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I just found that 挣 has two variants of pronunciation - zhèng and zhēng. However, both seem to express "struggle" in English.

Some words express different meanings depending on the pronunciation - e.g. my recent question on 只.

Well, it might be slightly different, since according to MBDG dictionary:

  • 挣 zhēng: see 掙扎|挣扎
  • 挣 zhèng: to struggle to get free / to strive to acquire / to make (money)

So zhēng is equivalent only to 掙扎 or 挣扎, but these two words also mean "struggle". So I don't understand how you can decide whether the 挣 you see in a sentence is zhèng or zhēng.

So if you see 挣 in a sentence, how can you discern which pronounciation is correct? Also, does it make any difference regarding the two words (e.g. on usage)?

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    "现代汉语词典"挣 zhēng [挣扎]用力支撑:垂死~|他~着从病床上爬了起来。挣1zhèng 用力使自己摆脱束缚:~脱枷锁|把捆绑的绳子~开了。挣2 zhèng 用劳动换取:~钱。挣揣zhèngchuài(书)挣扎 挣命 zhèngmìng 为保全生命而挣扎 "汉语水平考试词典"挣扎 zhēngzhá 在极艰难的情况下仍用力搏斗(struggle to):他的手被捆住了,但他仍~着去开门|~了半天,还是被制服了|敌人在作垂死~。挣 zhèng[义1] 用力使自己摆脱束缚(try to throw off):他用力一~,~脱了身上的绳子。[义2]用劳动换取(earn)工作虽然比较辛苦,但能~不少钱|十八岁就开始~工资了。 "struggle to" as opposed to "try to throw off", "earn" – user6065 Oct 11 '17 at 15:32
  • 3 similar cases zhuāi to throw to fling zhuài to pull to tug at (sth), zhé to break to fracture to snap to suffer loss to bend to twist to turn to change direction convinced to convert into (currency) discount rebate tenth (in price) classifier for theatrical scenes to fold accounts book zhē to turn sth over to turn upside down to tip sth out (of a container) 折腾zhēteng (1) [turn from side to side] jù but 拮据 jiéjū short of money; hard up; in straitened circumstances: – user6065 Oct 12 '17 at 3:08
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I think you already got the point.

  • 挣 zhēng: see 掙扎|挣扎
  • 挣 zhèng: to struggle to get free / to strive to acquire / to make (money)

挣 will only be pronounced as 'zhēng' in 挣扎 and 'zhèng' for the rest.

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I think you might ask yourself, 'What is the difference between struggle and strive?' In the definition of strive you will find struggle. Both imply applying effort to achieve a goal. What differences do you see? Mainly in usage.

The bits Chinese leaves out always confound me! So if they say 挣, they probably mean 挣钱, although it might be 挣脱, depending on context.

This is all from zdic.net

挣: 1. 用力支撑或摆脱:~脱。~开。 (struggle to keep away, get away) 2. 出力取得:~钱。~饭吃。 (strive to get)

挣扎: 竭力支撑或摆脱 (do one's best to support or get away)

I think 挣 for the most part is connected with earning money. You can find many example sentences.

zheng4 is found in:

挣脱: 用力擺脫束縛,以獲得自由。 (use strength to break out and obtain freedom)

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