Within an average Chinese person's vocabulary ...

      (which may be ~ 30,000 (?) words,  but this number isn't important) 

could you guess what percentage of the words are 1-character, and
what percentage of the words are 2-characters?

My guess would be:

  • 1-character words ... maybe 45% (水 石 木 好 我 爱 你 ...)

  • 2-character words ... maybe 20% (人民, 君子, 小人, 水滴, ...)

       ( both numbers may be a bit higher,  like 50% and 25% ) 

(How about for common nouns?) Thank you. HH

  • Most books I saw say that the majority of spoken words today have 2 characters. Not sure if that's mostly about Taiwan (like 水巷孑蠻's answer), or includes continental China as a whole (or maybe more the bigger cities?).
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 23:45
  • The 3 answers have been excellent ! Thank you so much. I'll prob. add some updates tomorrow. HH
    – HizHa
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 2:57
  • I need a few more reputation points. When it's past 15, the kudos I gave the 3 answers should show up. . . . and i'll be giving +Like and/or ThumbsUp points to ppl too, once I figure out how to do that. Thanks. HH
    – HizHa
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 20:45
  • This is my thread (my question) so I can comment, but to comment on other threads, I apparently need 50 reputation points ! -- All these rules ! -- and this rule makes zero sense. ______________________________________ "Most books I saw say that the majority of spoken words today have 2 characters." <--- I doubt that very much. Could you give an example ? Which book says that? Thanks. HH
    – HizHa
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 21:14
  • They're books I've been reading at least some pages through the years. If I remember where I saw this, then I'll add as an answer.
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 13:11

4 Answers 4


an unscientific approach: the 國語辭典 , of taiwan, has about 164489 entries, using grep + wildcards, one may find:

12540⋯7.62% are 1 character entry (^.$) e.g. 八, 扒
87516⋯53.20% are 2 characters entry (^..$) e.g. 八伯, 八拜
21836⋯13.28% are 3 characters entry (^...$) e.g. 八拜交, 八敗命
35781⋯21.75% are 4 characters entry (^....$) e.g. 八百羅漢, 八百壯士
2562⋯1.56% are 5 characters entry (^.....$) e.g. 八分休止符, 八風吹不倒

how to define / interpret "word" in the finding, well, it's beyond my knowledge :(


中国文字改革委员会研究推广处 (1959) found that 29% or 1046 of the 3624 most common words are monosyllabic. Other investigations have found a similar proportion, although the ratio will decrease further with the inclusion of more new or uncommon words.

One reason that polysyllabic words are on the rise is that Chinese topolects gradually have lost a lot of distinct sounds, making homonyms problematic to understand. Another is that new words are naturally polysyllabic.

It is a misconception that old Chinese consisted only of monosyllabic words. In 文言文, yes, because Classical Chinese was an ideal, and its condensed form made it possible to economize in printing. In speech, not so much, since the vernacular has drifted considerably from old Chinese.

If we include proper names and all words, monosyllabic words will drop to below 10%.


your question is interesting but I am not very clear about your purpose. But below, I will talk about my own ideas.

In Chinese, words (詞) are make up with single character (字)。 We can sort them by the sum of single character。

Actually, lots of words only use one character many years ago, which is traditional Chinese language. But in 1919 New Culture Movement (新文化運動) happened, students find new ideas and western culture like democracy and science are hard to spread in common Chinese people using these old language style because they are hard to understand. So they try to replace many single character words with 2(or maybe more)-characters word in order to make the Chinese language closer to daily speaking and make more people accept their ideas.

So modern Chinese has more 2-characters than ever before, so I believe the percentage of it will be more higher than your expect, and 1-characters will be lower. I am unable to give exact numbers(we do not know what is common, what is the define of it), just count words in your vocabulary if your need one.


P.S. Several hours after I posted this query, but before the 3 great answers appeared, I did one more search and this time, I found 2 great references: a book (in google books) and a freely-downloadable paper:

[The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology] (book) >>> Compared to nouns, most verbs in Chinese are shorter, and more than 40 per cent are monosyllabic. In English, nouns and verbs overlap more closely in word length. Thus, the monosyllabic nature of Chinese is more clearly reflected in verbs ...
      >  40+ % are monosyllabic.   <----   much lower than I thought. 

[PDF] Vocabulary Development in English and Chinese: A Comparative Study with Self-Organizing Neural Networks -- by X Zhao, P Li, ... http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

[Footnote 4] states:

According to Wang (1994), 44 percent of 3000 most frequently speaking Chinese words are monosyllabic;

and in the 8822 words used by Chinese government to evaluate student’s vocabulary level, 22 percent of them are monosyllabic words (Xing, 2006).

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