I read in a book: 四声(sì​shēng) which is translated in the book as "the four tones" Somewhere else in the same book, I read: 三声变调(sānshēngbiàn​diào) which is translated as "The third tone sandhi"

In the first example, (number+noun) is translated as a cardinal number. But in the second example, (number+noun) is translated as an ordinal number. It's just confusing. How should one say "The fourth tone"? and make it different from "the four tones"?

  • 1
    IMHO, "第四声" can express "the fourth tone" easily and clearly.
    – T-Pioneer
    Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 1:33
  • I'm not sure why your question was voted down at first. It's a good question and something I think confuses many learners when talking about pronunciation in Chinese.
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 8:04

2 Answers 2


The word 四声 means all the four tones of classical or modern Chinese.

At the same time, 一声 (that is 第一声 or 阴平), 二声 (that is 第二声 or 阳平), 三声 (that is 第三声 or 上声), and 四声 (that is 第四声 or 去声) are sometimes used to indicate single tones.

The only ambiguity can be related to the use of "四声" instead of 第四声 or 去声. I understand that this can be confusing, but I have never found any situation in which the meaning can be reasonably misunderstood.

  • This answers mirrors my own experience. I was also confused when I started reading phonetics in Chinese, but as long as you make sure to keep 四声 and 第四声 separate, it should be fine!
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 8:03
  • Reading 四声 in my head with its two different meanings as intention, i.e., "four tones" vs. "the fourth tone", I realized that it's probably stressed in different ways for the two meanings. Specifically, when the two characters are equally stressed (or maybe 声is slightly more stressed), 四声means "four tones"; when the 四is stressed, and probably more importantly, when 声is unstressed, it means "the fourth tone". It's an interesting phenomena that is probably not taught in classes or stated in text books, but native speakers (unconsciously) practice and understand that way.
    – ALife
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 11:59

Yes, confusion is possible. The long forms 第X声 "the Xth tone" and X个声调 "X tones" are unambiguous, but X声 can mean either "X tones" or "the Xth tone".

In Chinese linguistics, when discussing 方言 topolects, X声 usually means "X tones" as there is a standard set of terms to refer unambiguously to each individual tone (阴平 etc). You can number the tones but nobody does it as there are multiple conventions which means people just get confused. You more commonly see numbering in romanization schemes, but these all have their own well-understood definitions, are only used for speakers of that topolect anyway, and (in my experience) only as tone marker substitutes in the romanizations and never read as numbers.

These don't apply to the average Standard Mandarin speaker. To them there's just four tones and no possibility of anything else. So, people really only need to talk about which of the four tones it is. And technical terminology is, well, technical, so people are just taught to use the simple system of numbering tones. To ordinary people, X声 means "tone X" unless the context indicates otherwise (though I think laypeople are much more likely to say X个声调 for "X tones").

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.