Unlike English just simply using “not” as an indication of negation, the negation marker locates after a verb, Chinese has more negation markers to express a negative statement. The most common ones are 「不」, 「別」 and 「沒」which they are located before the verb. Although they share the same property in grammar usage, they are not interchangeable.
According to Zhou et al. (2007), the word bu is used to discover the negative sense in a sentence or make a judgment of whether something contains uncertainty and unreliability from actual situations. For example, 「你不來」”you are not coming”, one possible interpretation is that the speaker does not know whether “you” are coming or not. The chance of coming is unsure and the state can be changed. Therefore, it is discovered that bu can be used in an interrogative sentence with the aspectual marker “了” to raise a question about the state of the action, as in “你不來了?”. Thus, it triggers the assumption of the result with a negative expression to illustrate uncertainty. This marker also applies in sentences to indicate certainty , as in “你不來了。” The only difference is the tone when the speaker speaks.
Chen (2007, as cited in Li and Thompson, 1981) states mei, on other hand, is the denial of the completed event or action. For example, 「你沒來」(you did not come), is to complement the fact that “you” did not come as expected. A change of state is included and mei is bounded by the event. The suggestion that the action is completed at the speech time and is clearly expressed by the existence of certainty because a conclusion is formed. Also, since the negator mei can only be used in a negative sentence in which the action is certainly considered to be not done, it can not pair with le to form a question. However, mei can pair with a stative marker “過” ,as in “你沒來過?” you have not come here before?, to form an interrogative sentence. The event or action is uncompleted prior the speech time and it is not certain whether the event will be done after the speech time.
According to Chan and Kit (2010), bie serves as an imperative negator. This suggests that it appears in an imperative form For example, 「你別來」”Please don’t come”, is used to describe the situation that when a person asking someone else not to come. The action is merely a suggestion to the hearer. The request by the speaker is less urgent because there is room for the hearer to determine whether he should take the action or not. On the contrary, in a stronger tone, bie also suggests a sense of manipulation and instant. For example,「你別來!」“Don’t you come here!”, is a negative demand to the hearer. It contains a stronger sense of emotion and expresses the urge of an immediate action. It restricts the hearer’s action and manipulates him to do something involuntarily and out of his control to fulfill the speaker’s requirement.
These few negators share some similarities and differences at the same time. Chinese learners have to know the context and familiarize themselves with the words and the construction of the sentence pattern in order to understand meaning and distinguish their usage.
Chan, H. T., & Kit, C. (2010). Two Cores in Chinese Negation System: A Corpus-Based View. International Conference on Asian Language Processing, pp.87-90.
Chen, L. (2007). A Syntactic and Semantic Investigation into Chinese Negation Markers. [Master thesis, City University of Hong Kong]. Department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics.
Zhou, G., Zhu, Q., & Zou, B. (2016). Research on Chinese negation and speculation: corpus annotation and identification. Frontiers of Computer Science, 10(6), pp.1039-1051.