Tian’anmen, not Tiananmen

I’m certainly not expecting the Western media to start writing Tiān’ānmén (天安門/天安门) with tone marks. But its it’s not like the apostrophe is an obscure glyph to be found only in specialist typefaces that dig deep into Unicode, the sort of thing that might require an English form separate from the Pinyin one.

Microsoft Word certainly isn’t helping matters, as it flags the correct form (Tian’anmen) as a misspelling but does not flag the apostrophe-less form (Tiananmen).

screenshot from Microsoft Word, showing that 'Tian'anmen', unlike 'Tiananmen', is marked as misspelled

Indeed, if you ask the program to help you with the supposedly misspelled “Tian’anmen”, it suggests “Tiananmen”.

screen shot of Microsoft Word's spell checker suggesting 'Tiananmen' as a replacement for 'Tian'anmen'

So my guess would be that the “Tiananmen” form is the result of a combination of (1) the Cupertino effect, (2) laziness, and (3) people thinking that Tian’anmen “looks funny”.


And as long as I’m on this, it’s not Tian An Men, TianAnMen, Tienanmen, Tianan men, etc., either.

But, no, I don’t expect this will do much good; and if I ever work myself into a case of apostrophe rage it will probably be for other names.

further reading:

18 thoughts on “Tian’anmen, not Tiananmen

  1. Like it or not, “Tiananmen Square” has entered the English language as its own proper noun, with “English spelling” (which does not generally use apostrophes in the way that pinyin does). This happens with pretty much every language/location of importance.

    I would love to see ?? and ?? written properly in regular English publications as T?ky? and Ky?to, but it ain’t ever happenin’ so we all might as well get used to it.

  2. Finally, finally! something about which to disagree with Pinyin.info.

    The desire for a syllabifying apostrophe is a losing proposition not merely on common practice grounds but on theoretical ones as well. In the same way we’d never ask native speakers of language A to pronounce a placename using language B’s phonemic system, we shouldn’t ask them to include what is, to them, mystifying punctuation. Given that the apostrophe does, in fact, have a mid-word meaning in English orthography, namely omission of letters, and that its use in this case is not to indicate omission, there’s all the more reason to leave it out. It won’t at all change the pronunciation of the word for English speakers (who will do with it what they will anyway, a la Beijing-Beizhing), and Mandarin speakers will know what it is anyway.

    My humble advice: save pinyin.info’s precious firepower for weightier battles.

  3. I tend to agree with Beijing sounds. I don’t see any need for any language to adopt place names from other languages. I still think the shift from Peking to Beijing was … unnecessary.

    In romanization of Mandarin of course, use the apostrophe, but in English Tiananmen is fine.

  4. I dunno, guys. Don’t think I don’t hear y’all whispering behind my back.

    “Did you hear about Pinyin.info? Mark went all … prescriptivist.”


    “Yeah. First it was something about apostrophes. Then I hear he got arrested for climbing on top of the train station and trying to flip the p in Taipei to become a b. They say when the cops arrived he was waving around a copy of Strunk & White and shouting that he wasn’t afraid to use it.”

    “That doesn’t sound like him. Maybe this is a case of temporary insanity.”

    “Poor guy. He must’ve finally seen one misspelled sign too many and just snapped.”

    No, really, I’m fine. But I do wonder just how slippery this slope can get. What about Changan instead of Chang’an? Or Xian instead of Xi’an? No problem? How about ideographic? Or dialect instead of language?

    Yeah, I know they’re not all the same. But still….

    If most people in China and Taiwan didn’t seem to have such a hard time distinguishing between Pinyin and English I’d probably be a lot more serene. But what gets used in English all too often tends to get used as an excuse to screw up Pinyin.

    But it’s OK: I’m not acting out the The line must be drawn here! speech from First Contact. Not yet, at least. ;)

  5. Of course you shouldn’t forget thatsome misspellings have their uses too. I wanted to test whether the CCP censors were dumb enough to have disregarded the possibility that there were other transcription systems for Mandarin. So I typed in Tienanman 1989 and Peking into Youtube, and got to watch all the BBC reports uncensored in an internet cafe in China! That was over a year ago now, though. I’ll have to go back and check if searches in the PRC now block Fa-lun-kung, Li Hung-chih, Min-chin-tang etc… I bet they don’t.

