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Note:

This question exists, which is asking a similar question—but the accepted answer is not what I'm looking for (nor do I think it actually answers my question), indicating that the OP's intent in the linked-question and mine are very different.

That being said, I am unsure how to word my question differently (but open to suggestions), and am thus leaving this note.


As this answer explains, in many cases, a single character is not often used by itself. This question is asked w/ that knowledge in mind.

While learning vocabulary, I have access to a great many resources on meanings of words and characters. In websites like:

... words and single characters are treated identically. All characters have some [maybe historical] meaning, even though sometimes it isn't used, and even native speakers will say the character itself doesn't mean anything. In my short amount of time learning, there have been many instances where individual characters are used by themselves (对 , 是, 好, 说, just to name a few of the bunch).

How can I know whether or not a character can be used by itself? I understand that many times they cannot be, and the reason for that, but many times they can be—and I'm at a loss as to how to figure out when this is or isn't the case.

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    Characters that cannot be used on their own are usually marked as "bound form" in dictionaries. If you don't see this notation you're usually good to go solo. Not sure if that answers your question or not though. It's much easier to answer this question backwards than any other way.
    – Mou某
    Dec 8, 2023 at 22:30
  • @Mou某 This is exactly what I wanted answered! Would you mind checking out this character? (I believe this isn't typically used by itself, but I don't see "bound form" anywhere). Anyways, if you write up your comment (and maybe an example :D) as an answer, I'll accept it. Dec 8, 2023 at 22:57
  • @Mou某 Ah! Meaningless bound form shows up on Pleco for 蝴. Yes, this is exactly what I wanted! Dec 8, 2023 at 23:05

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Short answer: Search a Chinese corpus like CCL corpus (http://ccl.pku.edu.cn:8080/ccl_corpus/) or BCC corpus (http://bcc.blcu.edu.cn/), and see how that character is actually used by people. That's the only reliable way to know if a usage is grammatical or not.

Long answer: It's a complex problem, with aspects not completely understood by grammarians. Since you are a learner, I suggest you always pay attention to the following points:

  1. Like English and other languages, words in Chinese are divided into 实词 (lexical words) and 虚词 (grammatical words), and the rules determining whether a single character can be a word is different.
  2. For grammatical words, don't learn them alone. Always learn them in constructions. Two dictionaries that give you a comprehensive reference of grammatical words and their constructions are 现代汉语八百词 and 现代汉语虚词词典.
  3. For lexical words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.), whether a single character can be a word depends not only on the word type, but also on the syntactic location of that word. For example, 服药 is a verb + object phrase, 服 is to take and 药 is medicine or pills. Here, 服 and 药 are used alone. Now there is a verb 服用 that means the same thing as 服, and there is a noun 药片 that means pills. Does this mean 服药, 服用药, 服药片, 服用药片 are all legal? The answer is: 服用药 is not legal, but all three others are legal and mean the same thing.

There are more irregularities like the example mentioned above (as another example, compare 摆齐了桌子 vs *摆整齐了桌子 vs 把桌子摆齐 vs 把桌子摆整齐). I haven't seen a grammar framework that can explain all of them, so my suggestion is always to look up a corpus and get a feeling of how characters and words are actually used.

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