Memory Centre: 拼音的秘密 (pīnyīn de mìmì) Pinyin secrets, part III

Hi! Let’s take a look at the third and final instalment of 拼音的秘密 (pīnyīn de mìmì) Pinyin secrets! This last secret is the most whimsical, and while it’s beneficial to know of its existence, it’s unfortunately the most difficult to pin down, because there is no set rule for it.

Welcome to the frustrating magic of tone sandhi!

What is tone sandhi?

In tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese, tone sandhi is what happens when a word changes its tone because of words next to it. We’ll go through a few that have some decently defined rules, and then show you the whimsical nature of it, where we show you some words where there are no rules as to why tone sandhi was applied at all 🙂


The easiest of the tone sandhi rules, the word gè (个) loses its tone when it gets used as a measure word. As an example, if you have two apples: liǎng ge píngguǒ (两个苹果) the gè, originally fourth tone, turns into a neutral tone. When not used as a measure word, like in the word gèzi (个子, height) you can see it keeps its tone. Easy, right? On to the next one!


Things start to get a little bit more complicated here. When yī (一) has the meaning of the ordinal “first,” it retains its tone (like in “the first time,” dì yī cì [第一次].) However, when it has the meaning of the cardinal number “1,” it will change its tone in the following ways:

  • When followed by fourth tone, it changes to second tone (yí) like in “I’ve only been to China one time,” wǒ zhǐ qù guò Zhōngguó yí cì (我只去过中国一次)
  • When followed by any other tone, it changes to fourth tone (yì) like in “one computer,” yì tái diànnǎo (一台电脑)
  • Unless it gets used in the sentence structure A yi A (verb duplication): like kàn yi kàn (看一看) where it loses its tone.

Protip: the rules chain, too! So if we had one apple instead: yí ge píngguǒ (一个苹果) you can see that the original fourth tone of the gè changes the 一 (yī) into second tone (yí) before losing its own tone. Having fun yet?


bù (不) follows similar rules to yī (一) thankfully, though it doesn’t have to worry about that cardinal/ordinal situation, so it’s slightly less confusing. So for bù it’s just:

  • When followed by fourth tone, it changes to second tone (bú) like in “I don’t want to go!” wǒ bú yào qù! (我不要去!)
  • Otherwise, it retains its own fourth tone (bù) like in “You aren’t going back to China this year?” nǐ bù huí Zhōngguó ma? (你今年不回中国吗?)
  • Unless it gets used in the sentence structure A bu A: like qù bu qù (去不去) where it loses its tone.

Third tone sandhi

When there are two or more words with the third tone, the tones start to change. With two, like in nǐ hǎo (你好) the first third tone turns into a second tone (so it’s actually pronounced as ní hǎo.)

When there are three tones in a row, people go by the rules:

  • if the first word is two syllables and the second word is one syllable, then the first two syllables turn into second tone (eg. bǎoguǎn hǎo [保管好] turns into báoguán hǎo); while
  • if the first word is one syllable and the second word is two syllables, then the first syllable keeps its third tone, the second syllable turns into second tone, and the third syllable keeps its third tone too (eg. shǔ lǎoshǔ [属老鼠] turns into shǔ láoshǔ.)

However, everyone tends to say don’t bother memorising this, you will pick it up the more you speak and listen!

The mysterious “other” tone sandhi

Here’s where things get tricky. With some words, the tone is dropped (to neutral tone) but isn’t really a rule for it. Which means you can’t see it coming sometimes! Some examples:

  • The liàng (亮) in piàoliang (漂亮) loses its tone, but doesn’t in guāngliàng (光亮)
  • The zǐ (子) in érzi (儿子) loses its tone
  • The shǎo (少) in duōshao (多少) loses its tone, but normally on its own it gets to keep it
  • The second bà (爸) in bàba (爸爸) loses its tone, as does the mā (妈) in māma (妈妈)

There are many more, but this doesn’t matter too much. Someone will correct you some time, and you just have to remember which ones get dropped (sandhified? Can I say that?) and which ones are normal 🙂

Phew, that was long! Don’t be afraid to read, re-read, and ask us a question if you have one!

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