In last week’s article, we saw that learning Chinese characters is not enough, you also have to learn words. Most words contain two characters, or two syllables in the spoken language, but there are words with only one character or with three or more characters as well.
In order to understand and remember compound words, and also to be able to use many of them properly, you need to pay attention to the internal structure of the words and what the individual characters mean.
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at compound words with the goal of making them easier to learn, but before we do that, let’s have a look at the other articles in this series:
- Part 1: Chinese characters in a nutshell
- Part 2: Basic characters and character components
- Part 3: Compound characters
- Part 4: Learning and remembering compound characters
- Part 5: Making sense of Chinese words
- Part 6: Learning and remembering compound words
Learning and remembering compound words
There are many different types of compound words in Chinese, and there is in fact a whole area of study called “morphology” that deals with words, word forms and word formation. The goal here is not to help you write a term paper in Chinese linguistics, however, but to help you learn Chinese effectively and efficiently. That means that what I say here is simplified and that there’s much more to Chinese morphology than it’s possible or even desirable to present in this article.
If you’re looking for a relatively accessible overview, I recommend Sun Chaofen’s Chinese: A linguistic introduction (2007). If you want a closer look at morphology (still in English), check Jerome Packard’s The Morphology of Chinese: A Linguistic and Cognitive Approach (2000). Links go to Amazon.
If you want the essential things you really have to know and that will have an immediate impact on your ability to learn and remember words, keep reading this article instead!
Like I said above, most Chinese words consist of two characters. They are therefore compounds, but a different kind of compounds compared to what we have looked at earlier in this series. We have seen how character components fit together to form characters, and that knowing more about how they do so can help immensely with learning characters.
Let’s do the same thing with compound words!
Morphemes are the smallest meaningful units
First, we need to talk about what a “morpheme” is. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical (vocabulary-related) unit. Let’s use English as an example before we move on to Chinese. A morpheme is not the same as a word, because words can contain several morphemes. For example, the word “hunters” contains three morphemes:
- Hunt, the root of the word
- -er, signifying a person; someone who engages in the hunt
- -s, showing that there is more than one such person (plural)
So one word, three morphemes. However, you can see that the two latter ones are not like the first. The first one can be freely used on its own, and is called a “free morpheme”. The others are bound together with other morphemes and can’t be used on their own, and are therefore called “bound morphemes”.Of course, words can contain more than one free morpheme as well, such as “blackbird”, “wheelchair” and “football”.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s see how this works in Chinese. In Mandarin, we also have free and bound morphemes. Many characters can be used on their own, but not as many as in Classical Chinese where characters and words often are the same thing.
Some of the compounds we looked at in the previous article are composed of two free morphemes. All the characters here can be used independently to form new sentences.
- 大家 (dàjiā) “everybody”
- 你好 (nǐhǎo) “hello”
- 吃饭 (chīfàn) “to eat”
Bound morphemes can only form words together with other morphemes
Not all words we looked at are like that, however, and at least one component character can’t be used on its own. Here are three more examples:
- 大衣 (dàyī) “overcoat”
- 足球 (zúqiú) = “football“
- 睡觉 (shuìjiào) “to sleep”
In the first example, 大 can of course be used on its own, but 衣 can’t. Still, knowing that 衣 itself means “clothes” is very useful, because it brings that meaning to many compound words, such as 衣服 (yīfu) “clothes”, 睡衣 (shuìyī) “pyjamas” and 洗衣 (xǐyī) “laundry”.
In the second example, 球 can be used on its own to mean “ball”, although exactly how free it is depends on if the word is supposed to mean “football” (the sport) or “football” (the round object you use to play the game). 足 is slightly trickier, because the most common independent usage Mandarin is probably when it means “enough”, as in 不足 (bù zú) “not enough” or 很足 (hěn zú) “plenty”. It can be used to mean “foot”, but it sounds rather technical as in an anatomy textbook. In everyday language, you should use 脚 (jiǎo) for “foot” instead.
In the third example, 睡 can be used as a verb on its own, which is extremely common, so no discussion there. 觉 on the other hand seems to only appear as the object of 睡 as we saw in the previous article. This can mean that other words get inserted between the verb and the object, as in 睡不了睡 (shuì bu liǎo jiào) “to be unable to sleep”.
