I recently encountered the word 随着, which was translated by my text as a figurative "following", as in "Following X, Y". At first glance, this "following" translation sounds very formal, almost too formal for conversational English, but it was unclear to me if my text author had intended to convey this connotation.

When learning a new word, how can I tell if it's used more in written or spoken speech? When a word is used predominantly in one register, how can I find what words substitute for it in other registers?

I've considered using corpora for this, but publicly accessible corpora for spoken Chinese are few and far between.

I ask in part because I've previously studied Japanese, where the distinction is strong enough that major references will distinguish written and spoken expressions, see the discussion here. Are there any Chinese references that make this distinction? Or are the registers similar enough that separate word choice is rarely necessary? This blog post seems to suggest otherwise.

I should be clear that I'm not talking about elasticity here, I'm thinking of cases where 2 synonyms or grammatical constructions have non-overlapping distributions of felicity.

  • 1
    On further research, CUHK's A Learner's Handbook of Modern Chinese Written Expressions seems to be a really great resource for distinguishing at least very formal writing. I wonder if a comparable handbook exists for words and expressions that are more in-the-middle of spoken and written speech but tend to lean way or the other. Sep 30, 2019 at 11:20
  • your suggested book is interesting books.google.com/…
    – wada
    Sep 30, 2019 at 18:57
  • Do you have a teacher? If so you could just ask them. But quite honestly, you will learn this through experimentation. As you get more advanced you'll realize that the gap between spoken language and written language is much greater in Chinese than in English. If you read a newspaper you will find examples of written language that no one would ever use in spoken conversation (or at least outside of a very formal occasion).
    – J P
    Oct 1, 2019 at 18:00
  • While in the real world one has context to understand the register of a word or grammar point, for textbooks this context doesn't exist and leads to many questions about proper usage. My textbook has both reading passages and dialogues in every lesson. I've just realized that this is a subtle hint from the authors that grammatical structures used in the passages lean written, while passages in the dialogues lean spoken. This was a subtlety in textbook design that had been completely lost on me until now. Oct 7, 2019 at 0:23

1 Answer 1


Maybe this is an inappropriate answer.

Dictionary for I know, doesn't make such distinction extensively (I remember few words did have a mark indicating its formality).

The reason is simple. Unlike Japanese the language itself has a clear oral and written distinction, with quite different grammar, it's definitely fine to write something the same as you say it.

It doesn't mean there isn't any difference in wording. The words you put to use reflect your attitude, education and cultivation, etc.

The features of usual spoken sentences are:

Not concise, run-on, using common plain words for verbs, adjectives and adverbs, with many 的/了/多/着/... grammar words, simple sentence syntax.

But the level of written language is of a wide range.

So called oral/spoken language in Chinese, I think, are unsophisticated and unprocessed expressions that first come into your mind when you are about to utter words. Many well educated people, they actually say written language (in others' eyes), and on the contrary, many poor writings are close to internet chatting. (The least requirement of a written form is that you do not use many filler words and 的/了/多/着...)

e.g. Translation of the above.



















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