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Maybe the hardest part so far about learning to read Chinese is determining when to read the characters in sequence and when to view them separately.

So, in my recent question on 的大预言 for example:

Is there a rule that can tell me to interpret which of these ideas separately?



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I am afraid 'the rule' is the entirety of Chinese grammar. BTW it's called 'Chinese word segmentation' in computational linguistics and is one of the biggest challenges in this domain. – NS.X. Aug 25 '14 at 22:03
@NS.X. Useful info - will look it up. Thanks!! – Tommie C. Aug 25 '14 at 22:27
up vote 3 down vote accepted

There is actually no straightforward way except base on your own experience. And this is one of the biggest problem leads to misleading, especially in ancient Chinese. Taking examples:

Confucius Lun Yu (论语)


can be understood by:

民,可使由之;不可使知之 -- (The governor) can make use of the people, but cannot let them know the purpose.

民可,使由之;不可,使知之 -- If people are allowed to do something, let them do it; otherwise, let them know why they are not allowed.

An old funny story in my memory


下雨天留客,天留我不留 -- As a guest, even the god wants you to stay (in my home) because of the rain, I won't let you stay.

下雨天,留客天,留我不?留! -- A rainy day is a day that the guest should stay, should (you) let me stay? Sure!

Even in modern Chinese, the problem still stay:


我们 中 出了 一个 叛徒 -- There is one betrayer in us.

我们 中出了 一个 叛徒 -- We had sexual interaction with a betrayer.

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Does this lead to a large number of corrective phrases, where one is expected to further explain each clause? – Tommie C. Aug 26 '14 at 2:30
@TommieC. Usually not. Such sentences are usually taken as pun, so don't take too serious. In your question, "大预言" can only be splitted to "大" and “预言". – Xiaoge Su Aug 26 '14 at 18:18
"预言" actually can be splitted, ”预" and "言“. the first character is similar to "pre" in English. and the second character is "word". Merging them makes a new noun, "prediction". Another example, "火箭", the first character "fire" and the second character "arrow", merging to "rocket". – Xiaoge Su Aug 26 '14 at 18:20

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