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Distinguishing word

Also known as: 区别词, distinguishing words and attributive adjectives.

"Distinguishing words" are rather foreign to the English speaker. On the surface they may seem like regular adjectives, but distinguishing words do not have degree, so they are not modified by adverbs. Unlike normal adjectives, sentences involving distinguishing words use 是 (shì), and usually 的 (de) as well. Common words include the Chinese words for "male," "female," "real," "fake," and colors.

What are they

"Distinguishing words" are a special type of adjective that actually evolved from nouns. As such, they are more rigidly defined then other adjectives. Unlike other adjectives, "distinguishing words" don't have a degree that they can apply to: they either are, or they aren't. For example, something can be "blue" (a normal adjective) or "male" (a distinguishing word). You can say that something is "very blue" (that is, farther on the spectrum of blue), but you can't say that something is "very male" (because there isn't a spectrum for that). This means that distinguishing words can't be modified for degree like other adjectives can.

If you're not aware that some words are "special," you'll likely have difficulty making natural sentences, and you won't know why. It really all does seem a bit random and arbitrary until you get an overview of what distinguishing words are and what the most common examples of them are.

List of Distinguishing Words

Single character distinguishing words

  • 金/银 (gold/silver)
  • 男/女 (male/female)
  • 正/副 (first/second)
  • 单/双 (single/double)
  • 雄/雌 (masculine/feminine)
  • 公/母 (male/female)
  • 棉 (cotton)
  • 荤/素 (meat/vegetarian)

Double character distinguishing words

  • 双边/多边 (double-sided/many-sided)
  • 木本/草本 (tree/grass)
  • 简装/精装 (standard/special edition)
  • 彩色/黑白 (color/black and white)
  • 首要/次要 (most important/of second importance)
  • 无偿/有偿 (free/at a price)
  • 公立/私立 (public/private)
  • 军用/民用 (military/civilian)
  • 万能 (all powerful)
  • 西式/中式 (Western style/Chinese style)
  • 男式/女式 (male style/female style)
  • 老式/旧式/新式 (old-style/new-style)
  • 洋式 (foreign style)
  • 大型/中型/小型 (large-scale/mid-scale/small-scale)
  • 新型 (new kind)
  • 恶性/良性 (evil/benign)
  • 急性/慢性 (fast-working/slow-working)
  • 酸性/中性/碱性 (acidic/neutral/alkaline)
  • 上等/中等/下等 (top-notch/second-class/low-class)
  • 高等/低等 (superior/inferior)
  • 优等/劣等 (superior/inferior)
  • 次等 (second-class)
  • 高档/中档/低档 (top grade/middle-grade/low grade)
  • 超级 (super-, ultra-)
  • 特级/中级/初级 (superior/average/primary)
  • 远程/中程 (long-distance/medium-distance)
  • 长期/短期/活期 (long-term/short-term/current)
  • 袖珍 (pocket-sized)
  • 课余/业余 (extra-curricular/free-time)
  • 孪生/独生 (born twins/born alone)
  • 野生 (wild)
  • 亲生 (related)
  • 立体 (three-dimensional)
  • 现行 (current)
  • 稀有 (uncommon)
  • 潜在 (hidden)
  • 无私 (selfless)
  • 唯物 (materialistic)
  • 实足 (complete)
  • 人造 (man-made)
  • 国产 (made in one's own country)