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
  • Also, there are some north/south differences in use of neutral vs citation tone in some words. – Stumpy Joe Pete Mar 16 at 18:48

Zhang and Yang (2007:84-89) describe several instances where pronunciations in the neutral tone and the citation tone of a word may coexist:

  1. When contrasting polysemy (辨義). Usually, the neutral tone marks informality or figurative speech.
  • 東西 dōng xi means 'thing; item', but dōng xī means literally the East and West (the cardinal points, or more broadly speaking, the Orient and the Occident).

  • 買賣 mǎi mai means informally 'a transaction', but mǎi mài means 'the collective act of buying and selling'.

  1. When contrasting 'parts of speech' (詞性, lit. the nature of the word). These words are semantically similar (or related). In general, the citation tone is regained when a noun becomes a verb, an intransitive verb becomes transitive, or when the word becomes part of a compound word (e.g., a compound noun, or an idiom). That is to say, the citation tone is needed for complex, derived instances.
  • 差使 chāi shi as a noun means 'an errand runner', but chāi shǐ as a verb means 'to assign (sb. sth.)'.
  • 避諱 (the verb 'to taboo') pronounced bì hui is intransitive, but transitive when pronounced bì huǐ, as in 有所避諱 (having something to apply a taboo on), 避諱名字 (to taboo a name).
  • 利害 (the noun/adjective 'profits and losses') pronounced lì hai is a stand-alone word, but is a constituent of compound words like 利害關係 ('an interest', here the meaning inclines to 利, see 偏義複詞) when pronounced lì hài.
  1. When contrasting formality. These words are semantically identical. The neutral tone is used frequently in colloquial settings.
  • 聰明 (the adjective 'clever'): cōng ming (colloquial) vs cōng míng (formal).
  • 打扮 (the noun 'manner of dressing'): dǎ ban (colloquial noun) vs dǎ bàn (formal noun; or the verb 'to dress up' by rule 2.).
  1. As a result of dialectal differences. In mainland Chinese, some words must be pronounced in neutral tones. In Taiwanese Chinese, however, neutral tones are scarce.
  • Certain suffixes ~子, ~頭, ~巴 etc.
  • Directional complements ~上, ~下, ~去 etc.
  • Particles ~的, ~着, ~一~ etc.
  1. Quasi-neutral tones are permissible in speech to contrast intonation. These words have weakened tones in the face of other stressed components in a sentence. However, they are not documented neutral tones in authoritative exhaustive lists.
  • 家中光景慘淡。(hěn shì > hěn shi): in the presence of the stressed adverb 很 indicating the severe extent of poverty, 是 should be read lightly.
  • 此地,不要走動。(zài > zai): in the presence of the stressed adverb 就 indicating the immovability of the listener, 在 should be read lightly.
  • 呢,開始吧。(hái > hai, kuài > kuai): in the presence of the stressed verbs 說 and 開始, indicating the speaker's impatience, adverbs 還 and 快 should be read lightly.

Reference: Zhang Bennan & Yang Ruowei (2007). [普通話連讀音變]. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.

  • Excellent summary! One question, though: Is 子 really a good example of suffixes Taiwanese people pronounce with a full tone? I think I've never heard anyone say 子 as a suffix with a full tone. 椅子 as yǐzǐ sounds really strange, same with other nouns like 杯子 or 桌子. The others are less problematic: 木頭 as mùtóu is common, for example. – Olle Linge Mar 16 at 16:25
  • 桌子 can be pronounced like 13 in Taiwanese Mandarin (perhaps losing the tail of the rising pitch in 子). Despite not having a clear notion of tone neutrality, I do think they have tone changes akin to mainland Chinese when it comes to 椅子-like words (those that are both tone sandhi- and neutral tone-bounded). Consider 馬虎: it can be pronounced in 31 (pedia.cloud.edu.tw/Entry/Detail/?title=馬虎), which is an analogous entity to 30 in mainland Chinese. I had a more in-depth explanation on this class of words here: chinese.stackexchange.com/a/43252/27428. – L Parker Mar 16 at 17:00
  • @LParker, could we replace "concluded" with "described" in your (very helpful) answer? I think it would be more appropriate. – goPlayerJuggler Apr 5 at 22:10
  • @goPlayerJuggler please do, thanks! – L Parker Apr 5 at 23:55

L Parker's answer gives a very good, authoritative description of cases when it is possible to use either the citation tone or the neutral tone, and where making this distinction is related to some sort of linguistic difference (meaning, parts of speech, tone of voice, regional variation…).

I think it could be useful to share a list of some words which I believe are examples of cases 1 or 2 in L Parker's answer (change in meaning/part of speech). There are perhaps a couple of examples of case 3 (contrasting formality) as well.


Hopefully this list is a slight extension to L Parker's answer.


  1. This list is sorted using a standard sort function, but based on the second character followed by the first character.
  2. I made this list over the last 5 or 6 years of studying Chinese. There are probably several mistakes here but I believe(/hope) that in the main it is correct. (Any comments are welcome; I would be glad to know of any mistakes. )
  3. This list currently has 67 entries. It includes the one-character word 慌, apart from that it only has two-character words. I do not know if there are any good examples of words with more than two characters.
  4. (2021-04-06) I wrote a piece about this topic that includes comprehensive lists of all (or nearly all) the one- and two- character words in Mandarin where using the neutral tone instead of the citation tone makes a semantic difference, based on CC-CEDICT.

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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