Then we also have words where no component can be used on its own, such as 玻璃 (bōii) “glass”, 蝴蝶 (húdié) “butterfly” and 蘑菇 (mógu) “mushroom”, but these are less common than the others.
Four different types of compound words in Mandarin
This gives us four ways of combining free and bound morphemes for two-syllable words:
- Free + free (e.g. 吃饭)
- Free + bound (e.g. 睡觉)
- Bound + free (e.g. 足球*)
- Bound + bound (e.g. 玻璃)
*At least in everyday usage, see above.
We’re now going to look at each of these categories in more detail, although the goal here is to show principles and give examples, not to provide exhaustive lists. Put briefly, you can think of the categories this way:
- Free + free = combinations of parts that are in themselves words
- Free + bound = a word followed by a suffix
- Bound + free = a word with a prefix in front of it
- Bound + bound = two characters that only form a word when combined
1. Free + free = combinations of parts that are in themselves words
Chinese words are structured the same way as Chinese phrases
In the first category, where each part of a compound also is also a word in itself, is fairly straightforward, because the meaning of the characters involved are often readily available in normal dictionaries. There’s also a chance that you will have learnt them as independent words before you encounter them in a compound, which means that you only need to learn the extra meaning they have when combined.
From a memory perspective, this is also an easy category because the words here easily lend themselves to mnemonics. It’s not hard to come up with concrete images for words that are used on their own, or it’s at least easier than doing it for characters that have no independent meaning or have purely grammatical functions. I wrote more about how to combine concrete images for easy memorisation here:
Still, understanding the structure of the compound can make it easier to remember, and even more importantly, it can make it easier to remember the order the components are supposed to go in. Students mix up the order of characters within words often, probably because they don’t really understand the structure! Mor about this alter.
In compound nouns, the core noun is on the right
In general, nouns have the core noun component on the right, and verbs have the core verb component on the left. This is true in around 90% of cases. See Packard (2000) and Huang (1997) for a more detailed overview of the data.
If you think about it, this mirrors how Chinese grammar works too.
We have looked at some nouns, such as 足球 (zúqiú), 大衣 (dàyī) and 商店 (shāngdiàn), and here we can see that the core noun is on the right and the thing describing or delimiting its meaning is on the left.
足球 refers to a ball. What ball? A football.大衣 refers to clothes and 商店 is a store. This is the same as ordinary grammar where you have phrases like 我的球 (wǒ de qiú) or 红色的大衣 (hóngsè de dàyī) or 那边的商店 (nàbian de shāngdiàn).
In compound verbs, the core verb is on the left
On the other hand, if you have a verb, its object follows on the right, not the left. Following standard word order, you say 吃午饭 (chī wǔfàn), where the verb is clearly on the left of the object, not *午饭吃. We also looked 跳舞 (tiàowǔ), 睡觉 (shuìjiào) and 关心 (guānxīn) in the previous article and they all have the a verb on the left.
This is extremely useful for figuring out what order the components are supposed to be in.
How the meaning of components are related within Mandarin nouns
Packard (2000) lists a large number of types of relationships between both noun and verb formants within words. He also notes that most of the nouns are combinations of two nouns (54%) and that most verbs are combinations of two verbs (45%). He includes this table with data from Huang (1997). If you check the column with nouns, note that most of them are noun + noun compounds (and almost all the rest are other compounds with the noun on the right, as explained earlier).
Let’s look at the ways in which the components of nouns relate to each other, not in terms of structure (they are all nouns, after all) but when it comes to meaning. Below, N₁ means the first noun, and N₂ means the second noun.
