de de de — d di de

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyWhat’s the most commonly used morpheme in Mandarin? It isn’t the word for is (shì/是). And it’s not the one for not (/不). And the number one (/一) is only number two — in frequency, that is. (Even some of that is that Hanzi frequency counts include 一 used as a dash.) Nope, it’s that little grammatical particle de (的).

Today’s selection from Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography is all about de (800 KB PDF).

So, whaddaya do with de in Pinyin? Simple: It’s almost always written separately from the words around it.

  • māma de ài (mother’s love)
  • zhàopiàn de bèimiàn (back of a photograph)
  • lìshǐ de jīngyàn (the experience of history)
  • dàmén wài de shíshīzi (the stone lions outside the gate)
  • nǐ de yǔsǎn (your umbrella)
  • zhèyàng de rén (people of that sort)
  • tā zìjǐ de cuòwu (his own mistake)
  • jìlái de xìn (the letter that was sent)
  • chī chóngzi de zhíwù (insectivorous plants)
  • Chī de, chuān de, yòng de, yàngyàng dōu yǒu. (They have all kinds of food, clothing, and other items of use.)
  • hǎo de bànfǎ (a good solution)
  • wǒ xǐhuān de xiézi (the shoes I like)

So, yeah, that means if you want to write down a common Mandarin obscenity, it’s tāmā de (他媽的), not tāmāde — though I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes treated as one word over time.

There are just a few exceptions. This particular de is written together with the component it follows only in the following cases:

  • yǒude 有的 (some): Yǒude rén tànxi, yǒude rén liúlèi. (Some people were sighing, while others wept.)
  • shìde 是的 (yes, certainly): Shìde, wǒ jiù qù. (Certainly, I’ll go right away.)
  • shìde 似的 (like, as): Xiàng hóuzi shìde, tiàolái tiàoqù. (Jumping around, just like a monkey.)

But 的 isn’t Mandarin’s only common de. Let’s not forget de (地, the 20th most commonly used Hanzi) and de (得, 35th).

These three homophonous particles are represented by three different characters in writing; would it perhaps be useful to create three different Hanyu Pinyin forms to differentiate them in Hanyu Pinyin writing? The basic principle of Hanyu Pinyin orthography is to take the language’s sound system as the basis for spelling, and, by this standard the three particles 的, 地, and 得 should all be written identically as “de.” But it may be desirable in certain situations (such as Chinese-language word processing and other computer applications, and in machine translation) to differentiate the three. In this case, they may be assigned different written forms: 的, the most commonly used, as “d”; 地 as “di” (an alternate pronunciation of this character); and the third, 得, as “de.”


  • 的 = d (pronounced de)
  • 地 = di (pronounced de)
  • 得 = de (pronounced de)*

(* Yes, I know those all have other readings. But we’re not talking here about Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations.)

But you don’t have to use those orthographic variants if you don’t want to. For an example of a text that does use d and de, see this lovely story: Dàshuǐ Guòhòu (After the Flood).

OK, let’s get back to those other de‘s.

de 地

The principal function of this particle is to link an adverbial modifier to “the verb or adjective it modifies. de 地 is always written separately from the elements preceding and following it.


  • suíbiàn de kàn (look over casually)
  • mànmàn de zǒu (walk slowly)
  • yī kǒu yī kǒu de chī (eat bite by bite)

de 得

The principal function of this particle is to link a verb or adjective with its complement. The complement expresses possibility, degree, or result, and may be composed of a single word or a phrase. The verb or adjective preceding de 得 may only be a single word, never a phrase. de 得 is in principle written separately from the elements preceding and following it. The bù 不 that negates a de 得 expressing possibility is also written separately from the elements around it.


  • hǎo de hěn (very good)
  • duō de duō (much more)
  • lěng de yàomìng (freezing cold)
  • hēi de kànbujiàn rén (so dark one can’t see the people around one)
  • gāoxìng de jǐnjǐn wòzhu ta de shǒu shuō: “Xièxie! Xièxie!” (so happy I could only grasp his hand and say, “Thank you! Thank you!)

