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The Difference Between Written and Spoken Chinese

Very little is known about the origins of the Chinese written script, but many legends say that it was Cang Jie 仓颉 (cāng jié) and ambassador of the legendary Emperor Huang Di 黄帝 (huáng dì) who first invented it. The story tells that Cang Jie, after observing marks left on the ground by an object dropped by a bird, believed that by using shapes and lines, he was able to depict everything on earth.

Written and Spoken Chinese words

In ancient China, Classical Chinese, the traditional style of written Chinese, was, for a while, largely separated from the spoken language. Now however, written and spoken Chinese are more alike, although compared with some other languages, there are still some obvious differences.

Let’s take a look at these words as an example:

蹓跶” (liū dá)——”散步” (sàn bù)
” (liáo)——”” (tán)
” (xìn)——“” (hán)
剃头” (tì tóu) ——”理发” (lǐ fà)
脑瓜儿” (nǎo guār) ——”脑筋” (nǎo jīn)
压根儿” (yà gēn r)——”根本” (gēn běn)
大伙儿” (dà huǒr)——”大家” (dà jiā)

The former words are often used in spoken Chinese, as they are more humorous and relax; the latter are more commonly used in written Chinese, which is more serious and elegant.

Some words in the style of Classical Chinese are still used in writing today, such as the following monosyllabic words: (nǎi), (shàng), (tǎng), (ruò). and two – syllable words, or bigrams, such as 惠存 (huì cún),垂询 (chuí xún), 切切 (qiè qiè) and 雅正 (yǎ zhèng).

In comparison, 儿化音 (ér huà yīn), the addition of the ‘r’ to certain words, is only part of the spoken language and is never found in formal written Chinese.

Alternatively, there are also some conjunctive bigrams, such as 但是 (dàn shì), 虽然 (suī rán), 可是 (kě shì), 仍旧 (réng jiù) and 如果 (rú guǒ) etc, that are often simplified to monosyllabic words using the initial character like, (dàn), (suī), (kě), (réng) and (rú). Even with only one character, the meaning is still understood based on context.

Chinese Grammar

In Chinese grammar, because of the specific context, spoken Chinese will not always follow the rules as strictly as written Chinese does. There are lots of short and elliptical sentences that are commonly spoken, and differ from the common sentence rules.

Here are some commonly seen examples:

Elliptical Sentences

Example sentences:

(你) 怎么了? ( (nǐ) zěn me le) = What’s wrong (with you)?

(我的) 腿受伤了,(我) 走不动了。( (wǒ de) tuǐ shòu shāng le, (wǒ) zǒu bú dòng le)
(My) legs hurt, (I) can not walk.

(要是) 你不去我去。 ( (yào shi) nǐ bù qù wǒ qù.) = (If) you do not go, neither shall I.

(不管) 谁去都行。 ( (bù guǎn) shéi qù dōu xíng.) = It is OK, (no matter) who goes.

倒 (一) 杯茶 (给) 我(喝)。 (dào (yī) bēi chá (gěi) wǒ hē) = Please pour (a) cup of tea (for) me (to drink).

The reason why, in spoken Chinese these sentences are shortened, is that If the speaker spoke the words or character in the parentheses, it would make the sentence sound clumsy. The equivalent of these in English, might be the use of slang or contractions. For example, using ‘dunno’ instead of ‘I don’t know’.


Example sentences:

上车请排队。(要上车的话,请排队) (shàng chē qǐng pái duì. (yào shàng chē de huà, qǐng pái duì.) = Please line up to get on. (If you want to get on the bus, please line up)

他一教就会。(别人一教,他就会) (tā yī jiāo jiù huì. (bié rén yī jiāo tā jiù huì.) ) = He is quick to learn. (If some others teach him, he will soon to learn. )

The example in the parentheses shows the semantic structure of the sentence. But in spoken Chinese, it is common to ‘squeeze’ the structure of the sentence, and express the same meaning simply.

Modal Particles to Express Emotion

The structure of the spoken Chinese language can sometimes be loose, so in order to express a certain feeling, we add a modal particle, or alter the structure of the sentence.

Example sentence:

你呀,说话不算数! (你说话不算数!) (nǐ ya), shuō huà bù suàn shù! (nǐ shuō huà bù suàn shù!) ) = You did not keep your word.

他不住那儿了,听说。(听说他不住那儿了。) (tā bù zhù nàr le, tīng shuō. (tīng shuō tā bù zhù nàr le) ) = I heard that he does not live there now.

Special Formats: Idioms and Collocations

There are also some special expressional formats in spoken Chinese.

For example:

动不动 (dòng bu dòng): always

他动不动就打人。(tā dòng bu dòng jiù dǎ rén.) = He is always beating others.
有完没完 (yǒu wán méi wán) = Is there no end of it?

你俩到底有完没完啊? (nǐ liǎng dào dǐ yǒu wán méi wán a?) = Are you two finished?

可不是 (kě bu shì) = Yes, Indeed / Exactly.

他再不回家就完蛋了。(tā zài bù huí jiā jiù wán dàn le.) = If he still does not go home, he is done for.
可不是。(kě bu shì) = Indeed.

真有两下子 (zhēn yǒu liǎng xià zi) = pretty good at (something)

在这方面,你真有两下子!(zài zhè fāng miàn nǐ zhēn yǒu liǎng xià zi) = You are pretty good at that!

Pauses to Suggest Meaning

Spoken Chinese can express different meanings depending on it’s use of tone, pause or accent.

Both sentences below use the same characters and pinyin but have two different meanings:

我想 / 起来了 (wǒ xiǎng qǐ lai le.) = I want to get up.

我 / 想起来了 (wǒ xiǎng qǐ lai le) = I remember now.

The pauses (shown by the ‘/’) created by the speaker would indicate to the listener to meaning of the statement.

It’s important to note that like many other languages, written and spoken Chinese are not exclusively being written or spoken respectively. Depending on different social situations and people, you can decide to use either written Chinese or spoken Chinese. Spoken Chinese is often used in a letter or message to a close friend, whereas in a formal news broadcast, written Chinese would be used.

The examples above are just a few differences that separate spoken and written Chinese. If you have any questions or additional examples of differences, please leave us a comment below!