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People often regard Chinese, including Standard Mandarin, as a monosyllabic language.

Classical Chinese apparently was a monosyllabic language, where words consisted of a single syllable (a single character also equals a single syllable).

Modern Standard Mandarin still has quite a few single-syllable words/terms, but more common are two-syllable (two-character) terms, to the point where many common words have an "empty" second syllable literally meaning "child". This turns old single-syllable words into two syllable words, and it's a bit like a diminutive in western languages.

There are also very many 4-syllable words and terms. Some seem to be made up of two 2-syllable words and others seem to be made up of four single-syllable words.

But are there also three-syllable and five-syllable words? How common/rare are they?

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3-syllable words are very, very common: 电视机、电冰箱、电吹风、守门员、外星人、阎罗王、拖拉机 and so on. –  Inglis Baderson Dec 29 '13 at 12:14
    
@InglisBaderson: Thanks - they all pass my quick tests of "real 3-character word and not short phrases". –  hippietrail Dec 29 '13 at 12:35
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2 Answers 2

I don't have any specific frequency data for you, but three and five syllable words certainly do exist. Three syllable words are certainly less common than two syllable words but they do compose a decent amount of anyone's basic vocabulary (consider 毕业生), and five syllable words are fairly rare and restricted to certain proper nouns and the occasional fixed expression.

Of course, as words get longer, it is less and less clear what counts as a single word. ABC has 应届毕业生 as one word, but is it really one word or is it a stock expression composed of two words?

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Yes that's definitely a related problem I thought about in your second paragraph there! My assumption was that there might things everybody considered words and also things that people might not agree on whether they were words or set phrases. But as long as there are some of the former it satisfied my criteria. It would be good to get three or four examples of the most common most well known most accepted 3- and 5-character words/terms. –  hippietrail Dec 29 '13 at 7:55
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Not so many but still exist.

for example: 好心无好报: doesn't get good feedback/reward for a kindly heart. 小学生: student of primary school.

but i found most of them actually are combined words. 小学生 is built by 小学 (primary school) and 学生 (student). after thinking about 5 min, i still cannot find a word with 3 or 5 chars but cannot be considered as a combination. except some words built from a story, just like idiom. If you like, search idioms with 3 or 5 letters. There are some, but not many.

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俱乐部 is an example of 3-syllable word that is not really decomposable... This may be the only one used in everyday life... –  user58955 Dec 30 '13 at 0:34
    
@user58955 You are right. Thanks. –  Allen St.Clair Jan 23 at 1:57
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