Chinese Characters With Multiple Pronunciations

Around 20% of the most commonly used characters have more than one pronunciation. Learning which characters these are can make Mandarin less confusing.

It is common for Chinese characters to have more than one meaning, but did you know that characters can also alter their pronunciation in different contexts? These rather frustrating characters are called 多音字 (dyīnzì), and comprise about 20% of the 2,400 recommended to learn if you want to be able to read a newspaper. Some of these characters change pronunciation in tone only, while others can also change part or all of their pinyin. If you want to reduce the amount of time it takes learn Chinese, then it might be necessary to learn these the hard way, one-by-one. However, don't get caught up if you are having trouble memorizing all of these -- as time goes on, enough exposure and practice with Chinese will help you understand each of the differences in their situation context. Once you're there, you are sure to impress with your subtle understanding of Chinese.  

行 – Xíng or Hāng

One of the most commonly used Chinese words, 行 (xíng) is a form of consent as in, "okay, let's do that." It also can express movement, as in 步行 (bùxíng), "walking," 流行  (liúxíng) "popular trend," or 旅行 (lǚxíng), "travel." However, when it is pronounced as hāng, it refers to a row as in 行列 (hángliè), "rows," or as in 行业 (hángyè),"profession," and 银行 (yínháng), "bank," which can be directly translated as "silver business."

为 – wèi Or wéi 

Wèi is used in words that have "because" in their meaning, like 因为 (yīnwèi),为了 (wèile), and 为什么 (wèishéme). Otherwise, it  is pronounced wéi, as in 以为 (yǐwéi) "(mistakenly) thought," 认为 (rènwéi), "believe," and 成为 (chéngwéi), "become."

要 – yào OR yāo

While 要 is usually pronounced yào, sometimes it is pronounced yāo, most notably as in yāoqiú (要求), "demand." 

好 – hǎo or hào 

You might be surprised that one of the first words you learn can switch pronunciation on you at times. It is normally pronounced as hǎo in its diverse applications of describing things as good, useful, or easy like 好人 (hǎorén), "a kind person," 好用 (hǎo yòng),"useful," or 这条路好走, "this way is easier or more convenient." Some of the most common of the pronunciation change to hào are 爱好 (àihào), "hobby," 好奇 (hàoqí), "curious," 好吃 (hào chī), "tasty." 

得 – De Děi or Dé

The most common form of pronunciation for this character is the fifth (neutral) tone, which is a tricky grammar word for English speakers to get at first since it does not translate directly. It is used as a complement usually associated with verbs, as in 你说得很好, "well said," or 你玩得开心吗?"did you have fun?" When pronounced děi, it occurs instead in front of the verb, is an auxiliary verb, and means "must do something," as in 我得去银行, "I have to go to the bank." Lastly, when pronounced with the second tone, it means to acquire, gain, or obtain, as in 我得到了一个奖品, "I got a prize." In some colloquial instances, you will see 得了 (déle) as short for 得到了. This is not to be confused with déliǎo, which we will discuss later on. Some of the verbs you will commonly see with 得 pronounced in the second tone are or 赢得 (yíngdé) "to win," 获得 (huòdé) "to gain," and 记得 (jìdé) "remember." 

Related: How To Use: 的, 地, And 得 In Chinese

One phrase that highlights how important it can be to be familiar with the different pronunciations of 得 is 得不得了 (de bùdéliǎo). Here the first is neutral tone because it modifies the verb that it comes after, and the second 得 is part of déliǎo, which again we discuss further on. This adjectival complement stresses the seriousness of a matter, such as in 他难过得不得了, "he was terribly sad." 

的 – de, dí or dì 

The normal pronunciation of this word when it is used as a possessive is with a neutral tone. When you see this character as part of a compound word such as 目的 (mùdì) "purpose," or 的确 (díquè), "indeed," it's pronunciation changes. In colloquial language, dì sometimes replaces de, especially in karaoke songs. 

Related: How To Use: 的, 地, And 得 In Chinese

会 – huì or kuài 

This common use of this character is always pronounced huì. Its diverse applications include "can," 开会 (kāihuì"meeting," and 一会儿 (yīhuǐ'er), "soon." However, the character also means accounting (会计kuàijì) when it is pronounced kuài.

空 – kōng or kòng 

Kōng in the first tone means space or empty area, as in 空间 (kōngjiān), which can mean "space" or "room." When you are talking about free time (有空 yǒu kòng), as in 我今天有空, "today I have free time," or a gap between two objects (空隙 kòngxì), it is pronounced kòng.  If you've taken the subway in a major city like Beijing, you might be familiar with the phrase 小心列车与月台之间的空隙, which means "be careful of the gap between the car and the station platform." 

子 – zi or zǐ 

While I have been making this pronunciation distinction subconsciously, I hadn't consciously recognized it for a long time, which probably would have saved me some time learning Chinese if I had. When used with most nouns (usually concrete objects but not always), it has a neutral tone, as with 鼻子 (bízi) "nose," 筷子 (kuàizi) chopsticks,胆子 (dǎnzi) "courage," or 桌子 (zhuōzi) "table." However, when it is used to describe people (usually male), it is pronounced zǐ, as in 儿子 (érzi), "son," 王子 (wángzǐ), "prince," and 君子 (jūnzǐ), "gentleman" (a useful word if you want to learn some romantic Chinese sayings). 