There are two main situations in which de 得 should be written as one unit with the component that precedes or follows it. Let us take a look at these:
(1) de 得 sometimes joins together with the verb that precedes it to form a single word. Sometimes a bù 不 is interposed between the verb and de 得 to indicate negation. In either case, all elements are written as one unit.

  • dǒngde (to understand)
  • jìde (to remember)
  • jiànde (to seem)
  • juéde (to feel)
  • láide (to be competent (to do something)
  • láibude (impermissable)
  • liǎode (terrible)
  • liǎobude (teriffic)

(2) In certain trisyllabic verb-complement constructions in which de 得 (or the negative marker bù 不) forms the middle syllable, the meaning of the complement has altered and the whole has come to express a single concept. In this case all three syllables should be written as one unit.

  • láidejí (there’s still time; to be in time)
  • láibují (there’s no time; to be too late)
  • chīdekāi (to be popular)
  • chībukāi (be unpopular)
  • duìdeqǐ (not let somebody down)
  • duìbuqǐ (let somebody down; also, “excuse me”)
  • chīdexiāo (be able to bear)
  • chībuxiāo (be unable to bear)

How to write adverbs in Hanyu Pinyin

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyI thought how to write adverbs in Hanyu Pinyin (1.1 MB PDF) would be the logical follow-up to last week’s posting of the rules for verbs.

Most of these are pretty straightforward, so I won’t discuss much here.

One note: Although reduplicated verbs lose the tone on their second syllable, reduplicated adverbs do not:

  • gānggāng 剛剛 (just now)
  • jǐnjǐn 僅僅 (only; merely)
  • chángcháng 常常 (often)
  • shāoshāo 稍稍 (a bit; slightly)

Here are some of the adverbs for which examples are given:

  • dōu 都 (all)
  • zhǐ 只 (only)
  • zuì 最 (most, -est)
  • gèng 更 (even more), bǐjiào 比較/比较 (relatively)
  • hěn 很 (very), tài 太 (extremely; too)
  • gāng 剛/刚 (just now), yǐjing 已經/已经 (already), céngjing 曾經/曾经 (in the past)
  • jiù 就 (then), jiāng 將/将 (in the near future)
  • cái 才 (finally)
  • hái 還/还
  • yòu 又 (again; too)
  • zài 再 (again)
  • 也 (also, too)

As always, I recommend this to not just those interested in Pinyin orthography but also to those learning Mandarin (esp. those who are at least at the intermediate level).

How to write verbs in Hanyu Pinyin

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyToday’s release from Yin Binyong’s Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography is a long, important section that covers verbs in Hanyu Pinyin (2 MB PDF).

In this post I’ll go over the rules for what to do with Mandarin’s three tense-marking particles — zhe (著/着), guo ( 過/过), and le (了) — since these participles are extremely common and people are often unaware of how they should be written in Pinyin. Fortunately, this is pretty easy: -zhe and -guo are always written solid (with no interposing space or hyphen) with the verb they follow. The case of le is more complicated (but not too much trouble).

-zhe 著/着

-zhe is added onto a verb to indicate the ongoing nature of an action or state, whether in the past, present, or future. It thus bears a certain similarity to the English verb suffix -ing. A sentence in which -zhe is used tends to emphasize the description of the action or state indicated by the verb. Since no other sentence component may be interposed between a verb and -zhe, a general rule may be stated: -zhe is always written as one unit with the verb it follows.

Some examples:

Tā wēixiàozhe duì wǒ shuō: “Nǐ lái ba!”
她微笑著對我說: “你來吧!”
(Smiling, she said to me, “Come on!”)

Nǐ xiān děngzhe, ràng wǒ jìnqu kànkan.
(You wait out here while I go in and look.)

Note that “kànkan” in the sentence above shows something else about verbs in Hanyu Pinyin: the second part of a reduplicated verb is in the neutral tone.

-guo 過/过

-guo is added after a verb to indicate that a given person or object has experienced the action expressed by the verb. -guo may only be used in the past tense. Since no other sentence component may be interposed between a verb and -guo, a general rule may be formulated: -guo is always written as one unit with the verb it follows.

Some examples:

Wǒ xuéguo liǎng nián Yīngyǔ, dànshì méi xuéguo Rìyǔ.
(I’ve studied two years of English, but I haven’t studied Japanese.)

