measure words

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyToday’s selection from the rules on how to write Pinyin deals with measure words (800 KB PDF).

Measure words are a pet peeve of many beginning Mandarin students. (“But teacher, why can’t we just use ge for everything?”) Many more advanced students, however, get a sort of perverse pleasure out of memorizing them. If you fall into the latter group, be sure to go through the PDF linked to above, as it supplies more than 100 measure words, along with sample usages.

Fortunately, although measure words themselves can be a real pain for non-native speakers to memorize, the rules for writing them are simple: in almost all cases they’re separate.

  • yī bēi chá (a cup of tea)
  • yī běn shū (a book)
  • yī jiān fángzi (a house)
  • yī kuài qián (one yuan / one NT dollar)
  • yī liàng zìxíngchē (a bicycle)
  • yī piàn miànbāo (a slice of bread)
  • yī píng jiǔ (a bottle of wine)
  • yī tóu shuǐniú (a water buffalo)
  • yī zhāng zhǐ (a sheet of paper)
  • yī zhī gānbǐ (a fountain pen)

I have some friends who are good at Pinyin who say that yi ge (but not liang ge, san ge, etc.) is an exception, that it should be written solid: yige. But I have yet to see this stated in the rules; and from what I’ve seen Yin Binyong writes them separate just like everything else. Of course, it’s possible I’ve overlooked something.

Slightly trickier are indefinite measure words.

There are only two indefinite measure words in Putonghua: xiē 些 (some; a few) and diǎnr 点儿 [or just plain ol’ diǎn 点] (a little, a bit).

xiē indicates a fairly large number or amount. It can follow the numeral 一 (one), a demonstrative pronoun zhè 這 (this) or 那 (that), or certain other modifiers. It is written as one unit with the component it follows:

  • yīxiē 一些 (some);
  • zhèxiē 這些 (these);
  • nàxiē 那些 (those);
  • hǎoxiē 好些 (a lot of).

diǎnr 点儿 indicates a small number or amount. It can follow the numeral 一 (one), a demonstrative pronoun zhè 這 (this) or 那 (that), or certain other modifiers. It is written as one unit with the component it follows:

  • yīdiǎnr 一點兒 (a bit, a little);
  • zhèdiǎnr 這點兒 (this bit, these few);
  • nàdiǎnr 那點兒 (that bit, those few).

When xiē or diǎnr are preceded by a verb, however, they are written separately from it:

  • chī xiē dōngxi 吃些東西 (eat something);
  • xiě xiē wénzhāng 寫些文章 (do some writing);
  • chī diǎnr dōngxi 吃點兒東西 (eat a little something);
  • xiě diǎnr wénzhāng 寫點兒文章 (do a little writing).

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.

When to use hyphens in Hanyu Pinyin

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyI’ve just put online another excerpt from Yin Binyong’s book about Pinyin. This one covers use of the hyphen in Hanyu Pinyin (400 KB PDF).

I’ll summarize some of the basics.

First, I want to stress that in Pinyin a hyphen should never be used to indicate syllable breaks. Those are easy to discern in Pinyin without any such Wade-Gilish clutter — or without any such foolishness as InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion. And in those few cases that might otherwise be problematic, the apostrophe works nicely.

OK, so what are the correct uses of the hyphen in Pinyin? Often, it’s employed much like the en-dash in English, for ranges and connections. And it’s also used in many abbreviated forms, esp. in cases with proper nouns.

  • the road on Taiwan’s east coast between Sua’ao and Hualian: the Su-Hua Expressway
  • the rail line between Beijing and Tianjin is the Jing-Jin line (京津城际铁路)
  • Beijing Daxue (Peking University) –> Bei-Da (not Beida)
  • Guólì Táiwān Dàxué (National Taiwan University) –> Tai-Da (not Taida)
  • English-Chinese dictionary: Ying-Han cidian

In terms of signage, that covers the most frequently encountered needs for the hyphen.

photo of signage in the Taipei MRT system, pointing toward the 'Bannan Line'
This sign in Taipei Main Station should read “Ban-Nan Line”, not “Bannan Line”, because the line runs between Banqiao and Nangang. (Actually, now it starts farther out, in Tucheng; but it hasn’t been redubbed the Tu-Nan line.)

For most other uses, see the full document. (Or see the older HTML version, which is without Hanzi.)

That section of the book, however, doesn’t mention one minor use of the hyphen in Hanyu Pinyin: hyphenated family names. These days, most women retain their original names when they marry. Formerly, however, a woman would often link her original name with her husband’s family name. Thus, if Ms. Guo Meihua were to marry a Mr. Li, she might choose to become Li-Guo Meihua, just as a Ms. Smith marrying a Mr. White might choose to adopt the name Smith-White (or White-Smith).

Note, however, that hyphens are not used in what are originally two-syllable family names. The well-known historian is Sima Qian, not Si-Ma Qian. (Similarly, Ouyang, not Ou-Yang; Zhuge, not Zhu-Ge.) Such family names, however, are rare.

For more on this, see p. 156 of the section on proper nouns in Pinyin (1.9 MB PDF).

(Wade-Gilish? Wade-Gileish? Wade-Gile-ish? Wade-Gileish? I still can’t figure out how best to style my nonce term. Oh well.)

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

Hanyu Pinyin and proper nouns

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyThe first large section from Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography to go online is the one on proper nouns (2 MB PDF).

  1. Introduction
  2. Place Names
  3. Personal Names
    1. formal names
    2. non-formal names
    3. forms of address
  4. Transliteration of Foreign Place Names and Personal Names
  5. Other Proper Nouns
    1. names of nationalities
    2. names of religions and deities
    3. names of dynasties
    4. names of festivals and holidays
    5. names of celestial bodies
    6. names of languages
    7. titles of literary and artistic works
    8. titles of newspapers and magazines
    9. names of social units
    10. trademarks
  6. Proper Nouns in Combination with Common Nouns

Thus, these rules cover many of the applications of Pinyin that appear on signage.

I’ll post a version with OCR later (probably weeks or months rather than days). In the meanwhile, you can use the bookmarks within the PDF file to navigate the document.

further reading:

detailed rules for Hanyu Pinyin: a major addition to Pinyin.Info

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyFor several years I’ve had online the brief official principles for writing Hanyu Pinyin. But those go only so far. Fortunately, Yin Binyong (Yǐn Bīnyōng / 尹斌庸) (1930-2003), who was involved in work on Hanyu Pinyin from the beginning, wrote two books on the subject, producing a detailed, logical, and effective orthography for Pinyin.

The only one of those two books with English explanations as well as Mandarin, Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography (Mandarin title: Hànyǔ Pīnyīn hé Zhèngcífǎ / 汉语拼音和正词法 / 漢語拼音和正詞法), has gone out of print; and at present there are no plans to bring it back into print. Fortunately, however, I was eventually able to secure the rights to reproduce this work on Pinyin.Info. Yes, the entire book. So everybody be sure to say thank you to the generous publisher by buying Sinolingua’s books.

This book, which is nearly 600 pages long, is a mother lode of information. It would be difficult for me to overstate its importance. Over the next few months I’ll be releasing the work in sections. I had intended to delay this a little, as I have had to wait for a fancy new scanner and am still awaiting some OCR software that can handle Hanzi as well as the Roman alphabet. (This Web site is an expensive hobby!) But since Taiwan has recently adopted Hanyu Pinyin I will be releasing some material soon (without OCR, for the time being) in the hope of helping Taiwan avoid making mistakes in its implementation of an orthography for Pinyin here.

Watch this blog for updates.