- 眼镜 (yǎnjìng) eye + lens = “glasses”
- 手表 (shǒubiǎo) hand + watch = “wristwatch”
N₂ indicates a medical condition of N₁:
- 肺炎 (fèiyán) lung + inflammation = “pneumonia”
- 胃癌 (wèiái) stomach + cancel = “stomach cancer”
N₁ depicts the form of N₂:
- 砂糖 (shātáng) sand + sugar = “granulated sugar”
- 砖茶 (zhuānchá) brick + tea = “brick tea; compressed tea”
N₂ depicts the form of N₁:
- 雪花* (xuěhuā) snow + flower = “snow flake”
- 冰块 (bīngkuài) ice + piece = “ice cube”
*Packard notes that this should be parsed as “a flower (shaped thing) made of snow)”, so it doesn’t violate the rule that the core noun is on the right and the thing that describes it is on the left, which it might look like at first, as it is after all snow, not a flower. Similarly, we don’t say “flake snow” in English either.
N₂ is used for N₁:
- 机场 (jīchǎng) machine + field = “airport”
- 球拍 (qiúpāi) ball + paddle = “racket”
N₁ is the habitat of N₂:
- 水鸟 (shuǐniǎo) water + bird = “aquatic bird”
- 松鼠 (sōngshǔ) pine + rat = “squirrel”
N₂ is caused by N₁:
- 水灾 (shuǐzāi) water + disaster = “flood”
- 车祸 (chēhuò) vehicle + misfortune = “vehicle accident”
N₂ is a container for N₁:
- 茶杯 (chábēi) tea + cup = “teacup”
- 书包 (shūbāo) book + bag = “schoolbag”
N₂ is produced by N₁:
- 鸡蛋 (jīdàn) chicken + egg = “(chicken) egg”
- 牛奶 (niúnǎi) cow + milk = “(cow’s) milk”
N₂ is made from or composed of N₁:
- 铁路 (tiělù) iron + road = “railroad”
- 猪肉 (zhūròu) pig + meat = “pork”
N₁ is a type or subclass of N₂:
- 兰花 (lánhuā) orchid + flower = “orchid”
- 苹果 (píngguǒ) apple + fruit = “apple”
N₁ is a metaphorical description of N₂:
- 银行 (yínháng) silver + business = “bank”
- 火车 (huǒchē) fire + vehicle = “train”
N₂ is a source of N₁:
- 电池 (diànchí) electricity + pool = “battery”
- 油井 (yóujǐng) oil + well = “oil well”
N₁ is a source of N₂:
- 海盐 (hǎiyán) sea + salt = “sea salt”
- 花粉 (huāfěn) flower + powder = “pollen”
N₂ is something that N₁ has or contains:
- 手掌 (shǒuzhǎng) hand + palm = “palm”
- 房顶 (fángdǐng) house + top = “roof”
N₁ is something that N₂ has or contains:
- 名片 (míngpiàn) name + strip = “name card”
- 厕所 (cèsuǒ) toilet + place = “toilet”
There are also many nouns that have two noun components that both mean the same thing and there is no obvious hierarchy between them. For example:
- 墙壁 (qiángbì) wall + wall = “wall”
- 森林 (sēnlín) forest + forest = “forest”
- 眼睛 (yǎnjing) eye + eye = “eye”
There are also cases where both components are members of a class of objects, and by putting them together in a word, the whole category is indicated. For example:
- 山水 (shānshuǐ) mountain + water = “scenery”
- 图画 (túhuà) chart + picture = “picture”
- 灯火 (dēnghuǒ) light + fire = “lights”
How the meaning of components are related within Mandarin verbs
Let’s turn to verbs! As stated above, 45% of verbs are composed of two verb components. You can check the table included above for details, but to summarise, almost all verbs have a verb component on the left and most of these also have a verb component on the right, but some also have a noun component on the right. Packard (2000) describes three different kinds of verb compounds:
- Verb + verb compounds
- Resultative verbs
- Verb + object compounds
Verb + verb compounds
Let’s have a quick look at some examples!
