part with (Lit. to give up not able)/td>
wǒ shě bùde nǐmen
I hate to see you all go/ I don't want you all to go
bā bude
to be eager to.
This one is also a bit of a stretch. 巴 (Ba) is a character that doesn't have one set meaning but rather changes depending on its context, In this one, it means something like "to stick". So, think of the expression like "so eager that I can't "stick" or "sit" in one place
wǒ bā bude fàng shǔjià le
I can't wait at all for school to let out for the summer!

Now, when 不 (Bù) teams up with 了 (Le), they have another secret. First of all, its typical pronunciation of le will be morphed to liao. Second of all, when it uses its liao "nickname" (i.e. pronunciation), it has an added meaning of "able", for them together to mean unable, just like with 不得 (bùde). In some ways, you could think of 了 (liăo) is being a bit more permanent.

不得 (Bùde) might be used in a situation that can change in an hour, whereas 了 (liăo) will be a slightly more permanent situation, which means you could also use the idea of "without end" as well in some contexts. Again, this is not always the case, but is one way to approach this. And just like with 得 (Dé), 不 (Bù) and 了 (Liăo) typically team up with a third "high school buddy" (i.e. character) to take on a new meaning, and once again, it's not typically seen with every single character, just some of them that you will come to recognize.

不了 (bù liǎo): A couple of the "inside jokes"
bù liǎo
Formal way to express idea of "unable to" or "without end"
shòu bùliǎo
to be unable to stand, unable to bear
wǒ shòu buliǎo nǐ le
I can't stand you anymore! You're getting on my last nerve!
wàng bùliǎo
to never forget, be unable to forget
wǒ wàng bùliǎo wǒmen de hūnlǐ
I'll never forget our wedding ceremony

These high school buddies are a few of many characters that can take on different meanings and pronunciations depending on where they are. Don't worry too much, we'll show you some of the others, and you'll learn even more along the way!

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