My guess is that (at least) 99.9% of Chinese characters represent words.

The possible exceptions are 的 and 吗 -- as in:

的 in "my car" (wǒ de chē) 我的车

吗 in 你好吗? or "Ni Hai Hao Ma?" (你还好吗?)

的 and 吗 may not be words, more like suffixes or (sentence) particles. Are there many more exceptions like these? Thank you.

The concept of a [Chinese word] is not too tricky. See:

  • I'm not a linguist, but aren't particles also words? And since characters like are particles, by definition they are also words. Jul 28, 2016 at 0:42
  • see grammars for definition of words,morphemes,e。g。"实用现代汉语语法":第一编|现代汉语语法概述|第一节|语法单位|一、语素(morpheme)|语素是最小的音义结合体,也是最小的语法单位。如"人"、"民"、"作"、"用"、"桌"、"葡萄"、"玻璃"等等都是语素,因为它们都有意义,而且不能分割成更小有意义的单位。"人"、"民"等单音节语素自然不能进行分割,而像"葡萄"、"玻璃"等双音节语素,如分割成"葡"、"萄"、"玻"、"璃",将不包含任何意义,因而也就不成其为语素。_汉语的绝大多数语素是单音节的,少数是双音节的,三、四个音节语素更少。由于汉字是音节文字,一个单音节语素在书面上就用一个汉字来书写,所以绝大多数汉字都与语素对应。少数汉字不与语素对应,如"玛"、"瑙"、"唠"、"叨"、"葡"、"萄"等,它们只表示多音节语素中的一个音节,不能表示什么意义。_还有的汉字与几个语素对应,表示不同的意义。如"把"--"一把尺子"、"把守"、"把门开开"、"个把月"(上述"把"音 bǎ),"把(bà)儿";"生"--"生长"、"一生"、"生炉子"、"生病"、"生瓜"、"生疼"、"学生",等等。汉字和语素的关系是比较复杂的。
    – user6065
    Jul 28, 2016 at 7:18
  • 二、词|词是最小的有意义的能独立运用的语音单位。所谓能独立运用,是指能单说或能单独(不必与另一些特定的语音成分结合)进入句子。如"工人"是一个词,因为:第一,它有意义;第二,可以单说、单独回答问题。例如:(1)问:他哥哥是干什么的?答:工人。-第三,它是能独立运用的最小的语音单位,如进一步分割成"工"和"人"不仅意义与"工人"不完全相同,而且当"工"作名词用时,一般也不能单说。又如"的"也是一个词,第一,它表示一定的语法意义;第二,可以单独进入句子,而不必与某一个或某些特定的语音成分结合在一起。例如:(2)我的家在北京。(3)明明是一个可爱的孩子。_第三,"的"自然是最小的有意义的单位。而"人民"中的"民"就不是一个词,因为它不能单独进入句子,必须与"人"、"公"、"居"等语素结合成"人民"、"公民"、"居民"等,才能进入句子。
    – user6065
    Jul 28, 2016 at 7:19

3 Answers 3


的 is foremost a particle, but also a word in its own right. As de, it can mean plus, as in 七个的六个一共十三. As , it can mean cab. As it can mean target.

吗 is in ma and likewise mostly a particle, but in some instances an isolated character without meaning of its own. As in 吗啡, it means morphine.

There are a number of such isolated characters, such as 蝴, which can only be used in conjunction with 蝴蝶, 蝶 in itself meaning butterfly.

蝴 is thus not a word, since it cannot stand on its own and doesn't convey any useful information. One could still infer the meaning from its written form, but likely not from speech (perhaps a child trying to say but not completing with dié, then).

This is true for a handful of such isolated characters. For instance 蚂 can be part of 蚂蚁 mǎyǐ, 蚂螂 mālang and 蚂蚱 màzha, but is not a word in itself. The same is true of 螂 and 蚱, which can be combined in words but not carry individual meaning. 蚁 can stand alone, as the family of ant-like insects.

Particles, on the other hand, can mostly be regarded as words, as they carry linguistic meaning in their own right. 哦 and other interjections are of this nature.

  • re:的,"四角号码新词典"第10版27620的(一)(dì帝)箭靶子的中心。例:有的放矢(2)目标。例:目的(二)(dí笛)(1)实在。例:的确。(2)的士。口语中多读dī。例:打的(also 的哥 (young male) taxi driver; cabbie (slang) "的姐"also occurs)。As 助词 "的"qualifies as word, however in the above quoted meanings it only seems to be a (bound) morpheme (see previous comment).
    – user6065
    Jul 29, 2016 at 14:45
  • re: 的 meaning "plus"(方 see below) also "times" listed first in below dictionary, and more in agreement with the usual meaning, cf."现代汉语词典"(6)用在两个数量词中间。a)表示相乘:这间屋子是五米~三米,合十五平方米。b)(方)表示相加:两个~三个,一共五个。This meaning may still be considered as belonging to the role of 的 as particle. See also bkrs where it is (also) #6 under "的 as particle"
    – user6065
    Aug 1, 2016 at 21:08

I don't know much about grammer analysis. 吗 being put at the end of a sentence with a raised tone and a question mark forms a quesiton sentence. Is it word? I can say it is a character, and does not have any meaning itself. I guess it's a functional character. 的 is like "of" in English. 我的朋友: a friend of mine (my friend). Also, 蓝色的天空 (blue sky). 蓝色的: having the nature of blue. But in Mainland China, 的 has another usage in legal language (not used in HongKong). Being put at the end of a sentence clause, it means "if such thing happens". Eg: ...造成损失的,应负法律责任 (...One shall bear legal liabilities if loss is incurred).

  • It seems simpleminded readers would simply understand 造成损失的,应负法律责任 as "Whoever (the one who) caused the loss shall bear legal liabilities".
    – user6065
    Jul 28, 2016 at 9:08

的 is exception? you're kidding :(

the initial meaning of 的 is "bullseye of target for archery"


you must define clearly what's character and word, before others help you.

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