I'm reading 寓言故事 about the story of 郑人买履, and I found the phrase 左挑右选 and 前看后看, what does it means? Especially for the 前看后看, is it like before looking and after looking? It is kind of weird with the context. Here is a short citation of the story contains 左挑右选 and 前看后看, thankyou:


4 Answers 4


While...imaging he is in a free market (yes, there used to be free market in the old time I believe), and in front of a shoes peddler's booth that have all the shoes displayed there.

左挑右选 means he pick the one on the left, and then select the one on right.

前看后看 is more likely ref. to checking the shoes in the front and the back.

That's it. Nothing really special.

  • That's not what 左挑右选 means Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 4:27

左挑右选 and 前看后看 - Pick up the item on the left, pick up the item on the right, look and examine the item in the front, then look and examine the item on the back.

Depending on the situation, it can mean either the person is picky or has difficulty making up his mind.


In Chinese, there is a typical word formation method that uses the so-called "virtual character" (虚字). The virtual characters can mean something or mean nothing but just a placeholder. If it means something, it may not mean exactly the same thing as the original definition.

For example:

左挑右选 - To hesitate to make the decision on which one to pick. In this compound word, "挑" and "选" are 实字(actual character), but "左" and "右" are 虚字, which does not actually mean "left" and "right".

Similarly, in the word 前看后看, (or 瞻前顾后), "前" and "后" could be 虚字 that may or may not mean exactly "forwards" and "backwards".

When you translate the compound words formed by two, three, or four Chinese characters, you'd better take it as a whole instead of a combination result of character-by-character.

More examples:

你学习的时候,不要三心二意,东张西望。= You should concentrate when you study. (not halfhearted) (but to translate 东张西望 into look around is not quite correct).

昨天下了大雨,那个老墙呼啦一下倒了。= It rained heavily yesterday and that old wall failed altogether. (呼啦 = whooshing). You can not ask what the "呼" means and the "啦" means.

In some dialects, you can hear the following words:

犄角旮旯,乱七八糟,糊里巴涂,脏拉吧唧, 小气吧啦, etc.

  • 虚字 is not 虚词. 虚词 means function words for grammar.


  • 1
    Yes, it kind of makes me confuse, because initially I thought '左' and '右' are indexing something or what. And the '前看后看' is like 'before looking and after looking', but seems to be not perfectly suit this context. Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 15:03
  • 虚字 (abstract characters) and 实字 (concrete characters) don't mean that at all. 实字 are characters referring to actual objects / things, such as 墙, 雨 and 天. 虚字 are characters referring to concepts and things that aren't concrete, such as 东西左右前后. Some characters can mean both. For example, 天 can mean the sky, heaven, or a higher conscience / being. These are called 虚实字. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 4:36

Both mean "picky," "fuzzy," "finicky"

I am not sure why they seem strange to you. Imagine somebody who scrutizes all the items in a section of a store.

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.