  6. I’m not convinced. Leaving the apostrophe out of Xi’an makes it one syllable. Chang’an has an apostrophe to make it clear the syllables are chang and an, not chan and gan. Likewise for Yan’an. Is their any possibility that Tiananmen could be mis-read as tia-nan-men? I can’t find any character pronounced ‘tia’.

  7. Mark & Chris Waugh,
    The two of you almost had me going for a minute as, in my usual waffling way, I began to doubt the wisdom of that fundamental rule of placename orthography:

    Leave out other languages’ punctuation / diacritic / whatever marks

    It’s the Chang’an and Xi’an examples that really get to me. Of course Chris is right that it’s tough to let Xian become one syllable. On the other hand, if we are really talking about writing for native English speakers generally, it would behoove us to recall how complete is their lack of knowledge about Mandarin pronunciation or foreign language orthographic conventions. First of all, Changan: there is absolutely no reason to think that a person who is not familiar with Pinyin conventions would realize that the apostrophe is there to split syllables. Even if the reader has a fleeting idea that indeed the apostrophe might mean something (quite unlikely in the first place), they are just as likely to think that maybe it indicates some weird vocalization of the G, in the way that p’ might indicate an aspirated P in other traditions.

    Or consider poor “Xi’an”: “What” asks the non-foreign-language dude, “is that X doing there?! Am I supposed to do /z/ as in Xanadu, or are they trying to be cutesy and get me to pronounce /ks/ — well, fine, maybe I’ll just give it a [?] cuz that’s what foreign words do.”

    Note that nowhere in his thought process is there any consideration of the apostrophe. So addled is his brain over syllable-initial X that it might as well not be there.

    My conclusion: the rule still holds, when writing for an English publication, although I guess I would still waffle and not complain if things are apostrophized — it probably doesn’t do any harm. But when engaged in full-blooded Pinyin, well, that’s another story.

    BTW Mark, my daughter asked me seventeen times to explain why I was laughing/choking when I read your account of the prescriptivist incident, but I couldn’t do it justice. Priceless.

  8. I’d like to know what the Chinese government has decided is the official spelling of Ti?n’?nmén in English. Do they write “Tiananmen” or “Tian’anmen” in their English-language press releases and newspaper articles? Presumably that is what should decide proper English uses in places like the New York Times.

    This is, in essence, an arbitrary decision. The change from Peking to Beijing may have been unnecessary, just as changing from Florence to Firenze is unnecessary, but most people accede to the wishes of the host country in terms of international appellations and spellings. (The exception, of course, is when one is protesting the government, which is why Myanmar is not always used instead of Burma.)

  9. I agree with Zev. The Peoples daily does write Xi’an too. Actually there is a lot of Pinyin pedantry in academia, where they decide to write “Guomindang” and “Jiang Jieshi” (unrecognizable to most people), even when the the People’s Daily still uses Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek. A case of trying to be more Chinese than the Chinese, perhaps?

  10. Only 2 ways to interpret tiananmen

    1. ti an an men
    2. tian an men

    the “‘” here, interestingly, is to lump “ti” and “an” together, but not to separate “tian” and “an”


    I almost jumped to conclusion with the following reasoning:

    The correct spelling is


    Because, in pinyin, “tia” is not a proper pinyin, it’s a wrong one. In China, I don’t think people would mis-pronounce the word.

    Xi’an is different, because, Xian is a proper pinyin.

    Wether to use the “‘” or not, here’s the rule that taught to every primary students in China.

    One only need an “‘” if without it, the pinyin has two different interpretation. For Tiananmen, it’s not the case.

    Unless, you think tiananmen is ti an an men, which is very unlikely.

  11. Pingback: Pinyin news » v for ü

  12. Mark you would be the expert, but I was always under the impression that the “‘” was optional and could be used when there could be multiple possible pinyin readings without it’s inclusion. Am I wrong?

