In English, if I am spelling my name for someone over the phone I can use a phonetic alphabet to ensure they get my name right. Especially for potentially ambiguous letters; d and t, b and p, c and e, f and s etc.

For example

I live on Theodore Ave, T as in today, H, E as in elephant, D as in delta, O, R, E as in elephant

As Chinese does not have an alphabet per se and there are not enough intials in pinyin to cover the English alphabet,

What words would they use to confirm the receiver has the correct spelling of an English word?

  • Why not a simple "T-H-E-O-D-O-R-E, Theodore"?
    – Stan
    Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 16:00
  • 2
    @Stan I guess it has to do with telecommunications technology. When I worked at a service call center we had to memorize a "A as in apple, B as in..ad nauseum" Over the phone some letters are ambiguous.
    – tao
    Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 9:27
  • 1
    @Stan "Theodore" isn't too bad, but M and N are notoriously difficult to tell apart. Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 22:15

3 Answers 3


Even for educated Chinese people who know English fairly well, they do not use the same method that native English speakers use (the one mentioned in your question).

The common methods Chinese use include:

1 - Read a small sequence of letters from the alphabet that contains the letter in question.





2 - Prefix the letter with its ordinal number in the alphabet. This is borrowed from school as it's how teachers and students read answers of choice questions. It is commonly used for A-D but not very common for letters after D.



(Make sure when you read “2B", B is in prominent falling tone, to distinguish from the swearing word "二逼" where the second character reads bi1. Of course students often make joke out of these homonyms.)

3 - Describe the shape or some other distinctive properties of the letter.

“G还是J?” (It's very common for Chinese people to confuse the pronunciations of these two letters.)

“J,勾儿。” (It's referring to the shape of the letter AND also it's the urban name of the letter in poker games.)

If you do need to spell some English word over the phone with a Chinese, chances are the person is a service personnel, receptionist or secretary, with whom these methods work quite well, as per my personal experience.

  • I don't personally have any experience in this, but I'd imagine it would be easier for Chinese speakers to explain letters ideogrammatically than phonetically. Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 2:10

In China, there isn't an custom of spelling potentially ambiguous letters. But spell them correctly is a "Rigid Demand". The intelligent Chinese invent many method of dealing with it.

  1. Repeat
    Repeat is the most common way to tell confusion. In many occasion, one spell, the other retell and he tell again to check it.

  2. Use common word
    In my experience, letter B and D often confuse people. And these two letters are commonly use in multiple choice problem at school. Teachers always use word Boy and Dog to tell them.

  3. Use a mixture of English pronunciation and Chinese Pinyin pronunciation
    Use a mixture of English pronunciation and Chinese Pinyin pronunciation is another effective solution. This solution has an advantage that we can spell fast with it because every Chinese Pinyin letter have just one syllable. But this solution is not widely used.
    For example:

    A [a:] B [bɒ] C [ts:] D [də] E [ə:] F [fə] G [gə] H [hə] I [i:]

  4. Some Chinese, especially who learns radio, are more likely to use NATO phonetic alphabet (aka International radiotelephony spelling alphabet).

There are also many other ways to solve this problem. Chinese often spell as they like, not restricted by any common rules.

  • +1 for NATO phonetic alphabet. Useful in any context where you need to spell unambiguously, especially when there is background noise and/or sound distortion.
    – Bobble
    Commented Feb 7, 2014 at 10:26

On a similar note, I have never heard a Chinese person spelling an English word to another Chinese person, but when trying to indicate an English letter, for instance an underground exit, they will often say:

A, B, C 的 B 吗?

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