血 – xuè or xiě 

Both pronunciations of 血 mean "blood," and can be used literally as with血压 (xuěyā) "blood pressure," or figuratively, as in 血统 (xuètǒng) "bloodline." Xuè is more bookish and xiě is more colloquial, but there is a lot of crossover in how they are used in daily life, and it varies from person to person. 

乐 – lè or yuè

When pronounced lè, this character refers to happiness (快乐 kuàilè), amusement (乐 lè), and optimism (乐观 lèguān). When pronounced yuè, it usually means music (音乐 yīnyuè), but can also mean happiness in this pronunciation as well.

重 – Zhòng or Chóng

The more common pronunciation of 重 is zhòng, which means "heavy," "weight," as in 重量 (zhòngliàng), or "important," as in 重要 (zhòngyào). When pronounced chóng, it means to repeat or duplicate, as in 重复 (chóngfù), "to repeat doing something."

还 – hái or huán

The hái pronunciation means "still," as in 还没到, "he/she still hasn't arrived yet." The other pronunciation, huán, means to exchange something, as in 还钱 (huán qián), or "exchange currency."   

假 – jià or jiǎ 

Jià means holiday or break, as in vacation time (假期 jiàqī). However, jiǎ refers to fake goods (ex: 假的商品), pretending (假装 jiǎzhuāng), and hypothetical possibility (假如 jiǎrú).

长 – cháng or zhǎng  

While the two are related in meaning, cháng means long, as in long hair (), and zhǎng usually means "to increase" or "grow up" (长大 zhǎng dà), but it can also refer to superiors (ex: 学长 "class leader") or one's elders/ancestors (长辈 zhǎngbèi).

都 – dōu or dū

In most instances, this character should be read dōu, which means "all" or "both." 我们都要去 could mean "we all want to go," but it could also mean "we want to go to both (places)." However, the same character is also used in the words for capital (首都 shǒudū) and metropolis (都市 dūshì).

传 – chuán OR zhuàn

Chuán means usually means to pass on, hand down, transmit or spread. Some common compound characters you will see it in are 传统 (chuántǒng) "tradition," 遗传 (yíchuán) "inherited," and 传播 (chuánbò) "spread; propagate." Zhuàn is usually seen in "biography" (名人传 míngrén zhuán), or the name of a famous novel, like The Legend of the White Snake (白蛇传 Báishé Zhuán)

应  – yīng or yìng

The more common pronunciation is in the first tone (yīng), and comes from the compound character 应该 (yīnggāi), which indicates that something should or must be done. However, it is pronounced yìng, when it has other meanings, such as in 反应 (fǎnyìng), "reaction" or "response," and 应用 (yìngyòng), "application" or "use."

 – yǔ or yù 

Both pronunciations of this character are similar in meaning, but when it stands alone it is always yǔ. When it is part of the compound characters 参与 (cānyù) “participate,” or 与会 (yùhuì) “take part in a meeting,” it is pronounced yù. 

着  – zhe, zháo, zhuó or zhāo

This is definitely the hardest character to memorize all the pronunciations of. Thankfully, only two of them are common. The first describes an ongoing action, such as 看着 (kànzhe) “watching,” and the second describes catching action, such as in 着火 (zháohuǒ) "catch fire" and 睡着 (shuìzháo), "fall asleep." Zhuó is a verb meaning to wear clothing, and zhāo is a stepping-like action, as in 走错一着, to "make a wrong move."

调 – tiáo OR diào 

Tiáo usually has to do with adjustment and is seen in like 调整 (tiáozhěng), "to adjust," and 空调 (kòngtiáo), "air conditioner." Diào is seen in 调查 (diàochá) "investigate," or "survey," and but it also means "musical tone" (曲调 qǔdiào).

尽 jǐn OR jìn

Jǐn means to the best of one's ability as in 尽量 (jǐnliàng) or 尽快 (jǐnkuài) which means "ASAP." As jìn, it refers to the end or limit of something, as in 尽头 (jìntóu). Actually, 尽 the simplified character is a combination of two traditional characters 盡 (jìn) and 儘 (jǐn), which is why it is a 多音字 in Simplified Chinese.

 – le or liǎo

The neutral tone version is the one you will see everywhere, indicating that an action has been completed. The other one usually means "to understand," as in 了解 (liǎojiě), or can mean that something is "unrivaled" 了不起 (liǎobùqǐ). You should also take note that 得了, as mentioned above, can mean "to obtain" when it is pronounced "déle." However, it is pronounced déliǎo when it is used as a modifier, as in 你吃得了吗, "can you eat all of that?"

处 – chù or chǔ 

This character's alternate pronunciations have two different meanings.  Chù has to do with a location, while chǔ means "to deal with" and appears in words like 相处 (xiāngchǔ) "to get along with somebody," and 处理 (chǔlǐ) "to handle a matter of business" or "tackle an issue."

参 – Cān or shēn

The cān pronunciation is most common, like in words like 参加 (cānjiā), or participate in a meeting or event. However, this character is pronounced shēn when seen in the compound character for ginseng, 人参 (rénshēn), which is common in Chinese medicine and food.

Other Characters

While the above characters are the 多音字 I consider to be the most crucial to functional Chinese, there are many more that exist. For futher study, I recommend the characters: 把, 散, 朝, 降, 相, 薄, 教, 便, 发, 藏, and和. Remember though, that the best way to memorize 多音字 is to learn them through their common usage contexts. Make sure you have consistent practice with another speaker so you can get used to recognizing the situations that differentiate 多音字 pronunciations.

Related: 3 Mnemonic Devices to Learning 3,000 Characters Quickly

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