‘Bisa’, ‘Boleh’ or ‘Dapat’

Using the word can in Indonesian can be a bit tricky especially if you have tried to explore ways to order food in Indonesian. There are 3 words that are commonly used in Indonesian that mean can and they are: ‘bisa’, ‘boleh’ & ‘dapat’. The question is how do we use them correctly?

Before we begin, it’s important to note that all of these 3 words are considered as auxiliary verbs – which means that they shall not be used by themselves and must be combined with a verb (auxiliary verb + verb) in a sentence. However, if these words are used as response to a question, they can stand by themselves.

Example in a proper sentence:

Saya bisa berbicara Bahasa Indonesia.

I can speak Indonesian

Example in a response:

Question: Apa kamu bisa membelikan makan siang untuk saya? Can you buy lunch for me?

Response: BisaCan (yes)

‘Bisa’ means to be able or can. The essence of this word lies in the word ability. Indonesians use the word ‘bisa’ when they have the ability to perform a particular action.

Example 1:

Saya bisa menggambar.

I can draw.

Example 2:

Saya tidak bisa menyetir.

I cannot drive.

Example 3:

Bisa pesan satu nasi goreng?

Can (I) order a fried rice?

‘Boleh’ means to be allowed to or may. The essence of this word lies in the word permission. Indonesians use the word ‘boleh’ when they have the permission to perform a particular action.

Example 4:

Waktu kamu sudah besar, kamu boleh tinggal sendiri.

When you’re big (enough), you are allowed to live by yourself.

Example 5:

Kamu tidak boleh merokok.

You are not allowed to smoke.

Example 6:

Boleh pesan satu teh manis?

May (I) order one sweet tea?

The use of ‘boleh’ in making request like in example 6 can be seen in many phrasebooks and is indeed culturally appropriate. As a customer, there’s no question that we should be allowed to order some foods but by transferring that power to grant permission to the waiter/waitress, the speaker demonstrate his/her respect to them, adding the level of politeness in their request.

‘Dapat’ means to get and can. You will find this word used as can in writing, reading or a very formal context (i.e. conference etc) whilst most of the time you will hear this word used as to get in listening and speaking.

Here are some tricks on how you can use/understand this word well:

  1. You can replace any ‘bisa’ in writing to ‘dapat’ to increase the degree of formality of your writing.
  2. When you read an Indonesian article, you can assume that most ‘dapat’ means can. Because in proper writing, the word to get requires ‘dapat’ to be combined with prefix ‘men-‘ to become 100% verb –> ‘Mendapat’
  3. When you hear the word ‘dapat’ in a conversation (unless if it’s in a very formal context), it should mean to get. Similarly, you can also use the word ‘dapat’ when you want to say that you got something.

Example 7 (formal writing):

Mereka tidak dapat mengerti mengapa Alexandra tidak mendapat pekerjaan itu.

They cannot understand why Alexandra didn’t get that job.

Example 8 (colloquial):

Kemarin saya dapat bonus dari bos saya.

Yesterday I got a bonus from my boss.

Have a question regarding this topic? Post your question below!

Difference between ‘Bisa’, ‘Boleh’ and ‘Dapat’

One thought on “Difference between ‘Bisa’, ‘Boleh’ and ‘Dapat’

  • 10/02/2017 at 12:58 am

    Terima kasih Pak Gerry 🙂


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