Nà běn shū wǒ kànjianguo, hǎoxiàng zài shūjià shang.
(I have seen that book somewhere; I think it’s on the bookshelf.)

le 了

The tense-marking particle le is added after a verb to emphasize that the action expressed has been completed or that the state indicated has been achieved. -le is ordinarily written as one unit with the verb it follows.

For example:

Zuótiān wǎnshang wǒ kànle yī chǎng diànyǐng.
(I saw a movie yesterday evening.)

But here’s where it starts to get a little more complicated.

If a verb complement is interposed between the verb and the tense marker -le in a sentence, there are two possible written forms. If the verb and its complement are written as a unit, then –le is written as a unit with them; if they are written separately, then -le too is written separately.

For example:

Xiǎo Chén qīngqīng de guānshangle fángmén.
(Xiao Chen gently closed the house door.)

But also:

Tā cóng shūbāo lǐ ná chūlai le liǎng běn liánhuánhuà.
(He pulled two comic books out of his bookbag.)
(ná 拿 — verb; chūlai 出來 — complement)

I suspect that’s the sort of thing that may well change (for the simpler) once Pinyin makes it out into the world of popular usage as a script in its own right. But for now I’m just givin’ the rules as I find ‘em.

Speaking of which, here’s the final twist on -le.

Apart from its function as a tense-marking particle, -le can also serve as a mood-marking particle. (The former usage is usually denominated le1 and the latter le2 in grammar texts.) In its latter capacity, le always appears at the end of a sentence or clause, just before a comma, period, or other punctuation mark. The two different le’s, le1 and le2, are sometimes quite difficult to distinguish in practice. With this in mind, and with the aim of simplifying HP orthography, the, following simple rule is set out: any le, whether le1 or le2, appearing at the end of a sentence or clause is to be written by itself.

Thus, that’s actually a good thing, since it simplified matters. So, for anyone programming a Pinyin converter, put a space before le if it is immediately followed by punctuation.

Thus, for example:

Wǒmen túshūguǎn yǐjing mǎile sānwàn duō běn shū le.
(Our library has already purchased over thirty thousand books.)

Hǎo le, hǎo le, dàjiā dōu bié chǎo le.
好了好了, 大家都別吵了.
(All right, all right, everybody quiet down.)

Remember: This post covered only one small aspect of the entire reading. So be sure to download and read the entire PDF, which has many, many more examples.

It’s also a very useful reading for students of Mandarin.

writing four-syllable idioms in Pinyin

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyThe latest excerpt from Yin Binyong’s book on Pinyin orthography covers how to write four-syllable idioms in Hanyu Pinyin (929 KB PDF). Here’s a key passage:

almost all four-character idioms can be broken in two halves, called yǔjié 语节 (language segments), on the basis of phonetic structure. The simple expedient of connecting the two yǔjié with a hyphen then provides idioms with their own distinctive written form, and assures ease of writing and reading. It is also a simple rule for students of HP to master.

But not all four-syllable idioms follow this rule, as the reading shows.

This is a worthwhile reading for Mandarin learners, even if you’re not particularly interested in Pinyin. There are many examples of idioms here, all given in Hanzi, Pinyin, and English.

Mandarin classes in Australia: ‘Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese’

A soon-to-be released study of enrollments in Mandarin classes in Australia has yet more evidence that the much hyped craze for Mandarin learning isn’t what it might seem to be (as I keep saying).

In Australia, by the final year of senior high school, 94% of those who began to study Mandarin sometime earlier have dropped the subject, and 94% of the relatively small group who remain are ethnically Chinese, resulting in a situation in which “the teaching and learning of Chinese in Australia is overwhelmingly a matter of Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese.”

Things don’t get much more direct than that.

From a newspaper story that quotes the report:

Unless the drop-out rate is tackled, “there seems little point in planning to expand the number of students starting Chinese at school”.

The report attributes the drop-out rate to three factors. Students studying Chinese as a second language are “overwhelmed” in assessments by “strong numbers” of students who have Chinese as a first language.

Second, they don’t develop sufficient proficiency because of the difficulty in learning Chinese and the inadequate time set aside for it.