Verbs where both components mean the same thing:
- 讨论 (tǎolùn) discuss + discuss = “to discuss”
- 阅读 (yuèdú) read + read = “to read”
- 指导 (zhǐdǎo) point (out) + guide = to direct; to guide”
Verbs where each component refers to a distinct activity and the overall meaning is not a category where both belong:
- 观察 (guānchá) observe + investigate = “to investigate”
- 叫醒 (jiàoxǐng) call + wake up = “awaken by calling”
- 追求 (zhuīqiú) pursue + seek = “seek and pursue”
There are also some verbs which work a bit like the nouns we have discussed, i.e. where the first verb specifies the second:
- 飞行 (fēixíng) fly + go = “to fly”
- 喊叫 (hǎnjiào) shout + call = “to shout”
- 仿造 (fǎngzào) imitate + make = “to make an imitation”
These are words formed by taking a verb and adding a resultative complement to it. Here are a few examples from different categories:
- Stative resultatives: 吃饱 (chībǎo), 吃得饱 , 吃不饱
- Directional resultatives: 跑上* (pǎoshang), 跑得上, 跑不上
- Attainment resultatives: 看到 (kàndao), 看得到, 看不到
*Usually with something after it, so 跑上楼 etc..
However, I think this is closer to grammar and syntax, so I will save a deeper discussion of how this works for some other time.
This is a category of words that is very interesting, but mostly for linguists because it’s a good example of a tricky problem. We already discussed this in the previous article, so I refer to that if you want to know what all the fuss is about. Packard (2000) of course has an overview of the debate and also a proposed solution, but it has little practical value for individual students, because most of the debate is about where to draw the line between a word and a phrase. As we saw in the previous article, this matters, but not much if the goal is to learn and remember words, which is our goal here.
Reversible words in Mandarin and how to deal with them
You should know by now that the key to getting the order right is to understand the components and the structure of words in general, which often will tell you the particular word you’re interested in. With this knowledge at hand, it’s very easy to sort out words where the order is reversible, i.e. where both versions exist.
Let’s look at a few examples:
- 牙刷 (yáshuā) “tooth brush” vs. 刷牙 (shuāyá) “to brush teeth” – This should never cause any trouble, provided that you know the components. 牙刷 is a noun and we know that the core noun component is usually on the right, so it’s a brush, not a tooth. What brush? A tooth brush. Same as in English. 刷牙 is a verb and we know that the core verb component is on the left, so to brush, not some other verb related to teeth. Brush what? Your teeth. Same as in English again.
- 蜂蜜 (fēngmì) “honey” vs. 蜜蜂 (mìfēng) “bee” – Both these are nouns, so they should be very easy to keep separate if you know the components. It also happens to be the same in English: “bee honey” vs. “honey bee”. The former is something you can eat and the latter is a flying insect.
- 法语 (fǎyǔ) “French” vs. 语法 (yǔfǎ) “grammar” – In this case, you can’t look at compound words in English, but with some understanding of the words here ,it’s still easy to remember which one is which. 语 is a common suffix for languages (英语, 汉语, 日语 etc.) so what kind of 语 are we talking about? 法语! 法 doesn’t mean “law” here, of course, but is a phonetic loan. In the other case, 法 does mean “law”, though, what law? The laws that govern language, so 语法, or “grammar”.
This doesn’t mean that all cases will be easy, and as I have said before and will say again, languages are sometimes rather arbitrary, and rules can only take us so far:
- 地道 (dìdao) vs. 道地 (dàodì) – Both these words can mean the same thing, i.e. “authentic; original”. Which is used is a regional difference, so on the mainland, people tend to use 地道 and in Taiwan, people use 道地. Is there any way to predict this? No.
- 适合 (shìhé) vs. 合适 (héshì) – Both these are related to something being suitable, but they differ in how they are used. 合适 is mostly used as an adjective, so you can say 这件衣服很合适 (zhè jiàn yīfu hěn héshì) “this piece of clothing is suitable”, but 适合 is used as a verb, so: 这件衣服适合你 (zhè jiàn yīfu shìhé nǐ) “this piece of clothing suits you”. And can you know that by analysing the component characters? I don’t think so.
- 积累 (jīlěi) vs. 累积 (lěijī) – Both verbs mean the same thing: “to accumulate” and are largely interchangeable, but have a slightly different feel, where 累计 is something you might realise have accumulated over time, whereas 积累 is more actively accumulating something. In the sentence 这几年，我＿＿很多工作经验 (zhè jǐ nián, wǒ ____ hěn duō gōngzuò jīngyàn), buth words work, but with 累计, you’re maybe reflecting on what you’ve done in the past few years, whereas with 积累, accumulating all that experience was something you deliberately did. Again, this is not something you can figure out by looking at the words.
