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Note: this topic is talking about the usage of register of Chinese-English dictionary

Previous topic: https://chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/48364/what-is-the-different-between-文言-and-书面

In the explanation of literary Chinese here in wiktionary.

This should not be confused with the literary register of Modern Chinese, meaning “modern Chinese words that are only used in writing”, or with archaic terms in Modern Chinese. (In the Pinyin Chinese-English dictionary, these usages notes are indicated by <书> and <旧>, respectively.)

Let compare the meaning sense “to go” of 之 in dictionaries.

for I know, the simplified dictionary follow this guideline. for example: in A Chinese-English Dictionary (you can get the dictionary in pleco)

之1 zhī 动 〈书〉 go; leave for: 由京之渝 leave Beijing for Chongqing 君将何之? Where are you bound for?

But in wiktionary don’t (I.e. † meaning obsolete as register instead of 书 meaning literary register). And I see that this sense is also used in classical Chinese which contest to the explanation above and the answer of previous topic

之 7. † to go quotations ▲ 吾欲之楚。 [Classical Chinese, trad. and simp.] From: Zhanguo Ce, circa 5th – 3rd centuries BCE Wú yù zhī chǔ. [Pinyin] I want to go to Chu. 孔丘之齊見景公。 [Classical Chinese, trad.] 孔丘之齐见景公。 [Classical Chinese, simp.] From: Mozi, circa 4th century BCE Kǒng Qiū zhī qí jiàn Jǐng Gōng. [Pinyin] Kong Qiu visited the state of Qi and saw Lord Jing.

the reference of wiktionary dictionaries: “之”, in 漢語多功能字庫 (Multi-function Chinese Character Database)‎[1], 香港中文大學 (the Chinese University of Hong Kong), 2014– Dictionary of Chinese Character Variants (教育部異體字字典), A00029)

-Does the word that has register 书(literary register) are used only in modern written Chinese or literary Chinese ?

-Is the explanation correct? (If so, we can use those word in modern written in social media etc. And people understand it properly, Right?)

-Isn’t modern written Chinese “written vernacular”? I don’t understand about these registers properly. (If my question is stupid, forgive me.)

3 Answers 3

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  1. Each dictionary has its own convention, so it's a case-by-case question.
  2. If you mean the words that can be categorized as 书面语, the answer will be an absolute yes.
  3. This is a bit tricky: During the early 20th Century, the early form of today's written Chinese is truly "written vernacular"; but during the 1920s, the New Culture Movement swept across the country, and all textbooks written in literary Chinese were ceased to use in 1922. Not much later, the modern written Chinese was accepted as the standard form instead of the literary Chinese, but under the new "standard form", "vernacular" was "redefined" rather than "liquidated".
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The exact meaning of〈书〉differs among different dictionaries. In my understanding〈书〉= <formal>, and the proper register here for “之” should be〈古〉(<archaic>).

The usage mentioned in the dictionary (go; leave for) is the original meaning of “之” (presumably the only meaning of this word when its written form was first created). It rarely appears in modern-day written vernacular (Mandarin) Chinese.

It is true that some meanings of certain words and phrases are common both in ancient times and in formal writing. For example, “此” ("this") is commonly used in both Classical Chinese and Modern Written Chinese, but is less commonly used in Modern Spoken Chinese (Standard Mandarin in particular). “这” (also "this") is a common word in daily conversations (Standard Mandarin in particular) and Modern Written Chinese, but is rarely seen in Classical Chinese.

In short, Wiktionary is correct, and the dictionary you mentioned is either erroneous on this entry or it adopts a different register system.

As for your last question, Modern Written Chinese can be considered as a branch of "written vernacular Chinese". It refers to the written form based on Standard Mandarin.

In my understanding:

〈书〉=(<written>)/(<formal>)

〈口〉=(<spoken>)/(<informal>)

〈文〉=(<literary>)

〈旧〉=(<dated>)/(<old-fashioned>)

〈古〉=(<archaic>)/(<old use>)

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Each individual dictionary will use their own way to classify and register words. So they will vary. I actually think it is better to learn a word through the way you see it used and take dictionary registers with a grain of salt (although they can definitely still be useful at a glance). When unsure about a register for a word, example sentences from works or posts online will help clarify much more efficiently.

I really think this question is deceptively tricky. Afterall, the reason dictionaries etc. all have their own registers is because its very hard to perfectly label word use in a language, chinese or other wise.

To try to address the issue, let's create a few simple example registers to try to cover chinese vocabulary:

slang/colloqiualisms-- words that are spoken and not used in any writing except perhaps texting etc.

daily chinese-- the majority of words used in both speaking and writing in modern daily life. The equivalent of no register marking.

formal chinese-- words in modern chinese that are usually only written but may also be spoken in formal situations.

literary chinese-- words that in modern days are ususally only seen in the arts, or much older works. At this point you are starting to see a blurry line where most would still recognize the basics but grammar and vocabulary are getting quite far from daily life. Theoretically even natives may have issues here if they haven't studied literary chinese.

dated chinese-- whether daily or formal, terms that are not archaic but have mostly been replaced by a more modern version.

archaic/classical chinese-- terms deemed to be historical/ no longer in use in modern chinese, formal or otherwise.

Alright, we already have the categories covering most dictionary registers but bear with me. I will now explain why even this level of specificity is not too useful.

Where do you draw the line between slang and spoken chinese, or formal and literary chinese? There is a lot of vocabulary (in fact well over 90% of vocabulary that fits into more than one category). A 就 grammar that is both literary and formal modern chinese, while being in older chinese as well. A 時 grammar that is used in both formal chinese and slang memes, but not spoken. So do you put these terms in the special registers or not?

Also some terms can be hard to decide, maybe a term would technically be archaic or classical chinese, but is actually common in modern chinese due to historical dramas etc. I probably knew the term 臣 or 朕 long before being adequate at chinese. (P.S. pleco has the latter marked as archaic but not the first, for the same old usage.) Or what if a term was considered literary but became famous? Is a word that enters daily use from a quoted work now daily chinese, or should it have a different register?

This is even before you add some of the complexities into the mix, like terms entering mandarin from other chinese. Maybe originally a term was only considered literary or classical chinese, but re-entered daily life mandarin from a different chinese that has continued to use it.

As to address your original question, most terms in most dictionaries are going to agree overall. But it is normal to see some discrepancies when you consider all the factors in the decision process. Personally I would also have marked 臣 for I as archaic but I do not make pleco entries, or decide the standards of registers.

As for 之 meaning go, I will recognize it. I will recognize it as something literary or classical, or in that style. Just one more way the line is blurred, when modern "psuedo-classical" (there may be an official term for this genre I don't know) works make vocabulary and grammar revisit us in modern life.

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