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As frequent readers will have noticed, I’m usually writing articles about how to learn rather than what to learn, not because I don’t think what is not important, but because I think that many other websites and books already explain this adequately, whereas how is a neglected question that deserves more focus. Today,

I’m going to make an exception, simply because the third tone in Chinese causes so much trouble for learners. I think this is aggravated by the way the third tone is taught, which is why an article about the third tone is warranted.  Most of what I say here is extracted from the thesis I wrote last spring, see details at the very end.

The third tone

Just to make sure that everyone is on the same page, here is how the third tone should be pronounced. There is no or little controversy surrounding this (the exception might be the third tone in final position, but research suggests that even well-educated native speakers with good pronunciation do not go up at the end, even when reading):

  1. Before a 1st, 2nd or 4th tone, the 3rd tone is pronounced as a low, falling tone
  2. Before another 3rd tone, the first 3rd tone is changed into a 2nd tone
  3. In final position, the 3rd tone is often (but not always) realised as a low, falling tone
  4. In isolation or when stressed, the 3rd tone is usually pronounced as a falling-rising tone

There is much evidence suggesting that the way we teach the third tone is not good enough, or at least that the third tone causes much trouble for learners of Chinese. Below, I’ll try to explain what’s wrong and I’ll also propose a step towards finding a solution.

The third tone is an essentially low tone

Falling-rising vs. low-falling T3

Of the above cases, the first is by far the most common, the others do appear, but much less frequently. This means that the third tone in Chinese is an essentially low tone, and that in a majority of cases, it is pronounced as a tone starting low and then going even lower (right in the attached picture).  This means that the only time a third tone is actually produced in a falling-rising manner is in isolation or stressed position and sometimes when occurring at the end of an utterance (this depends slightly on region, but it’s common even for TV anchors with very high standards not to raise the end of third tones even in final position).

So, rather than giving students the false impression that the third tone is mostly a falling-rising tone (left in the attached picture), I advocate teaching it as a low tone. In the picture, the traditional way of representing the third tone can be seen on the left, the low-falling variety that is most often the way it is pronounced can be seen on the right.

What’s the big deal?

This might sound reasonable, but why do I make such a big fuzz about it? Because it really is a big problem for many people and I think part of the reason is the way the third tone is taught, both in classrooms and textbooks. I hear very few foreigners speaking Chinese with correct third tones, even some people whose Chinese is otherwise very good still go up when they should go down.

Here are some examples:

  • 可能 – kěnéng
  • 想要 – xiǎngyào
  • 老师 – lǎoshī

Correct pronunciation of the third tone here is to start low and go down, without going up. I’ve lost count on the number of people I’ve heard going up on the first part, pronouncing America (美国) as méiguó. Don’t do it! If you’re not sure if your pronouncing this correctly, make sure to test it thoroughly with a native speaker and make sure they cannot cheat.

Some words of advice

You will sometimes hear people say that tones aren’t particularly important in Chinese and that the Chinese themselves don’t use tones anyway; if you can just speak fluently and quickly, you will be okay. This is wrong. There is some truth in that tones aren’t always pronounced the way they are described in textbooks, but that is not an excuse to ignore tones when you learn Chinese. Speaking quickly is definitely not a substitute for clarity and will lead to disastrous results in the long-run (please read Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small). Also, there is a huge difference between a native Chinese speaker being sloppy with pronunciation and a foreigner being sloppy. A native speaker is sloppy in a way that others are used to, whereas most people aren’t used at all to foreigners bad pronunciation.

I think the reason some say that tones don’t matter is that they’ve spoken Chinese in an environment where the listener can guess what they are going to say. If you are in a bar and ask for a beer in extremely bad Chinese, you will still get your beer. Try doing the same thing when you want to go by taxi and you will find it very hard to make the driver take you to the right location. Try discussing or expressing something fairly complex using more advanced vocabulary, and you’ll find that wrong tones makes people unable to understand what you’re saying. I’ve written more about this here: The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say.

We’ve talked a little bit about what not to do, so what should you do instead?