For these cases, vast amounts of exposure with a seasoning of explicit learning is probably the best approach:
2. Free morpheme + bound morpheme = a root word followed by a suffix
That was a rather long discussion of the semantic (meaning) relationships between the components within compound nouns and verbs, but it’s time to move on and have a look at a the second type of word structure, namely where we have a free morpheme followed by a bound morpheme, which acts like a suffix. As before, the goal here is to explain principles and give examples, not exhaustively list all suffixes.
Please note that this type of word is not generally predictable, i.e. you can’t know when you can and cannot add a suffix to a certain root. Thus, this is a way to understand words you encounter, not guess how to say something you don’t know how to say. The categories are from Sun (2007), but I’ve chosen more suitable (easier) examples in many cases.
子 (zi) indicating a noun, original a free morpheme meaning “child” (zǐ)
- 桌子 (zhuōzi) “table”
- 鼻子 (bízi) “nose”
- 房子 (fángzi) “house”
学 (xué) meaning “study”, indicating a school or discipline
- 数学 (shùxué) “mathematics”
- 化学 (huàxué) “chemistry” (i.e. the study of change or transformation)
- 小学 (xiǎoxué) “elementary school”
度 (dù) “degree”, or how much there is of something, turning it into a noun
- 速度 (sùdù) “speed” (i.e. “degree of fast”)
- 难度 (nándù) “difficulty (i.e. “degree of difficulty”)
- 透明度 (tòumíngdù) “transparency” (i.e. “degree of transparent”)
化 (huà) “change”, turning something into a noun denoting change
- 老化 (lǎohuà) “aging”
- 现代化 (xiàndàihuà) “modernisation”
- 内化 (nèihuà) “internalisation”
头 (tou), which normally means “head”, but is also used for nouns in a similar way to 子
- 木头 (mùtou) “wood”
- 舌头 (shétou) “tongue”
- 老头 (lǎotóu) “old man”
员 (yuán), indicating a person or a member of a group, also turning the word into a noun
- 运动员 (yùndòngyuán) “athlete” (i.e. “sport-person”)
- 服务员 (fúwùyuán) “waiter” (i.e. “service-person”)
- 店员 (diànyuán) “shop assistant” (i.e. “shop-person”)
This is maybe a good opportunity to bring up the complexity of suffixes and the arbitrariness of languages. Here are a few more similar suffixes that can be used in a similar way:
- 家 (jiā), e.g. 作家 (zuòjiā) “author”
- 者 (zhě), e.g. 记者 (jìzhě) “journalist”
- 生 (shēng), e.g. 学生 (xuésheng) “student”
- 师 (shī), e.g. 律师 (lǜshī) “lawyer”
- 人 (rén), eg. 军人 (jūnrén) “soldier”
While there are some patterns here, there are no hard rules, so you can’t predict what a certain word will look like. An example of a pattern might be that 师 refers to a master and 生 to a student, but why is it 医生 (yīshēng) and 厨师 (chúshī) for “doctor” and “cook”, then? What makes one a master but not the other? If you want more examples of each, this blog post lists quite a lot of them.
There’s also suffixes that work almost like inflections in English, such as:
们 (men) indicating plural or a collective (usually of people)
- 我们 (wǒmen) “we”
- 他们 (tāmen) “they”
- 孩子们 (háizimen) “the children”
But most of them are out of scope for this article and belong in a bigger discussion about grammar, such as…
…and so on.
3. Bound morpheme + free morpheme = a root with a prefix in front of it
We can of course also have the reverse of the above, so the free morpheme on the right and then a prefix on the left. Here are some examples to show you how it works:
小 (xiǎo) “small” and 老 (lǎo) “old”, used to indicate familiarity
- 小林 (Xiǎo Lín), “small Lín”, normally used when someone is younger than you
- 老张 (Lǎo Zhāng), “old Zhāng” normally used when someone is older than you
老 (lǎo) “old” can also be used in animal names, but has nothing to do with familiarity
- 老虎 (lǎohǔ) “tiger”
- 老鼠 (lǎoshǔ) “rat”
小 (xiǎo) “small” can of course also mean small in a more literal sense
- 小菜 (xiǎocài) “dish”
- 小孩 (xiǎohái) “child”
Other prefixes include 第 (dì) indicating ordinal numbers, e.g. 第一 (dì yī) “first”, and 初 (chū) indicating “beginning”, e.g. 初稿 (chūgǎo) “first draft”.