    Like the others said, you don’t seem to be too worried about about the “ti” and “an” next to each other. Might it be that others don’t worry about others confusing the “Tian” and “an” being next to each other?

    I find the Xian case to be more interesting. I never use the apostrophe, for anything, ever. I understand where the concern comes from, but for an English speaker, seeing a word and understanding that it may have two different, but not wildly different pronunctiations doesn’t seem very daunting. So the striking demand that one must make the decision whether to see and pronounce Xian as a single sound or two seperate sounds put together doesn’t seem to burdensome on me. It’s like wind (to wind up) and wind (the stuff that blows). I just can’t imagine that breaking the foreign language learner’s back. And it certainly isn’t breaking my native speaking back. One of course could mark with a 1, or a diacritic or some crap and the other with a 2 or something, but really, is that necessary? Proper is proper, so for signage and print, who knows, maybe one should cause a stink. But for regular use? Anyway, I think the other commenters are also in the right that once a word is taken host of by a separate language group/nation/culture, it’s gone to that language. American English Tiananmen and whatever the chinese care to do at this point are probably independent.

  13. Hi, hsknotes:

    At least as far as the rules of Pinyin go, the situation is clear: the apostrophe is not optional and not dependent upon questions of ambiguity. (This is also something I reconfirmed with Zhou Youguang, FWIW.) In fact, that’s in large part the point of apostrophes: so people don’t have to worry about whether something is potentially ambiguous or not. Unfortunately, China’s sloppy usage and often incorrect teaching in this regard has yielded predictable results. But there’s nothing difficult about it:

    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.

    I hope you won’t think I’m trying to be a smart-ass by noting that although you state, “I never use the apostrophe, for anything, ever,” your comment also has “it’s”, “don’t”, “doesn’t”, “can’t”, “learner’s”, and “isn’t”. Since you’re obviously OK with using the apostrophe in English, why not in Pinyin? After all, the apostrophe is arguably less important in English for disambiguation than in Pinyin. For example, since “doesnt” isn’t a word as such, there’s no ambiguity in leaving out the apostrophe. And how often would people really mistake the separate words “can’t” and “cant” in context?

    For me, sure, this is mainly a question of signs and published material (including on the Web and in the pages of a certain lamentably sloppy newspaper). So I haven’t snuck into anyone’s study, ready to pounce should they write, say, “Suao” instead of “Su’ao” in an e-mail message to a friend. Not lately, at least.

    The big question is the one you identify: the notion of a word being “taken host of by a separate language group/nation/culture.” The act of writing a Mandarin word or name in Pinyin in the middle of something that is otherwise in English of course does not automatically make something English. So I wonder about the line between writing a foreign word and writing a loan word that has made it into English. It’s my impression that people are simply abandoning this in the case of Mandarin written in Pinyin to an extent they would not for other languages. Why the double standard?

    Pinyin just don’t get no respect, which is part of what I’m trying to change. Once Pinyin is firmly established as a popular writing system in its own right, I’ll probably be happy to keep both feet in the descriptivist camp. But I’m not expecting that to happen anytime soon.

  14. Thank you for your prompt reply.

    I don’t think I imagined the option out of nowhere, it may have been off of the wikipedia page or the old Cheng and Tsui books, but perhaps it was just language that wasn’t strong enough that I interpreted incorrectly. I possibly read something like:

    “The apostrophe is used to…” and didn’t assume this made it a requirement. Thanks for clearing that up.

    I see your point and agree with you. And I will personally make a point of thinking more about apostrophe usage in the future.

    So, why do I have a problem with apostrophe’s in pinyin when I so clearly have no aversion to using them in English?

    I think it has something to do with examples ch?o’é. I understand the rule eliminates all ambiguity, but it does this at the expense of making you add apostrophes where there is no ambiguity. I think my omission of apostrophes in pinyin is similar to my frequent omission of apostrophes in English writing (though apparently not on this blog. When new terms are introduced you often seem them with a hyphen, or two words with a space, and then eventually they just become one solid word. I understand why it is important to use an apostrophe to distinguish it’s from its, but in informal writing I don’t think it’s somethng I take the time to care about. Would the English language be demonstrable worse if we all just switched to its for everything? Would there be confusion? Chaos?

