May I know how the rules governing the pronunciation of 地?

In the song, 吻别, the singer pronounces 地 as di.


leng de lian yin cang de yi han du na me di ming xian

However, a quick check with the Oxford Chinese-English Dictionary suggests that 地 is pronounced de when used

[with an adverb or adverbial phrase]

while the pronunciation of di is used when referring to distance, position, etc.

Is my interpretation of the Oxford Dictionary wrong?

  • 2
    Certain pronunciation rules don't apply to singing. This is one of them.
    – user58955
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 7:30

5 Answers 5


Very interesting question.

Like what @AwQiruiGuo has said, 地 should be pronounced as [de] (in speech, that is). And indeed the mentioned singer does not speak perfect Mandarin.

However, this question has a more complicated background and should not be simply explained as the personal accent of the singer. Because in the case of songs, pronunciation variation kicks in.

Chinese Mandarin is a tonal language. But when the lyrics were sung, rhythm and beats can alter the tones. I'll take the lyric in the question as an example: Dictionary says 那 should be pronounced in 4th tone, but in this song, 那 is in 1st tone. Just listen to this song, and imagine what it would sound like if 那 is sung in 4th tone.

In lyric, when a character is on the downbeat, it is accented (stressed). If we mark all the downbeats, the lyric in the question will look like this:


The characters in square brackets are on downbeats.

In Chinese phonology there is a concept called 平仄, which deals with the arrangement of characters in poems (诗) and lyrics (词) according to their tones. 词 is an art form with strict metrical foot which is comparable to English poetry. You have to write each line of lyrics with specific number of syllables in specific stressed/unstressed order. The guideline of how you arrange the stressed/unstressed syllables was of course the original rhythm and beats of ancient songs, which unfortunately were most - if not all - lost in the history.

Ancient Chinese pronunciation was different from modern Chinese but you can roughly interpret 平 as stressed (1st and 2nd tones in modern Mandarin) and 仄 as unstressed (3rd, 4th and 5th tones in modern Mandarin). Although pop music does not follow ancient meters any more, rhythms and beats still impact pronunciation because it's only nature that people pronounce stressed syllables on downbeats.

With this in mind, now take a look again at the downbeat characters in the mentioned line of the lyrics:


连: 2nd tone, stressed. In this song, it sounds like 1st tone, still stressed.

藏: 2nd tone, stressed. In this song, it sounds like 1st tone, still stressed.

遗: 2nd tone, stressed. In this song, it sounds like 1st tone, still stressed.

那: 4th tone, unstressed. But in this song, it sounds like 1st tone, stressed.

显: 3rd tone, unstressed. But in this song, it sounds like 1st tone, stressed.

now back to 地 in question: should be 5th tone, unstressed. But in this song, it sounds like 1st tone, and is altered from [de] to [di].

Because [de] was 5th tone which is a very light one, if simply pronounced as [de] in 1st tone it just doesn't feel right. So traditionally when you want to stress [de5] you make it [di1]. And not only 地, but even 的 also follows this rule. I think this usage traces back to Chinese Opera. For example in The Legend of the Red Lantern (红灯记) there are some famous lines of lyrics:



where 的 is pronounced as [di], even if it's not on downbeat.

  • This is because tone are realized by pitch change, and pitch is constrained in songs. So when a character corresponds to only one note, its pitch would be flat and it sounds like 1st tone (this only flat tone in Mandarin).
    – fefe
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 3:11
  • Peking Opera (you wrote as Chinese Opera in your answer. China has too many different kinds of opera) is quite different from pop song. Peking Opera does have its only rules on pronunciation of characters. In Peking opera, no only the tones, but also the pronunciation itself will change.
    – fefe
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 3:17
  • @fefe good call on Peking opera's pronounciation, I'm not familiar with that. :) But I do think its unique pronounciation has influenced modern Mandarin (intended or not) for Peking has been a political/cultural center for a long time.
    – Rephinx
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 7:18
  • Thank you! As a native speaker, I remembered that a music teacher has talked about the pronunciation of 'de' in songs, but your answer is very professional and systematical!
    – zsf222
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 12:55

This might be historical reasons. According to some discussions in other forums, 'Di' pronunciation was common in almost all songs before 1995. After 2000, almost all are pronounced as 'De' -- the same as speaking. If you sing late songs with 'Di' sound, it sounds really weird, because it is no longer common in spoken languages.


的 地 得 as particles should be pronounced as de in the standard Mandarin Chinese. However, they are usually pronounced as di in singing.


90% Singers are pronouncing incorrectly. And even those wrongly pronounced songs are even more popular than correct ones.

In this case, the correct pronunciation should be [de].

Just fyi, the singer of 吻别 is 张学友 from Hong Kong. People from Hong Kong are not quite professional in Mandarin.

Update on May 4: sorry that I didn't check Jacky's original version on Youtube. He's pronouncing it correctly.

  • 1
    No, it has to be [di] when singing. 90% of the singers pronounce it incorrectly as [de].
    – user58955
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 7:29
  • 3
    @user58955 I agree with your "Certain pronunciation rules don't apply to singing." But I haven't heard any specific rule for singing. Why did you say it has to be di?
    – Stan
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 7:41
  • Erm, I learnt that in my primary school music class... I don't know if there's an official document prescribing this.
    – user58955
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 7:56
  • While I agree that non native speakers in general may mess up pronunciations, your particular accusation on Jacky Cheung has no ground at all (at least at the time of writing). Note that nowhere in the question has the OP indicated that he/she was listening to Jacky Cheung's version of 吻别. In fact, in the Cheung's original 1993 version (see the YouTube clip here), both occurrences of 的 (1:44 and 3:36 in the clip) in the cited lyrics are pronounced as "de", not "di".
    – user4086
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 22:17
  • The OP was probably listening to a version of this song sung by other singers. He/she might be listening to a second version by Jacky Cheung too. Since no details are given, it is unfair to accuse Jacky Cheung of wrong pronunciations.
    – user4086
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 22:19

的 can even be pronounced 'di' for emphasis. A lot of kids when they say 我的 will say "wo di" just to emphasize.

Something similar can happen with 地. Singers prefer to use the 'di' pronunciation - perhaps it sounds cuter. In some regions people also insist on reading 地 as 'di' and will tell foreigners likewise - but in MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin) it should, as oxford mentions, be read 'de'.

Edit: the only instance of this I can find in a dictionary is KEY dictionary, under '地' di entry they have the following explanation:

6 (suffix, forming an adverb from an adjective, e.g., gāoxìng 高興/高兴 "happy" + dì 地 yields gāoxìngdì 高興地/高兴地 "happily"; in this function often pronounced "de")

de entry:

{grammar} (variant pronunciation of -dì) (forming an adverb from an adjectiv, e.g., gāoxìng 高興/高兴 "happy" + de 地 yields gāoxìngde 高興地/高兴地 "happily")

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