Tone change rules

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Also known as: tone sandhi and 变调规则 (biàndiào guīzé).

There are certain circumstances under which a Chinese word or character's normal tone will regularly change to a specific different tone. These tone changes (also called tone sandhi) must be learned in order to pronounce Chinese correctly.

Three Essential Tone Change Rules

There are three main tone change rules that every learner needs to know. These rules are not normally reflected in the tone marks of pinyin; you just have to know them.

Each of these three must-know tone change rules has its own page:

  1. Tone Changes for Third Tones

    When a 3rd tone (such as “yě”) is followed by another 3rd tone in a group, the first 3rd tone changes to a 2nd tone (such as “yé”).

  2. Tone changes for "bù" (不)

    When followed by a 4th tone, 不 (bù) changes to 2nd tone (bú).

  3. Tone changes for "yī" (一)

    When followed by a 4th tone, 一 (yī) changes to 2nd tone (yí). When followed by any other tone, 一 (yī) changes to 4th tone (yì).

As you may have guessed, a quick reading of these rules is not going to be enough. You need to really dig into each one, see lots of examples, and hear examples of the changes. That's why each of the rules above is its own pronunciation point. Each one needs to be carefully studied and practiced.

Why Tone Changes Are Not Written

Normally the tone changes above are not written in the pinyin; you are supposed to just know the rule and apply it if you say the word(s) aloud. The reason for this is that in many cases if the tone change is written, you will be confused as to what the “normal” tone of a character is actually supposed to be.

For example, you might wonder, “is this a third tone written as a second tone because it’s followed by a third tone, or is this character always a second tone?” Always writing the original tones solves this problem. But it also means that you really need to know your tone change rules. Learn them well!

An Alternative Way to Indicate Tone Changes

Some textbooks or software (such as Wenlin) indicate a tone change with a small dot under the letter with the tone mark. This can be nice for beginners, but it is not part of standard pinyin.

Sources and further reading