As the title indicates, I'd like to know the proper way of writing Pinyin for idiomatic expressions that contain names. Should those names be capitalised? Some dictionaries say that they should (Pleco for instance), but after asking two native speakers who both said that they typically aren't capitalised, I also think it's reasonable that they are treated as words or expressions today and shouldn't be capitalised even if they originally refer to names.

Here are two examples:

徐娘半老 "xúniángbànlǎo" or "Xúniángbànlǎo"

杞人忧天 "qǐrényōutiān" or "Qǐrényōutiān"

  • I edited the post, it was published accidentally before I was finished writing it, sorry!
    – Olle Linge
    Jan 12, 2015 at 23:05
  • I tend to agree with you that these names are parts of the words now instead of proper nouns, so they need not be capitalized.
    – NS.X.
    Jan 12, 2015 at 23:08
  • Agree with @ns.x., but since pinyin is never an established written language and its only purpose is to aid pronunciation, I'd prefer we never capitalise. But then it may be just me... Jan 13, 2015 at 1:12
  • Capitalization is not the only thing you need to worry about, pinyin with names are usually accompanied by spaces or other punctuation. Oxford's pinyin for 徐娘半老, for instance, is: Xúniáng-bànlǎo. Also see my comment on Wang Dingwei's answer.
    – Mou某
    Jan 13, 2015 at 3:12
  • Hanyu pinyin is an established system approved and adopted at the Fifth Session of the 1st National People's Congress on February 11, 1958. Since 1982 it is the international standard for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and is the standard for virtually all European language newpapers. While most Chinese people use it little after grade school, anyone who transcribes Chinese in international contexts should use it correctly because it has a serious effect on how people who do not know Chinese see the language. Jan 20, 2015 at 9:05

2 Answers 2


Pinyin is never an established written language. We have a standard, 《汉语拼音正词法基本规则》, but no one actually bothered to learn it. In short, it treats pinyin as if it is a romanized language. You follow what's correct in English. However, 成语 is so special that it has individual chapters for it:

结构上可以分为两个双音节的,中间加连接号。 例如: fēnɡpínɡ-lànɡjìnɡ(风平浪静) àizēnɡ-fēnmínɡ(爱憎分明) shuǐdào-qúchénɡ(水到渠成) yánɡyánɡ-dàɡuān(洋洋大观) pínɡfēn-qiūsè(平分秋色) ɡuānɡmínɡ-lěiluò(光明磊落) diānsān-dǎosì(颠三倒四)

结构上不能分为两个双音节的,全部连写。 例如: cénɡchūbùqiónɡ(层出不穷) bùyìlèhū(不亦乐乎) zǒnɡ’éryánzhī(总而言之) àimònénɡzhù(爱莫能助) yīyīdàishuǐ(一衣带水)

According to this, we may need to add hyphens inbetween 徐娘半老 and 杞人忧天 when they are written as pinyin.

Then it also says this about property nouns:

专有名词成分与普通名词成分连写在一起的,是一般语词或视为视为一般语词的,首字母小写。 例如: ɡuǎnɡɡān(广柑) jīnɡjù(京剧) ējiāo(阿胶) zhōnɡshānfú(中山服) chuānxiōnɡ(川芎) zànɡqīnɡɡuǒ(藏青果) zhāoqín-mùchǔ(朝秦暮楚) qiánlǘzhījì(黔驴之技)

If the text is confusing you, you can look at the last two examples. When a property noun is part of a 成语, it doesn't need to be capitalized.

But then it also has this to say about 成语:

辞书注音需要显示成语及其他词语内部结构时,可按词或语素分写。 例如: chīrén shuō mènɡ(痴人说梦) wèi yǔ chóumóu(未雨绸缪) shǒu kǒu rú pínɡ(守口如瓶) Hēnɡ-Hā èr jiànɡ(哼哈二将)

This is a suggestion specific to dictionaries, you separate them and properly capitalize the property nouns, in order to display the internal structure of a 成语.

So to answer your question: If you aren't writing a dictionary, you should do this:

  • 徐娘半老 xúniáng-bànlǎo
  • 杞人忧天 qǐrén-yōutiān
  • 张冠李戴 is, actually, properly pinyinated as: Zhāng guān Lǐ dài (note that it's with spaces in between).
    – Mou某
    Jan 13, 2015 at 2:34
  • @user3306356 answer updated, see if it's better. Jan 13, 2015 at 13:30
  • Thanks for including the link to the original source, this is exactly what I was looking for. I'm dealing with flashcards here, so it's sort of dictionary-like, but I'll still stick to lower case.
    – Olle Linge
    Jan 14, 2015 at 13:16
  • No, you do not follow what is correct in English. Pinyin has nothing whatsoever to do with English, but is an independent romanization based on Latin characters (and in fact loosely based on Italian). It is an ISO standard with its own orthography and its own rules for word formation. Do not capitalize anything but first letters in sentences and proper names. Do not separate words as in English, unless they are really separate in speech (it is waiguoren, not Wai Guo Ren).
    – user4452
    Jan 14, 2015 at 19:42
  • @倪阔乐 I admit it's not the most accurate description, and I agree with you on other points. Jan 15, 2015 at 2:32

Long long ago when I was learning pinyin, none of teachers taught us write any capitalization pinyin.

And pinyin is used to mark the pronunciation of Chinese words , and after you graduated from primary school, you won't use pinyin no longer.

So , my opinion is that, any pinyin is lower-case and each of them should be separated by space like:

徐娘半老 "xú niáng bàn lǎo" 杞人忧天 "qǐ rén yōu tiān"

Just remeber , pinyin mustn't be used in formal condition.

  • Wrong, just, wrong.
    – Mou某
    Jan 13, 2015 at 2:35
  • @user3306356 I think this question doesn't need a very correct answer, pinyin is just used to study pronunciation and discuss how to write it correctly in such formal condition is useless cause pinyin should be never used in such case.And more , beside the standard of dictionary , the most usage of Chinese people would be appropriate and could even be the new standard of dictionary.
    – zzy
    Jan 13, 2015 at 2:55
  • Well, since there are standards for how to write, I want to know what they are. Pinyin is of course mostly use in educational contexts, which is the case for me as well.
    – Olle Linge
    Jan 14, 2015 at 13:12
  • @OlleLinge In fact , we native speakers doesn't use those standard at all and teachers also use low-case writing. So it's just write low-case doesn't matter at all , and if anyone think out of standard is wrong , I have nothing to say.
    – zzy
    Jan 15, 2015 at 1:25
  • I don't think this is relevant, really. I mean, most native speakers don't write Pinyin at all in daily life, right? We're talking about proper use of Pinyin as a teaching tool, so the way normal people use it isn't relevant, I think. It would be more relevant to see how average textbook writers (for foreigners and otherwise), plus dictionary editors deal with the issue, which is what others have addressed. I'm not saying anyone is right or wrong, I'm just saying that they way average people use something isn't necessarily the best way for teaching.
    – Olle Linge
    Jan 16, 2015 at 9:07

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