I'm working through the HSK vocab lists, and sometimes I find it hard to remember if a character should be pronounced with the neutral tone or with the citation tone. It would help if I knew when it's important, and when it isn't; if I knew when "getting it wrong" could lead to confusion. For instance, I believe 结实 can be pronounced jie1shi5 or jie1shi2, with two different meanings depending on whether 实 is stressed or not ("solid; sturdy" or "to bear fruit"), so here the neutral tone seems to be important. Whereas with 姑娘, it doesn't seem to matter whether 娘 is pronounced niang2 or niang5. Still, I believe there are also cases where getting it wrong with using/not using the neutral tone could make it harder to be understood, even if there is no ambiguity.


  • 东边,西边 and 里边: it seems most dictionaries give the second character as bian5 rather than bian1. But if you were to say li3bian1 rather than li3bian5, could that make it harder to be understood?
  • 欺负 to bully: qi1fu5, not qi1fu4
  • 时候 shi2hou5, not shi2hou4
  • 云头: yun2tou2, not yun2tou5; cloud. Here there seem to be more words ending in 头 that are pronounced xxxtou2 than words pronounced xxxtou5.

The section "Second-syllable Stress" in this blog post has some bearing on this topic.

Perhaps what I'm looking for is guidance about characters commonly used as suffixes with the neutral tone, but that also can occur as suffixes with one of the other tones. For example, 子,头 and 边. Also perhaps there are some rules of thumb or some "gotchas" that could be helpful.

I'm aware this topic is related to variant pronounciations, regional accents and dialects; it seems to be quite tricky.

  • discussed before, last time:What rule if any determines the tone of a character following another character? [duplicate] esp. note again baike.baidu.com/view/4657453.htm – user6065 Aug 26 '15 at 20:14
  • @user6065 : I don't believe it's a duplicate, because here I'm also asking about the importance of using/not using the neutral tone. Anyway, thanks for the link, it's helpful! – goPlayerJuggler Aug 27 '15 at 15:52

I don't know how to answer your question, maybe the suggestions below will help you:

In my opinion, it seems that 这位姑娘 with niang2 is serious, but 小姑娘 with niang5 is rather relaxed. At least, I prefer to use niang5 in my daily life (but I think the word 姑娘 is less used than 女生, because the word 姑娘 sometimes makes people embarrassed).

I think the 边 in 东边 is pronouced mostly as bian2, and 东边 with bian5 is mainly used with 儿, that is, 东边儿.

  • Thanks, that's helpful! Just a small point however: I'm surprised that you say the 边 in 东边 is pronouced mostly as bian2: are you sure you don't mean bian1? All the dictionaries I've looked at only give that pinyin for 边, none of them mention bian2. – goPlayerJuggler Aug 27 '15 at 16:04
  • @goPlayerJuggler I'm sorry, it is definitely a mistake. – goldmonkey Aug 28 '15 at 1:01

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