I just got the following sentence in a newsletter:


Being a beginner that I am, I read it as "Can I please get one pay-check in advance?" because I saw this in my dictionary:

  • 借支 = "to get an advance on one's pay"; and
  • 笔 = "classifier for sums of money, deals"

Of course, the newsletter corrected me with the correct translation "Could I borrow your pen, please?". Only then I realized it was 借 + 支笔.

I've noticed this happens to me a lot with new texts/sentences, and this is probably the most extreme example (because I already knew the 借支笔 characters).

Is there anything I can do to eliminate this issue? Or should I simply continue to learn and everything will "fit into place" eventually?

Additionally, do native speakers encounter ambiguities like this one in spoken Chinese? (Well, maybe not exactly like this one..) How are they resolved/avoided?

  • 筆 in 一筆錢 is a 量詞, just like what 支 does in 借支筆. In general, you need to find 量詞 out in a sentence first. Well, native speakers don't often have trouble, but sometimes too. The solution is to stress a word. In 借支筆, it's a quite common phrase, so we never think it would be about money ;-) but, there are other phrases which have the same meaning, "借根筆" "借個筆". These are even more common than that one! Mar 1, 2013 at 16:12
  • @MikeManilone: "find 量詞 out in a sentence first" - You mean actively scan a sentence for 量詞 before reading it? Is this even possible during normal-speed reading? Mar 1, 2013 at 23:20
  • No, that's not necessary. You will never care about them if you are pretty skilled. Mar 2, 2013 at 4:04

4 Answers 4


As a native speaker, I'm trying to introspect my understanding process:

借支 is not a common term. Even in the right context (the money business), it may take a while for a native speaker to realize these two characters are meant to be a word. 笔 isn't really ambiguous as its position in the sentence dictated it has to be a noun, so 支 is the measure word and 借 is the single-character verb 'to borrow'. 借支笔 sounds right, just like the other phrases with a similar pattern that bump into my head when I read this sentence: 借张纸, 借本书, etc.

As you can see, the key knowledge here is the contextual usage and the idiomatic patterns, which is something that really takes many years to build up and comprehend. Most native speakers learn it in elementary and middle school years in both explicit (textbook) and implicit (daily conversation) ways, hardened by a lot of repetitions, homework and examinations. For example, we were taught to differentiate the two possibilities of 把手 in 3-4 grade in elementary school (at age 8-9):

把手坏了 The door handle (把手) is broken.

把手拿开 Move your hand away.

Or 球拍:

球拍 卖 完了 The racket (球拍) is sold out.

球 拍卖 完了 The auction (拍卖) for balls is over.

And our language development comes to a stage that we can say and resolve most of these ambiguous phrases smoothly, generally at age 14-15.

There is a lot of freedom in Chinese grammar and a lot of mix-and-match combinations in the vocabulary, accordingly there are a lot of idiomatic patterns to know before you can segmentate a sentence with ease.

How native speakers deal with it? If there is only one way to make sense of the sentence, other possible segmentations don't really make sense, then there is no ambiguity and nothing to avoid. If it's really ambiguous, the speaker may become aware as soon as he says it and then adds something to clarify, or the audience asks a question or just repeats the sentence in a confused tone to seek elaboration. These methods are no different from any other language.

And yes, there are things that is totally ambiguous, even native speaker couldn't tell. Like 南京市长江大桥, without context you never know which of the two it means:

南京市 长江 大桥 The Yangtze River bridge in Nanjing city

南京 市长 江大桥 The major of Nanjing - Jiang Da Qiao

  • Thanks for typing all that, very useful perspective. Basically - if I understood correctly - as my vocab expands I should encounter less and less ambiguities. I just have the feeling it will be quite some time, it looks nigh impossible from my current perspective! Mar 1, 2013 at 22:09
  • 1
    @drHannibalLecter I think so. It can be frustrating at times, but it's also one of the most entertaining parts in Chinese language:)
    – NS.X.
    Mar 1, 2013 at 22:41
  • That's actually one of the reasons I keep studying it - it's damn hard but so different and entertaining at the same time. Not to mention potentially useful in a few years :) Mar 1, 2013 at 22:53

This is a very good question. Most Chinese would have no difficulty understanding your example sentence due to the sentence structure as explained by tomriddle_1234 in his answer. Once you master the basic grammatical structure and improve on your vocabulary, most of it will fall in place. In cases where Chinese do encounter ambiguities, most of it can be resolved by looking at the context. For example:

(His mum's cooking skills is great!)

When reading the beginning of the sentence above, it sounds like someone is cursing "他妈的", but upon further reading, it becomes clear that someone is praising another one's mother for her excellent cooking skills.

In cases which cannot be resolved from context, controversies arise. A good recent example will be:


  • (做爱)的上海人; Love-making Shanghainese?
  • 做(爱的)上海人; Be a cherished Shanghainese?

Other possible permutations:

  1. 做上海爱的人
  2. 做爱上海的人
  3. 上海做爱的人
  4. 上海的人做爱
  5. 做爱的人上海

What do you think?

  • Wait..do all those sentences have the same meaning? Could it be that they made 做 intentionally larger than 爱的 to prevent ambiguity? Edit: I also had no idea 做 can mean "to be"..there is much work to be done! Mar 1, 2013 at 22:01

First analyse the context in this sentence, this action happens between you and me. so 借支笔 must be predicate and the object. and "借支" is intransitive or noun, so it cannot point to "笔", if you have more vocabulary, you know "支" is the quantifier for "笔", then 借支笔 = 借 + 支笔 = adverb + object. The original complete phrase should be 借一支笔, as here "一" is saved for an idiom.

but once you know 借支笔, you can memorize it as a short phrase.

  • Thanks! The scary part is exactly the fact that I already knew all characters in 借支笔, but was led astray by the dictionary. Mar 1, 2013 at 22:19

idontthinkyouneedtopractise. whenyouknowmostwords, yourmindwillgroupthemforyou.

  • Heh, fair enough :) But it doesn't really work the same way in Chinese, at least not for me. For example, "whenyouknow" can only be separated as when+you+know, and not whenyou+know or when+youknow. Things are complicated even further by the fact that one character can have multiple meanings. Of course, if I ever become proficient enough... Mar 1, 2013 at 22:14
  • My main point is that building vocab builds this skill, I don't think that grouping needs to be practiced independently :)
    – jsj
    Mar 1, 2013 at 23:11
  • I certainly hope that's true! If only Chinese had fewer words, this would be so much easier.. :) Mar 1, 2013 at 23:17
  • @drHannibalLecter Huh, that's Classical Chinese! Mar 2, 2013 at 14:33
  • @MikeManilone: Good point. Everyone should pretend I never wrote that. >_> Mar 4, 2013 at 23:04

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