  1. Understand that the third tone is a low tone in a majority of cases
  2. Practice pronunciation diligently even if you’re at an advanced level
  3. Use tone pairs to practice the basics
  4. Check your pronunciation with native speakers regularly (using this game, for instance)
  5. Record yourself, you will hear mistakes yourself surprisingly often
  6. Practice speaking slowly, which makes it impossible to skip sounds and/or tones
  7. Don’t give up! 千里之行,始于足下!

Further reading

Most of this article is based on the bachelor thesis in Chinese I wrote in the spring of 2011, so rather than spamming this article with references, I simply refer to the thesis itself for those of you who are really curious.Here is the abstract, a link to the thesis itself is provided at the end. Before you check this out, though, you might be interested in having a look at an article over at Sinosplice which also deals with the third tone. Now the abstract:

The goal of this paper is to examine various representations of the third
tone in Standard Chinese, both in academic literature and textbooks for
beginners, and then evaluate what consequences the choice of
representation has for tone instruction. It was found that linguists primarily
prefer two models, even though slight deviations were found: either a
traditional approach describing the third tone as a falling-rising tone or a
model representing the third tone as an essentially low tone.

A survey of fifteen textbooks showed that a huge majority used the
traditional (falling-rising) representation of the third tone; only one textbook
described the third tone as an essentially low tone. Except for this
discrepancy, tone instruction was found to be homogeneous across the
spectrum of textbooks analysed.

After a careful discussion of the various flaws and merits of the two
different methods, it was found that considering the third tone as a low tone
would be beneficial for learners of Standard Chinese, mostly because it
conforms to the wide distribution of low pitch third tones in natural speech
and thus leads to easier rules for tone sandhi that need not be applied as
often as those applicable to traditional representation of the third tone.

Finally, it is suggested that the third tone should be described as a low tone
for beginners, but that more empirical research is needed in this direction
to confirm the theoretical analysis. There is also much research left to be
done in the realm of practical tone instruction and how to best convey tones
to beginner students of Standard Chinese.

Teaching the Third Tone in Standard Chinese: Tone Representation in Textbooks and Its Consequences for Students (PDF, 464 KB)


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46 Responses to Learning the third tone in Chinese

  1. Sara says:

    I’ve heard about similar ideas about the third tone, but I’m not sure what to believe. My Chinese teacher in Finland (from Tianjin) sain to us many times how wrong it is to say ni2hao3 and it should be ni3hao3. Native speakers and teachers have different opinions on this, so what to do?

    Even though I think tones are important in Chinese, I do have noticed that when speaking full sentences the tones aren’t as important as when saying an isolated word. At least it feels like that on this elementary level I’m on at the moment.

    You gave some good tips to imporove pronunciation! I think a good way to practice is to listen to an recording and reading aloud after that. Also having a tutor was very helpful for me. I’m not sure about the 5th part though. I do read aloud slowlier when I’m practicing pronunciation, but when speaking with people I use more natural speed of speaking. I’m afraid that if I start speaking slowly and stressing everything very clearly, then I would just sound stupid.

    p.s. I really like your blog and the how approach to learning Chinese. You are right, there aren’t really other blogs with the same idea!

  2. Olle Linge says:


    First, thanks for the kind words. I do my best to provide original content and even though I know that many people read the articles, it’s still very nice to hear you say that.

    As for the third tone, there are some controversies, but not concerning what you say. I can say for sure that either you have misunderstood your teacher or your teacher is wrong. I’ve read hundreds of descriptions of third tone sandhi in articles and books. I have also been taught by at least ten different teachers. I have never encountered any suggestion that third tone change I suggested in the article is wrong. Feel free to check any of the sources I list in the thesis.

    It is true that tones matter less on sentence level, mostly because a sentence gives the listener a context, making it easier to guess. This is true in any language and becomes even more true if you look at entire conversations.

    Regarding the fifth suggestion, yes, you will sound stupid, but that’s okay. The goal of learning Chinese isn’t to sound smart while you learn (or so I hope). The rationale behind the suggestion to talk slowly is that it’s very easy indeed to speed things up, but extremely hard to slow things down if you’ve never learnt to pronounce things properly. However, you don’t need to speak slowly all the time, just do it sometimes!

  3. Sara says:

    I guess my teacher was wrong then, because she said it very clearly. But how can a Chinese teacher who have been teaching Chinese for years not know it? Gets me thinking what else did she taught me that wasn’t quite correct.

