apostrophes in Hanyu Pinyin

To help answer questions raised by earlier posts, I’ve added a page to my site on apostrophes in Hanyu Pinyin. It begins with the basics.

Here’s all you really need to know about when and where to place apostrophes when writing Mandarin Chinese in Hanyu Pinyin:

Put an apostrophe before any syllable that begins with a, e, or o, unless that syllable comes at the beginning of a word or immediately follows a hyphen or other dash.

Please note there is no “if there is ambiguity” in the rule above.

5 thoughts on “apostrophes in Hanyu Pinyin

  1. I might also suggest another use of having an apostrophe when it would appear to not be necessary to prevent ambiguity. In the word da’an the apostrophe marks the separation os syllables- da and an are said separately. Someone not familiar with Chinese would probably assume that da’an written as daan is pronounced as a single syllable with a long a sound.

  2. Not to nitpick, but I think there is inherent ambiguity in “unless that syllable comes at the beginning of a word” since it begs the question about characters (syllables) and “words.” Every character is a syllable, but is not not also a word? Note that “words,” as I suppose you mean them, can be made up of two or more characters.

    On a personal note, I cannot remember the last time I saw apostrophes in pin yin except for Xi’an or Sha’an Xi or something. But having read the above post, I see the need for them for the unitiated.

    My words of wisdom for Taiwanese and people like my friend who learned chinese in Taiwan, and now has a hell of a time trying to type it: “Pin yin: learn it, use it, love it.”

  3. Hi, Jiang Shan:

    It’s fine to nitpick here. After all, I do it all the time. ;-)

    “Word” can be a tricky thing to define from a linguistic standpoint. But Mandarin, which has words just like other languages (otherwise no one could ever talk with each other), is not a monosyllabic language, despite myths to the contrary. (For details, see “The Monosyllabic Myth” in The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.) The vast majority of Mandarin words are more than one syllable long. But it can be hard to see that, given how Mandarin words are run together without spaces when written in Chinese characters. Also, when writing in characters people have a tendency to use just one character when possible as an abbreviation for a longer word. But that’s simply a matter of style associated with writing in characters; it has nothing to do with the nature of the language itself.

    There are official rules for determining what a Mandarin word is and how to write it. The three main extended references for this are the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography, and Xinhai Pinxie Cidian. Unfortunately, the rules are generally not taught well — if they’re taught at all! — even in China, leading to many errors.

    Only about 2 percent of Mandarin words need apostrophes when written in Hanyu Pinyin. So it’s not a surprise you don’t remember seeing them much. Also, as I noted above, many people are unclear about the rules and so may write things incorrectly. For example, you mentioned “Sha’an Xi,” by which I think you mean Shaanxi Province (Sh?nx? / ?? ). The “Shaanxi” spelling does not use an apostrophe despite the two a’s because that would indicate a syllable break that just isn’t there. Instead, the double “a” is merely a spelling convention to help ensure that people don’t confuse Sh?nx? ( ??) (but written “Shaanxi”) with Sh?nx? (??).

    I don’t regard apostrophes as just for the unitiated. I wouldn’t leave them out when writing in Pinyin any more than I’d leave out apostrophes in English. After all, few people would consider the apostrophes in “I’d,” “wouldn’t,” “don’t,” etc. optional — even though those words could be understood without them.

    My words of wisdom for Taiwanese and people like my friend who learned chinese in Taiwan, and now has a hell of a time trying to type it: “Pin yin: learn it, use it, love it.”
    I couldn’t agree more — except for the part where “Pinyin” is written as two words. It should be written solid as the single word that it is, rather than as frag ment ed syl la bles.

    Pinyin is also a much better system for typing than zhuyin, which is what many people in Taiwan use, because with zhuyin people need to make frequent use of what on QWERTY keyboards is the full range of number keys, which require more effort and concentration to reach quickly and accurately than the keys with letters on them. While I’m on the subject, Hanyu Pinyin is also easier to type than Tongyong Pinyin, despite claims to the contrary by Tongyong supporters.

  4. Hmm… I’ve rarely minded having to use number keys when typing zhuyin. Actually, I think it speeds things up a little bit to have one more row to type from. Maybe it depends on the lenght of your fingers, though.

    In any case the thing I do dislike about zhuyin input as compared to pinyin is that the comma is used for input, which means that every time I want to type a comma in the middle of a sentence I have to switch input methods.

    The comparison between zhuyin and pinyin input methods is pretty much a moot point, though. Cangjie is far faster than either, and people who use it are far more capable of remembering how to write by hand, too. On top of that, Cangjie also has the added benefit of portability. Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong can use the exact same input method that Mandarin speakers in Taiwan do.

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