4. Two bound morphemes = two characters that only form a word when combined
This category is much smaller than the others and contains words whose component parts can’t be used on their own. We already looked at 玻璃 (bōli) “glass” before, where neither 玻 nor 璃 can be used independently. There are also many animals and plants that have names of this type, such as 蝴蝶 (húdié) “butterfly” and 蘑菇 (mógu) “mushroom”. It’s not restricted to these types of words, though, and a common example of a verb is 讨论 (tǎolùn).
You can also count sound loans from other languages into this category if you want, because while 巧克力 (qiǎokèlì) does mean “chocolate” and 咖啡 (kāfēi) means “coffee”, there’s no internal logic in these words; the characters merely represent sounds in a foreign language.
From a learner perspective, you don’t really need to treat words in this category differently from the free + free compounds we have already discussed. When memorising these words, it doesn’t really matter that they happen to be bound morphemes in modern Mandarin, you can still treat them as meaningful units and create mnemonics accordingly.
However, the order is often arbitrary, so you can’t use the rules we’ve talked about earlier to remember what character goes first. I think the solution here is simply to use the language more, including the spoken language. You won’t say *菇蘑 (gūmó) or *蝶蝴 (diéhú) if you’ve actually used these words and seen or heard them in context many times.
Conclusion: Learning Chinese words really fast
I think it should be clear by now that Chinese words can actually be easy to learn, provided that you know the building blocks and how they fit together. We explored how to learn the building blocks in the first few parts of this series, and in this and the previous article, we discussed how they fit together to form words.
Learning words in Chinese can be very fast once you have the foundation. This is both because the words intuitively makes a lot of sense, often more so than in English (compare 肺炎 (fèiyán) and “pneumonia” for example, which is most transparent?), and because if you know the building blocks, you can unleash the full power of mnemonics.
Here’s what the process looks like (although you don’t have to do it in this order):
- Learn the building blocks (the individual characters)
- Connect them together using logic and or mnemonics
- Upgrade, reinforce and replace weak links (words you forget)
While this article is written in 2021, I still want to include some data from an experiment I ran almost exactly a decade ago, when I had studied Chinese for a few years. Please note that all this requires a lot of practice with mnemonics and that you really do need a solid foundation first.
So back in 2011, I conducted a small and very unscientific experiment to see how well this method works for learning vocabulary. Naturally, I’ve been using similar methods almost from the start, but I decided to test the limits. Going through the vocabulary list to an advanced level proficiency test, I found there were around 2,000 words I didn’t know.
It took me little more than three hours a day for five days to go through that list, averaging about 400 words per day, 135 words per hour or just over two words per minute. Using spaced repetition software, I was able to retain about 90% of these words, spending another ten hours over the following weeks. This doesn’t mean that I could use all these words properly, of course, but it was enough to significantly boost my reading ability.
I didn’t share this with you in order to boast, I did so because I’m convinced that it’s possible for most people to do this (or something similar) given that you have made the proper preparations. Naturally, building up an extensive knowledge of individual characters and how they fit together takes years, but I hope that this article has made it a little bit easier to make sense of words in Chinese!
References and further reading
Duanmu, S. (2007). The phonology of standard Chinese. Oxford University Press.
Huang, S. (1997). Chinese as a headless language in compounding morphology, in Packard (1997). New Approaches to Chinese Word Formation: Morphology, phonology and the lexicon in modern and ancient Chinese. Trends in Linguistics Studies and Monographs . Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Packard, J. L. (2000). The morphology of Chinese: A linguistic and cognitive approach. Cambridge University Press.
Sun, C. (2006). Chinese: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Zhao, J. (2006). Japanese loanwords in modern Chinese. Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 34(2), 306-327.
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Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2010, was rewritten from scratch and massively updated in December, 2021.
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