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Looking up these five words in dictionaries gives results that are almost identical. In Chinese-English dictionaries, I find explanations identical or very close to:

a characteristic; a distinguishing feature; a distinctive mark

The only difference I can find is that 特性 seems to have the meaning of "property", which the others don't.

Chinese-Chinese dictionaries (below definitions are from this one) give me definitions like:

  • (特色)事物所表現出獨特優異的地方
  • (特點)特別的地方
  • (特徵)事物特殊的徵象、標誌
  • (特質)異於其他眾物的性質
  • (特性)某人或某事物所具有的獨特性質

This isn't very helpful (if it is, please highlight the differences, the ones I have found have turned out to be insignificant when checking sentences from an online corpus).

My next step is to check collocations (I used this corpus). Among the top ten collocations for [名詞]+[特X] where 特X represents the words we're talking about here, there are several identical phrases that exist with all five words:

  • 文化[特X]
  • 個人[特X]

There are some collocations which rank very high for some of the 特X words, but low for others, e.g.

  • 歷史特點
  • 學校特色
  • 身體特徵
  • 時間特性
  • 女性特質

I don't know if these differences are significant or not, but I think some are. I now leave the area of actual observation and speculate a bit. I'll edit this bit if I turn out to be wrong. :)

特色 seems to usually refer to a positive defining characteristic and is used more about objects than people. Among the 35 top collocations for this word, only 個人特色 is related to people. Can perhaps also be translated to "style" in certain contexts.

特點 seems to indicate a specific feature which marks something as different from something else (or what makes it stand out). At first, I thought this word was more neutral than 特色, but I'm not so sure. Still, it doesn't have the feeling of "style" mentioned above (compare 色/點).

特性 seems to... sorry, I have no clue here. It might be the case that human-related activities appear more often, but that's about all I can see. Common examples are 文化特性, 生活特性, 市場特性, 聲音特性, 技術特性 etc. Perhaps this is irrelevant. Still, note that the word "property" appears in dictionaries for this word but not the others.

特質 seems to relate to the inner quality or nature of something (性質), including examples like 精神特質, 藝術特質, 心裏特質. That's about all I can find out from looking at examples of collocations.

特徵 again, I have no clue really. This seems to be a general word that can be used to describe features and characteristics of all kinds. The top collocates for this word all appear in at least some of the other 特X words as well.

So, my question is (obviously), what's the difference between these words? Can some of them be used interchangeably? All these are very common, but can someone perhaps comment on the difference between them?

  • 文化的特X
  • 個人的特X
  • 產品的特X
  • 語言的特X
  • 時代的特X

Are there situations where you have to use a specific word (or where it's extremely common at least)? Are there any other rules or patterns to how these words are used?

This question became very long indeed, but it's also quite complex and I wanted to make sure I included what I've come up with so far. Please feel free to add/edit things I've overlooked.

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It's complicated and subtle... I can't say I can explain it clearly, though I know how to use them. 特质 is some abstract concepts, attributes, or something internal. This is the most different one. For others, they can be interchanged in various places. But the differences are really complicated. Sometimes they can be translated as a same word, but in Chinese, they imply something more. –  halfelf Nov 24 '12 at 9:09
    
Could you please try explain what the different word imply, for instance in the case of 個人特X or 文化特X? Also, what do you think about my guesswork? You seem to agree that 特質 is about internal or abstract things. What do you think about the rest? Thanks. :) –  Olle Linge Nov 24 '12 at 9:47
    
+1, nice question. –  Question Overflow Nov 24 '12 at 11:13
2  
@QuestionOverflow 's answer summerized great. But remember, I think the difference is exaggerated in order to give such an answer. The only and hard way to know them perfectly is to read more. –  halfelf Nov 24 '12 at 11:39
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5 Answers

The words can be differentiated as follows:

  • 特色 - style (abstract)
  • 特点[點] - unique point (general)
  • 特征[徵] - feature (of a person or a product)
  • 特质[質] - quality (of a product or a person)
  • 特性 - property (abstract)

These are usually non-interchangeable if you are specific about what you are saying or writing. An example statement combining all the above would be:

这台相机有许多特征:它具有防水功能的特性,优良特质的防刮镜头,最主要的特点是它无需对焦就能让你拍出据有专业特色的照片。

This camera has numerous features: it has a water-resistant property, excellent quality scratch resistant lens. The most important (unique) point is that it doesn't require focusing and can let you shoot photos with a professional style.

The most appropriate character for X that I can think of is:

  • 文化特色 - (cultural style)
  • 個人特徵 - (personal feature)
  • 產品特質 - (product quality)
  • 語言特性 - (language property)
  • 時代的特點/徵 - (unique point or feature about an era, epoch or period of time)
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One thing I want to point out about "特性" and "特質" is to notice the word "性質". This word means "property" and used more to describe objects as opposed to living creatures. Thus it's not hard to derive that "特性" and "特質" should be used to describe objects which the word "property" makes sense. And when it comes to using those two words, they are pretty much interchangeable, as both are just a short form of "特别的性质".

Also, as you mentioned "特色" describes a more positive characteristic.

Other than those rules, I can't see why these terms cannot be interchangeable when describing the objects/concepts you listed. Some may not imply the same meaning as the others, for example "特色" strikes positive tone into the phrase.

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特: special, good
色: color, but not here.
點: point, a small hole or circle
徵: sign
質: physical thing
性: function

The words you asked all include 特, so there are positive words, but not really.

特色 is a special word, can't combine 2 words' meaning. Just translate to style. (outside)

點 is small. In chinese, small usually means less, not many. So you can use 特點 to describe something or someone 1 more things, but not many.

徵 is a sign, you can see it. People generally use 特徵 to describe things or people outside.

質 is physical, chinese think things inside are. So we always use 特質 to describe things inside.

性 is function. 特性's common usage is to describe abstract things. (inside)

Example1: (abstract)
文化特色(OK)、文化特點(OK)、文化特徵(OK)、文化特質(OK)、文化特性(OK)

Example2: (physical or not?)
水的特色(OK)、水的特點(OK)、水的特徵(OK)、水的特質(OK)、水的特性(OK)
你的特徵是啥?(OK in phone, but don't ask the person sit front of you.)
女人特性(OK, the reason we can't discuss)
他的特性是?(Not ok. Human is not a thing, also not abstract)
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首先说特征吧,特征强调某人或者某物与其他人或其他物的区别。例如,犯罪嫌疑人的特征是左眼有伤疤。 特色强调人文方面,例如学校的特色是学风严谨,当地的特色小吃是包子。 特质一般指人的精神方面,例句 ,阴柔是女性特质之一。 特性用在自然科学比较多,物体特别的的性质,可以说是特性。 特点基本可以包含以上四个词的意思。

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In order for beginners to be able to learn from answers on this site we expect answers to be provided mainly in English. –  xiaohouzi79 Feb 16 at 22:56
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特色 is a. & n., meaning featured.

All others can only be used as noun. See others' response for details.

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