Can't Afford

Intermediate students of Chinese will be familiar with the following pattern:

> V + 不起 = can’t afford to V

> V + 得起 = can afford to V

This pattern is most commonly about money, the typical example being 买不起 (can’t afford to buy).

The pattern is fairly productive, so you’ll see it for lots of different verbs (and not always about money), but recently I heard a new one. A friend was saying that she was going to eat at an expensive restaurant, but someone else was getting the bill. She said she ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford even just her own meal at that restaurant (in China, each person getting her own check is a “system” called AA), so in this case, she used: AA不起.

Heard any interesting usages lately?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I’m a new Chinese student, so I wasn’t aware of this pattern. I have, however, heard the phrase: 看不起 – to look down upon. Is it using the same pattern? Is it literally “can’t afford to look at?”

  2. 嗯,这个说法很时髦啊,呵呵!


    在上海,很多人会说 ”车子买是买得起,但就是养不起啊“(因为停车费、保险费、保养费啊什么的太贵啦!) ~~

  3. Joey,

    Same pattern, different meaning. Even 对不起 comes from the same pattern. We think of it as “sorry,” but literally, it means “can’t face.”

  4. I picked up 掏不起錢 from my father-in-law. I like the mental image — fishing in your pockets, but can’t find enough money to cover the expense.

  5. John, can you give us some more examples please ?

  6. ” AA不起” is her personal usuage ,not common at all . of course, native speakers can use it in their own, creative ways sometimes,like the example.

  7. “咱丢不起那个人”–can’t afford to lose face

  8. 了不起
    (I know it’s totally different)

  9. Here is a humorous (and rather serious) usage of 不起.

    生不起病 can’t afford to become ill (due to high medical cost)

    You can’t read the following usages without tears.


  10. I heard a nice one just a couple of hours after I read this post. I had a massage and when the masseuse asked me if I was comfortable she said “O不OK?”. I guess this usage was most likely due to the fact that I’m a foreigner and the masseuse not knowing if I spoke Chinese or not, but I think it was imaginative of her to use this pattern instead of a “OK吗?” or just an “OK?”.

  11. A usage I have heard is 惹不起. Often used if someone has a bad temper and you should not make them angry.

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