Apostrophes in Hanyu Pinyin: when and where to use them

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.


That's all there is to it. Nothing could be simpler. Unfortunately, however, more than a few people have the wrong idea about apostrophes and Pinyin.

A lot of what I've seen on Pinyin talks about apostrophes and "ambiguity." Such pieces often note that apostrophes allow us to understand that xian is one syllable and Xi'an is two, which is correct. So, yes, apostrophes do prevent ambiguity in some syllable boundaries. (Most syllable boundaries, however, have no need at all for apostrophes.) But apostrophes do more than that: Apostrophes make reading smoother and prevent people from needing to figure out whether some combinations are ambiguous in the first place.

Unfortunately, the attachment to the word ambiguity has led many down the wrong path. The Library of Congress's Pinyin guidelines, for example, state, "Add an apostrophe before joined syllables that begin with a vowel in cases of ambiguity." That is at best technically incorrect. (Take out "in cases of ambiguity" and it's much more accurate.) What's worse, it's a bad way to go about deciding where to put apostrophes. In Guangxi, for example, there's a county named "Tian'e" (and so given -- correctly -- in LOC subject headings). It could be argued that the apostrophe is not necessary because Mandarin has no "tia" syllable and therefore the construction has to be tian-e not tia-ne. But that would be an unnecessary complication for both the writer and especially the reader. Similarly, the split in yào'ài could come only after the o because although ya is a valid Mandarin syllable in Pinyin, the only syllable that begins with o is ou not oa. But no one should have to spend time figuring that out. Following the rule makes things easier for everyone.

At least the Library of Congress seems to have retracted an earlier recommendation that an apostrophe be used "when one joined syllable ends in the letter n and the following syllable begins with the letter g." This recommendation is actually counter to the rules of Hanyu Pinyin and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about how syllable separation works in Pinyin. Lest anyone misunderstand, let me make this perfectly clear: Under the rules of Hanyu Pinyin, an apostrophe will never come between an n and a g. The Library of Congress was wrong, which, alas, is not such a great surprise given how the LOC has stumbled in its implementation of Pinyin through a failure to use words rather than syllables as the basis for its entries. That words rather than syllables are the basis for writing in romanization is the first rule of Hanyu Pinyin.

Even without worrying about "ambiguity" apostrophes are needed in only about 2 percent of words.

For the sake of completeness, I'll give the rules on apostrophes as stated in Yin Binyong's two books on Pinyin orthography.

First, the rule as stated in Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography:

  1. When a syllable beginning with a, e, or o appears in the middle of a polysyllabic word, it is preceded by an apostrophe. Thus:
    • kě'ài (lovable) is two syllables, kě-ài
    • dàng'àn (files) is two syllables, dàng-àn
    • hǎi'ōu (seagull) is two syllables, hǎi-ōu
    • mù'ěr (tree fungus) is two syllables, mù-ěr

But there's no need for an apostrophe if a hyphen precedes the vowel at the beginning of the syllable. (Unlike Wade-Giles, Hanyu Pinyin does not use hyphens to separate syllables; in Pinyin hyphens have other uses.) Thus:

Yin Binyong, however, corrects this omission in his Xinhua Pinxie Cidian: géyīn fúhào de yòngfǎ

  1. a, o, e kāitóu de yīnjié jiē zài bié de yīnjié hòumian shí róngyì chǎnshēng hùnxiáo, xūyào jiā géyīn fúhào. Lìrú píng'ān (平安), hǎi'ōu (海鷗), Cháng'é (嫦娥), děng.
  2. rúguǒ zài xūyào shǐyòng géyīn fúhào de dìfāng yǐjing jiā le duǎnhéng, zé géyīn fúhào kěyǐ shěnglüè. Lìrú Gǎng-Ào (港澳), dì-èr (第二), děng.

Apostrophes are needed in only about 2 percent of words. But when they're needed, they're needed. So please use them correctly.