    • Olle Linge says:

      To be honest, I have no idea. Perhaps she was referring to the way it’s written? I mean, you don’t actually change the third tone to a second tone, it’s just pronounced that way. You would still write two third tones.

      • Recently I’ve realized that there were lots of things my teacher didn’t teach us back in Finland.

        And also I’ve had to change my opinion about the importance of tones. Natives seems to usually understand me pretty well, but that might be because thei guess or are used to Cantonese people pronuncing things wierdly (is that possible?).

        The revelation came in a form of a fellow foreign student who has very good pronunciation and tones. He doesn’t understand if I say si1bai3 when I meatn 400 si4bai3.

        I also got a confirmation by my teacher (when I asked her directly) that my tones are off.

        I hope that those who are on the beginner levels will concentrate on the tones in the beginning so they don’t have to do as I’m doing, go back to the basics.

        • Olle Linge says:

          This is something I hesitate to write an artcicle about, simply because it’s mostly speculation, but I think that, somewhat paradoxically, tones become more important the more advanced your Chinese becomes. Let me use a very simple example.

          Student A has a very limited vocabulary and asks for two beers in a bar. Any native will understand this, even if the tones are completely off. Actually, it might even work if he speaks in Russian.

          Student B has a somewhat broader vocabulary and can talk about her family. Even if she misses some tones here and there, the native speaker can follow this because the conversation is easy to follow.

          Student C is at a fairly advanced level and discusses and ethical problem and want to use a metaphor to explain his reasoning. If the tones are off, the native speaker will be confused. I personally find myself in ths situation now and then, thinking to myself (couldn’t you have guessed that, I just missed one tone?).

          This is related to the predictability of what you’re saying. As it drops (as in the above examples), tones become more and more important. If your friend can guess what you’re going to say, tones aren’t very important, but if she can’t, then you they become very important indeed.

          Take place names as an example. I’ve heard numerous stories of foreigners trying to give directions to taxi drivers with miserable results. Place names are very hard to predict, so tones are very important (except if you’re going where all foreigners are going, of course).

          Oops, I think I just wrote another blog post. This might pop up again in a slightly modified format in the near future. :)

    • jennifu says:

      I’m studying Chinese for literacy, but I’m also an ABC who grew up in a Chinese household, and I have never heard ni3hao3, if that’s any help…

  4. [...] “low tone”. Here’s a short article about John Pasden’s better tone diagram. Olle Linge recently came to the same conclusion in his thesis for Lund [...]

  5. Harland says:

    Now, just tell us how to say the fifth tone correctly, and we’ll be set. “No tone” my butt…what the heck does that mean?

    I’m with you on hating textbooks. There is not a single good textbook for English speakers to learn Chinese. They’re all academic exercises, written by linguists to teach students of linguistics.

  6. Olle Linge says:


    The fifth/neutral tone is different depending on the preceding tone. Basically, it falls somewhat after a first or second tone, goes up after a third and falls very low after a fourth. This picture might offer you some help: http://www.lenaia.com/images/pronunciation/pronunciationintroduction/tone1234neutral.gif

    However, the real problem for learners regarding the neutral tone is when it should be used and when it shouldn’t, at least that’s what I find most difficult. Hope you find this useful!

  7. Stephen C says:

    Thank you!

    I’ve been living in Taiwan for the past 3.5 years, and I don’t know if I’ve EVER heard the rising part of the 3rd tone (except, as you said, in an isolated word when someone is specifically explaining how to say it). And yet 99% of the learning materials I’ve read always start off with the full dip-and-rise 3rd tone.

    It would make SO much more sense to teach the 3rd tone as low-falling, like you said.

  8. Olle Linge says:

    @Stephen C

    Actually, it is more common with a low tone in Taiwan than it is on the Mainland, especially in final position. However, the difference is not very big (i.e., most Mainland speakers also have a low tone in final position, it’s just more common in Taiwan). Creating teaching material that matches what is actually said should be helpful, both to improve students’ Chinese and their self-confidence (it’s quite annoying being told that something is pronounced in a a way which is usually isn’t).

  9. Xiao Xi says:

    I guess my teacher was wrong then, because she said it very clearly. But how can a Chinese teacher who have been teaching Chinese for years not know it? Gets me thinking what else did she taught me that wasn’t quite correct.