    Luckily English doesn’t have a rules committee or a set of rules, so if enough people do abandon ‘it’s’, perhaps it can be the standard. Now, Pinyin on the other hand, does have a set of rules. My take on rules that no one follows is that you either change the rule (since no one seems to deem in useful enough to incorporate into their usage) or you start shouting at everyone to ‘follow the rules.’ I think we understand where you stand. It’s not that pinyin doesn’t get respect, it’s simply that in this case certain rules of the pinyin system don’t get any respect.

    I’m not seeing pinyin getting established as a popular writing system anytime either anytime soon. I think it’s a dream to imagine signage in Taiwan (or other areas) adhere to proper pinyin conventions when they and the society are not taught any romanization system and there is absolutely zero interest in hiring qualified people to do the work.

    The central problem I have always had with pinyin is that it does not mark for tone (in singnage, in english texts), which I believe hurts it more than anything else. And, like the usage notes state, if tones were included, apostrophe usage would be unnecessary. Until the standard becomes tones marked everywhere it seems like putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound. Let’s say the fix all the signs in Taiwan to be in proper pinyin (without marks), is that good? I wouldn’t be happy with that at all.

    Ok, back to the apostrophe. I think what pinyin suffers from is a lack of the need for the apostrophe. Let me explain. 1, for many IMEs, you can type in a word without using the apostrophe and the system can pick it up. 2, because such a small amount of the language would need the apostrophe (probably an incredibly small amount of words in common usage) the apostrophe becomes something you don’t think about. In English, you have contractions and possessives every other sentence. In chinese you seem to almost never need the apostrophe. I think it’s like the situation with umlaut. Because pinyin is setup to allow ju, qu, and xu be written without the umlaut, it causes the umlaut to almost disappear. But, it’s still there. So what happens? Well, you get a bunch of people writing ‘v’ instead of ‘ü’. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but if you would have just forced everyone to write the ‘ü’ in all relevant cases, it wouldn’t be such a rare thing and people would have computers that could input it easily, etc., etc.

    Anyway, I’m kind of with you on signage and other formal things. If you have a system and you adopt it, and you’re a formal institution (government, newspaper, etc), do it right.

    I don’t think you’re a smart-ass, it’s an excellent point.

    I don’t think you’re right about a double standard. Wikipedia has an extensive page debating diacritic usage for foreign names.


    Dropping unfamiliar orthographic conventions (from Tian’anmen to Zürich) seems a habit that bridges all languages. We simply don’t care how they spell Yugoslavia or whether the system calls for a apostrohpe. Simplicity is almost always the rule.

  15. I would like to ask a question concerning the apostrophe of Tian’anmen. I write it with an apostrophe because I try to be very careful in applying the pinyin orthography according to its official rules. However, in the new rules published las year (GB_T 16159-2012 ???????????), some changes in the criteria have been made and I have found no mention to the apostrophe. Does it mean it is not necessary any more? I find that with the new rules there are still many aspects which are ambiguos and leave some cases unsolved. Which is your opinion and position to this respect, especially the case of the apostrophe?
    Thank you for your opinion!
    Sara Rovira-Esteva
    Associate Professor at the Department of Translation and Interpreting (Autonomous University of Barcelona)

  16. @Sara:
    The apostrophe is at least mentioned in rule 6.6.2 under word division. Please note that the National Standard GB/T 16159-2012 settles uncertainties of spelling (word breaks, capitalization, etc.) and is for those who already know the Hàny? p?ny?n f?ng’àn — it is not meant to lay out the very fundamentals of Hàny? p?ny?n such as the inventory of letters, tone marks, their relations to the sounds, etc. This information can be found in the International Standard ISO 7098:1991, which remains in force. (However for a tone mark not regulated by ISO 7098:1991, see rule 7.3 of GB/T 16159-2012 which makes the middle dot official for marking the light tone in dictionaries, even in combination with one of the other tone marks when there is variation.)

    Use of the apostrophe is certainly not a matter of opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *