I learned the phrase of "~长~短", and it means "~怎么样,~怎么样", though I feel it is difficult to understand it in English.

For example, the following sentences are examples of using "~长~短":

  • 这两个老太太一见面,就张家长李家短地说起来没完。

  • 大家对他总是张三长李四短的很有意见。

Here are what I tried, but feel either too clumsy or too verbose.

  • These two old ladies, once they meet each other, start to keep talking about how 张 family is going and how 李 family is going, and never stop to talk.

  • Everyone always has his/her opinion on how 张三 is and how 李四 is and speak it to him.

(By the way is 张三 and 李四 are names of people...?)

The second sentence is especially too clumsy and makes little sense in English.

So I'm quite confused now. How can I better understand the "~长~短" phrase and make the translation more natural, less verbose?

  • 1
    张家长李家短: this is a set. You cannot form a lot of others. Just remember the few you've seen.
    – fefe
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 13:49

4 Answers 4


长 = good /strengths ; 短 = bad/ shortcomings

"~长~短" = "~this~that"

张三李四 is similar to "any Tom, Dick or Harry" in English, refers to any unspecific people's names. http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/dictionary/words/38376/

张三长李四短 = "someone this, someone that" (gossiping)

张家长李家短 = "so and so family this, so and so family that" (gossiping)

  • 1
    Thanks but isn't it awkward to write "someone this, someone that" in English? I have never seen such sentence in English, either. Simply translate as "gosshiping" sounds much better, though.
    – Blaszard
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 21:01
  • You can insert random names to replace "someone"; For example: " John (does) this, Peter (does) that"
    – Tang Ho
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 21:30

From a more general perspective, this is called "互文见义", which means the nouns and adjectives are interleaved to express a combined meaning.

For example, in the poem, 秦时明月汉时关 literally means moon from the Qin dynasty and passes from the Han dynasty, but it actually means moons and passes from both the Qin and Han dynasty. To put it more obviously:

秦时's 明月
汉时's 关

is actually:

(秦时+汉时)'s 明月+关

Back to your question, "张家长李家短" is a example of this in oral Chinese, it does not imply 张家 is better or 李家 is worse, it's just a reordered phrase of

(张家+李家)'s 长+短

and 长短, means trivial family matters.


张家长李家短 = gossip

When these two old ladies meet, they gossip endlessly.

张三长李四短 = opinions

People always have strong opinions about him.
People are always very opinionated about him.


Your interpretation of the first sentence is quite correct, that of the second is not so much, for there is a key element you failed to address, which is "张三长李四短的", especially with the 的 character.

This is a common structure serves as noun which you can break down to two part: 1) something server as adjective, 2) the 的 character. The structure together means the characteristic of a person or thing that usually or always behave or represent.

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