    Yes your teacher is wrong but this is common with natives speakers of ANY language, you often don’t know what you’re saying, you just naturally know what is right. Easiest thing is rather than listen to her explanation, get her to actually say 你好 and listen if the 你 becomes second tone – and you can be 100% sure it will!

    • That is right, and it reminds me of the time when one of my French friends asked a common Norwegian friend how to pronounce “hvordan går det?” (‘how is it going’). My friend, who is from Oslo, pronounced it without hesitation as [ˈʋûɾdɑn ˈɡòːɾ ˈdeː], which is as unnatural as two dipping tones in a row in Mandarin. What he normally says is [ˈʋûɖɑŋˈɡòːɖɛ], but because he was explaining it to a foreigner, he automatically switched to hyper-pedagogic foreigner-talk.

  10. Olle Linge says:

    Yes your teacher is wrong but this is common with natives speakers of ANY language, you often don’t know what you’re saying, you just naturally know what is right. Easiest thing is rather than listen to her explanation, get her to actually say 你好 and listen if the 你 becomes second tone – and you can be 100% sure it will!

    I agree, and this is why I think it’s not always a good idea to only rely on native teachers as a beginner. Some people can learn pronunciation just by listening to their teacher, but for those of us who need explanations, asking a foreigner who has reached a decent level might be a better idea. Native speakers will be very good at correcting mistakes and pronouncing correctly themselves, but don’t count on them being able to explain what they say, especially not in English!

  11. [...] The main reason for not cheating with tones and focusing on them from the very start is that it’s very hard to change incorrect tones later. The earlier you start correcting your mistakes, the easier it becomes. Of course, if you want to improve your tones, you first need to know what problems you have. One way of doing it is using the method I have suggested in another article, which works very well even if you don’t have access to a qualified teacher (you just need any native speaker). If you’re having problems with the third tone, you might also be interested in reading this article about learning the third tone. [...]

  12. [...] Also noteworthy is the fact that this app describes the third tone as a “low” tone, not as a dramatically rising-then-falling tone. This is reflected in the very shallow v-shape in the diagrams. There is scholarly literature on the subject and how it relates to the teaching of Chinese, but some places to start are the discussions on Sinosplice and Hacking Chinese. [...]

  13. Tracy says:

    I am a native Mandarin speaker and I am from Taiwan.

    I (or we) have never learned “when two 3rd tone words together, the first word will change to 2nd tone” since day one.

    Yes, when two 3rd tone words together, the first word “sounds like” a 2nd tone word. It will “sound like” a 2nd word natually; don’t need to memorize it or to emphasize this at all.

    Make sure you always pronounce 3rd tone correctly, either in a slow speed or in a fast speed. See these two examples:



    **That website is under construction.


    • Olle Linge says:

      The third tone is still a third tone, of course, but it’s pronunciation changes to that of a second tone. It’s unclear whether the changed third tone is identical to a second tone or not, but it’s very close (same contour, but perhaps slightly lower). It’s easy for you as a native speaker to say that this comes naturally and that we don’t need to emphasise it, but this simply isn’t true for foreign learners. We need to learn this by having it explained, listen to it pronounced and practise ourselves.

      Naturally, we should always try to pronounce all tones correctly. That goes without saying. I’m not sure what you mean by correctly here, though. I really don’t like the two examples you provided. No-one ever pronounces 你好 has two full third-tones, so I don’t think this is meaningful to practise. Instead, this might make students confused, because the teacher is saying one thing when speaking slowly and another whiles peaking at natural speed. If the teacher fails to explain this, some students will have problems. The third tone is mostly pronounced as low tone in Mandarin and this should be emphasised. Sometimes, before other third tones, it’s pronounced as a second tone. This needs to be explained as well.

  14. [...] explain tones to you in English and make sure you get it right from the first day (for example, the third tone is a low tone). After you know how to pronounce them in theory, practise with native speakers [...]

  15. simon says:

    *erm* I think you just solved all the problem(s) I ever had with Chinese in one blog entry (or one thesis, rather). So that’s why I never got it right when _trying_ and got it right when not thinking about it. *uhu* wow *_* thx orz

  16. [...] I’ve read this book twice already, the first time being roughly a year ago when I wrote my bachelor thesis about tone instruction. At that time, I had read little theoretical literature about Mandarin and jumping straight into [...]