Finally, they are trying to learn Chinese “in an often unsupportive environment at school, in their family, and in the community”.

The report, by Dr. Jane Orton of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at Melbourne University, will be presented to a forum late this month on Mandarin language education. I’ll post more once I’ve had a chance to read it.

Thanks to Victor Mair for alerting me to this.


further reading:

Hanyu Pinyin and common nouns: the rules

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyI’ve just added another long section of Yin Binyong’s book on the detailed rules for Hanyu Pinyin. This part (pp. 78-138) covers common nouns (2.4 MB PDF).

I should have mentioned earlier that this book isn’t useful just for those who want to know more about Pinyin. It can also serve as an excellent work for those learning Mandarin, since it tends to group like ideas together and gives many examples of how combinations form other words.

All that, and it’s absolutely free. So go ahead and download it now.

Here are the main divisions:

  1. Introduction
  2. Simple Nouns
  3. Nouns with Prefixes
  4. Nouns with Suffixes
  5. Reduplicated Nouns
  6. Nouns of Modifier-Modified Construction
  7. Nouns of Coordinate Construction
  8. Nouns of Verb-Object and Subject-Predicate Construction
  9. Locational Nouns
  10. Nouns of Time
  11. Noun Phrases that Express a Single Concept

John DeFrancis video

John DeFrancisTen years ago John DeFrancis was awarded the Chinese Language Teachers Association’s first lifetime achievement award. Since he could not be present at the association’s annual conference to receive the award, he sent a videotape of a 12-minute acceptance speech. The video was recently edited down to 6:27 and uploaded to YouTube: John DeFrancis remarks.

Here’s my summary of the main points:

0:00 — While working on what he intended to be a largely political study of Chinese nationalism, DeFrancis encountered references to people who wanted China to adopt an alphabetic writing system, an idea which he initially dismissed. But discovering Lu Xun’s interest in romanization led him to investigate the matter further. [I’m frustrated by the cut away from this discussion. Perhaps a fuller version of the video will be posted later.]
1:30 — Emphasizes he’s not in favor of completely abandoning Chinese characters. Rather, he favors digraphia.
2:30 — “I’d like to mention three aspects of the Chinese field which have interested me.”

  1. pedagogy (2:50) — lots of advancements
  2. linguistic aspect (3:20) — that’s also progressing well
  3. socio-linguistics (3:52) — the field isn’t doing as well as it should be

5:00 — computers and Chinese characters. DeFrancis tears into the Chinese government for its emphasis on shape-based character-input methods rather than Pinyin.

foreign languages in NZ secondary schools

New Zealand’s Ministry of Education has released figures on secondary school enrollments in foreign languages in 2007, according to a newspaper report.

Education Ministry figures show nearly 70,000 pupils studied foreign languages at secondary schools last year, with 27,284 learning French.

Japanese was also popular (18,440), followed by Spanish (9531) and German (6623).

Chinese… attracted just 1687 pupils.

The total of those figures (63,565) seems considerably shy of “nearly 70,000.” So I suspect some languages more popular than Mandarin have been left off the list. Either way, Mandarin takes only about 2.5 percent of the total. And no indication is given of what percentage of those are “heritage” students.

That’s a lot of kids taking Japanese, though. Can anyone familiar with the situation in New Zealand comment on that?

I wasn’t able to locate the source of these figures. I did, however, find some figures from ten years ago, though they don’t include Mandarin. Also, I don’t understand the categories. But, FWIW:

Numbers of students studying second languages, July 1998

language secondary learners primary & intermediate learners
Japanese 21,701 13,625
French 20,990 8,413
German 7,377 3,877
Spanish 2,247 5,172

A few more lines from the 2008 report:

Under the new curriculum, schools must be “working toward” offering pupils in years 7 to 10 the option of learning a second language from 2011, in a push to make more Kiwis bilingual.

However, the ministry says it is up to schools and their communities to choose which languages are offered – meaning French is likely to remain popular.

A ministry spokesman said measures were underway to boost teachers’ ability to teach a variety of foreign languages in schools.

They included Maori medium scholarship and overseas exchange programmes.


further reading: