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Is there any rules that govern when to use 不 and 非 and 無 and 未 in regards to the meaning of "not" or "un-"

for instance 非表示, 不満 

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You might also consider adding 無 and 未 while you're at it. –  rintaun Jul 13 '11 at 3:23

3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

It's not so much that there are rules, it's that the different kanji have different meanings which might help determine which one is the right choice.

Note, however, that the reality can be flexible, so be aware that there can be exceptions and conventions that differ.

These kanji have the following meanings in prefix form which can help shape the meaning of the terms they are modifying:

非 【ひ】 Means opposite* (as in: reverses the meaning of the word).

無 【む】 Means absence (as in: it was never there).

未 【み】 Means incomplete in the sense of not having achieved (as in: we have not yet reached it).

不 【ふ】 Means incomplete in the sense of not yet having reached capacity (as in: the glass is half empty).

*Note that the kanji 非 actually originally means "error", but that has negative connotations that don't necessarily apply when it's used as a prefix. "Opposite" is a better guide.

Hope that helps.

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Wow! Nice answer. Complete and concise. –  rintaun Jul 13 '11 at 3:41
in your def. dave for 非 in 非表示 would indicate something went wrong, but 非表示 just means "hidden". In your def. here it would make more sense to write 無表示 then. Though it definitely works for 非常. –  Mark Hosang Jul 13 '11 at 5:35
Dave, Mark's comment got me thinking about 非 and 無, and I'm wondering if they would be better classified as 非 being the absence of an abstract state or quality, while 無 would be the absence of something tangible or otherwise "possessible". (Although it looks like any way you slice it, you end up with a significant area of overlap.) –  Derek Schaab Jul 13 '11 at 12:28
@Dave M G: I can see how you'd get that with 非常, but the implicit negative connotation of "error" is what doesn't feel right. For example, scraping from ALC, 非公式 (unofficial), 非中性 (nonneutral), 非会員 (nonmember), 非伝統的 (nontraditional), 非侵襲的 (non-invasive), and many other 非 words don't feel as though they are inherently negative or error states, but rather that they merely lack a certain quality. It's not a big deal, but that's just how it feels to me. –  Derek Schaab Jul 13 '11 at 12:46

My answer is almost the same as Dave's in principle. I hope it brings something new to the table by introducing the notion of "transcribing" Kanji words into Japanese:

When I studied 漢文 (かんぶん) in my high school days, I learned that transcribing Kanji words into full Japanese phrases can help understand them better. Kanbun is "a Japanese method of reading annotated Classical Chinese in translation" (Wikipedia).

If we combine 表示 with each of the four characters 不・非・無・未, and skip the details, they get transcribed as:

**表示 → 表示せ不 (ず)

  • isn't, doesn't - mostly negates verbs and adjectives
  • may add unfavorable connotation
  • 「ページ不表示について」 When pages don't get displayed. - source

**表示 → 表示に非ず (あらず)

  • doesn't equal ..., doesn't belong to ... - mostly negates nouns
  • 「広告を非表示にするプラグイン。」 Add-on that turns off ads.

**表示 → 表示無し (なし)

  • doesn't exist - negates existence = absence
  • may add unfavorable connotation
  • 「カロリー無表示のおにぎりを売っている。」 They sell onigiris with no calorie display. (emphasis is on the absence of display)

**表示 → 未だ (いまだ) 表示せず

  • doesn't/isn't ... yet - negates completeness
  • 「未表示のリンクの色は青にしてください。」 Please set the color of unvisited links to blue.

In theory, if you reverse this process - by finding the right phrase using either of the four Kanjis that matches your intention - you should be able to get the correct Kanji compound word.

Note: Definitions are taken from wikibooks on Kanbun and a study material by a Kanbun enthusiast.

Note 2: In case of 表示, "不表示" and "非表示" don't have much difference in meaning, although 非表示 is the prevalent one. My guess is that 非表示 is more neutral, and therefore more versatile and widely used.

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I have a partial answer for 不 and 無.

For a na-adjective, 不~ can be interpreted as ~ではない

For a suru-verb, 不~ is ~しない

For either a noun or a suru-verb, 無~ can be interpreted as ~がない

(Source: Bojinsha's Intermediate Kanji Book, Vol 1, chapter 2)

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