  17. [...] Getting T3 right before anything but another T3 (it should be a low tone) [...]

  18. Renee says:

    Based on the textbook I’m using and information from teachers and on what I hear in the dialogue CD, I thought the half tone preceding a fourth was a half-tone rising, not falling. ie qing(3) jin(4) would be half tone up on qing and fourth on jin.

    Also, one of my teachers explained to me once it’s not a full second or a full fourth tone in these cases, it’s always a half. So when it’s rising, it never goes as high as second and when it’s falling it starts kind of in the middle of a full fourth tone.

    This helped my pronunciation enormously to think of it that way, and I am usually understood and told that my tones are unusually clear.

  19. Renee says:

    Read my text a little more closely and guess I misunderstood the teacher, but it is correct as you stated it, falling before a fourth tone. I noticed trying to read with this new thought in mind that it is going to be some work to undo this incorrect habit!

    Thanks for this post. :)

    • Olle Linge says:

      Regarding the “half rising tone”, this is complicated. I’ve read numerous papers arguing that the rising tone resulting from two third tones in a row is identical to a normal second tone. However, I have also read papers which argue that there is a difference. The point is that if there is a difference, it’s very small and it’s not significant for ordinary students in most cases.

      • Nuno says:

        Like most students I learned early on that T3 becomes T2 if it precedes another T3. But I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t the same kind of myth as T3 always being falling-rising.

        My current teacher has been much better than most natives at explaining tones, including teaching us about the low third tone, and other differences between prescriptive tones in dictionaries and such and the way natives actually speak.

        While she has heard of the T3+T3=T2+T3 rule, she says that isn’t really true.

        For example 你好 is much more likely to be pronounced as “low falling”+”traditional third” than as “second tone”+”traditional third” or “half rising”+”traditional third”.
        This is also the way it sounds to my ears.

        I wonder if you have heard anything similar and how much merit you think there is to this.

  20. [...] read this article for a suggested different way of picturing the third tone, along with some other thoughts on the [...]

  21. [...] the third tone (the one that dips and then rises) hardly ever actually dips and rises; instead, it sounds like a low flat tone, a counterpart to the high first tone. If you hit that low beat (a maneuver called the "half 3rd [...]

  22. Matti says:

    I studied chinese for at least 4 years with different
    chinese born teachers all of them teaching the “falling-rising” of the third tone. Also used Pimsleur that constantly talks about falling-rising. Then suddenly one non-chinese teacher fluent in chinese said “Oh, by the way, the 3rd tone is just a low tone – skip the rising part and it will be easier and you will sound more correct”. Thank you for letting me know after four years!!

    I think part of the problem is that chinese-born people often try to teach “foreigners” the same way they were taught in a chinese way. Maybe the theory is that the 3rd tone is fallingrising but every one already speaking their mother’s chinese know how to pronounce it in daily speech. So they learn a theory in school
    And teach us the same theory, but we have know other source

  23. Iris says:

    Thanks for this nice article. For a native speaker who is trying to teach Mandarin, your article gives me very good idea about how to explain things in English. Sometime it’s hard to put myself into the shoes of a foreigner who is learning Chinese. And it’s really important to stand in their place to find ways to solve problem.

  24. gs says:

    The wrong description of the third tone might be very well one of the reasons i’m completely incapable of hearing any tone difference at all. I could do it in isolated cases but never in speach. It just was not consistent at all. (2 and 4 still sound exactly the same to me though.)

    Thanks a lot, very helpful indeed!

  25. Daniel says:

    I think, even though this approach might improve students’ pronunciation, it will also make it more difficult for students to attain a native-like level of pronunciation. Sun (1998) explains that telling students to always pronounce the third tone as low is a form of “putting the cart before the horse,” because full third tones do occur in every day speech. Lin (1985) outlines three instances where she observed full third tones in every day life. Anyways, I think there is a quite a bit of evidence that suggests that the best way to learn the Mandarin tones is through attentive listening and lots of practice.

