To clarify, I mean Chinese schoolchildren who may, for whatever reason, need to express a word that they haven't learned the character for, e.g., 餐 in 晚餐.

Would they use pinyin, like 晚cān, or substitute another character in, like 晚参?

  • We check it in the dictionary at school, just like what foreign schoolchildren do.
    – Hao FU
    Feb 9, 2018 at 1:34
  • While the answers below represent the case years ago, nowadays, and certainly a few years into the futures, I believe pupils will just look at their smart phone and write the correct character.
    – jf328
    Feb 12, 2018 at 17:17

3 Answers 3


If a person didn't know, or forgot how to write 餐 in 晚餐, he would not knowingly use a wrong word for substitute. The first thing he would do is to ask people who know.

If there's no one to ask, he would substitute 晚餐 with a synonym that he did know is correct. For example '晚飯'.

If he can't think of a synonym, he would use pinyin 'cān' inplace of the actual character '餐' and write '晚 (cān)'.

If he didn't even know the pinyin, then he would leave it blank with a question mark like so: '晚(?)'

Sometimes, people knowingly use similar sounding words instead of the correct ones for humor effect. For example, '神馬' instead of '什麼' ; '魂淡' instead of '渾蛋'


For 1st grade and 2nd grade students, people usually use pinyin mark or dictionary.

@Tang Ho They don't use 神马instead of 什么 because this is a slang word, and their Chinese teacher will be very mad at them if they write this in their homework. They also wouldn't ask other people in most cases, because it's common for young children to not know how to write a word, and it would probably take forever to write a paragraph if they do that.

In mainland China I've never heard people put ? mark when they don't know a word, but it might be different in Taiwan or other places.


First we try to find other words to avoid writing that particular character, if we can't, then we'd use pinyin. It's like when you don't know a word and just try to spell it by how it's pronounced (gramar - grammar for example).

We don't use character with the same pronunciation as a substitute because that will usually produce a wrong word(doesn't make sense) or a sensible word but with a different meaning.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.