    • Olle Linge says:

      I think very few people dispute that the best way of learning is through attentive listening and lots of practice. However, I fail to see why the fact that the third tone is indeed sometimes pronounced 214 would make much of a difference. The surface form is the same, it’s just a matter of how we get there. Describing what is true in 80-90% of cases and then describe the remaining exceptions (T3+T3 and stressed/full T3) makes much more sense than describing the exception and then going for the much more common form. In any case, I think it’s quite obvious that many teachers fail to emphasis on the lowness of T3, which means that many students incorrectly pronounces T3 as T2.

      • Daniel says:

        Thanks for replying.

        Quick question, when you say low, do you mean half-third or you actually mean low as in it does not go down? (ie. similar to the first tone but just low).

        I think it is unclear why a “low-third” tone will be easier for students. This method assumes students will be able to control their pitch in such a way that they will not confuse third and first tones. But if then can control their pitch that well, why not just pronounce the third tone the way it is supposed to be pronounced?

        • Olle Linge says:

          Describing T3 as 21 (low-falling) or 11 (low) is essentially the same. It’s very hard to to produce a low pitch directly, so if you tell people to produce a low tone, they more or less automatically produce a low-falling tone. Studies have shown that the difference between 21 and 11 isn’t very important, and since it makes it much more clearer to just say that it’s a low tone, that’s why I think it’s better than saying low-falling.

          The arguments in the second paragraph are equally applicable to any kind of tone instruction. It’s all about pitch control. In the experiment I made with 40 students, T3/T1 confusion was almost unheard of, but that might be different for students of different nationalities. I think T3/T4 confusion is much more likely, to be honest, because we now have two tones that are actually falling in pitch. That’s why I stress the lowness rather than the falling. Still, this kind of confusion seems to be much less frequent than the T3/T2 confusion that is normally the case.

  26. Tim says:

    Lol, just had my first lesson with a native speaker today. Whenever I tried to say the third tone in combination with other sounds, he kept telling me over and over that I was making T2. Now I understand why…

  27. David says:

    Thanks for the post. Just started Pimsleur’s Mandarin I and was noticing this “disappearing” of tones. When the words are pronounced slowly, the 3rd tone is always heard as a dipping tone. When the third tone is part of a word or phrase, it seems that it disappears. Meiguo ren (american) or ni hao (hello).

  28. […] third tone make the former a second tone. Yeesh. Off-putting springs to mind. There is a great blog about learning Chinese that covers this tone in a fairer and more helpful way. I completely recommend […]

  29. […] Learning the third tone in Chinese: An in-depth post at Hacking Chinese on how to tackle the trickiest tone of them all – the third tone. […]

  30. Brett says:

    Thanks for this blog post. I’m sitting here after a couple of months teaching myself Chinese and I started to notice discrepancies in pronunciation in Skritter examples that couldn’t be explained by the “usual” descriptions of 3rd tone changes. This blog post cleared up my confusion really well.

    It’s amazing how simple and clear-cut you’re able to present it here, while other, more traditional resources simply add to the confusion. Well done.

    • Olle Linge says:

      Your comment (and several others with a similar gist) gradually convince me that I should write some kind of pronunciation guide to Chinese, not because I’m really an expert compared to some people I know, but because most existing resources are so bad. Thanks for the thumbs up and good luck with your studying! :)

      • Brett says:

        Thanks for the well wishing! Your post has really given me some food for thought since reading it, but it raised an important question that might be useful for a future pronunciation guide: what is defined by an “isolated character”?

        For instance, is 我 in “我是” isolated? True, they’re two separate words, so you could argue that it should be pronounced with the full rising/falling tone, however it’s also immediately followed by a 4th tone, which might also have an effect on its pronunciation given the pronunciation changes you write about in this blog entry.

        There’s probably a clear answer here, but for someone learning on his own, it could use some clarification.

  31. Fearchar says:

    Matti’s comment, “I think part of the problem is that [C]hinese-born people often try to teach “foreigners” the same way they were taught in a [C]hinese way”, hits the nail on the head: most learning materials are still under the shadow of the (inefficient) repetitive methods habitually practised in Chinese classrooms.

    Proof of concept? Just listen to callers to radio phone-ins from places where languages other than Mandarin are used, and remember that all these people were schooled solely in Mandarin for years on end, yet some can only speak haltingly in Mandarin; presumably, many more avoid speaking it at all.

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