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Tone change rules

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.

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.

Tone Changes for 不 (bù)

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

Examples

Remember, normally you do not write the tone change. We're just doing it here to make it extra clear.

  • shì not be
  • duì not right
  • yào not want
  • zuò not do
  • not go

Exceptions

There are no exceptions to this rule. Just remember that it only applies to the character 不 (bù), and it's still written "bù."

Tone Changes for 一 (yī)

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).

Examples

Remember, normally you do not write the tone change. We're just doing it here to make it extra clear.

  • one (of something)
  • yàng the same
  • together
  • bǎi one hundred
  • qiān one thousand
  • zhí straight; all along

Exceptions

When 一 (yī) appears as a number in a series, larger number, address, or date, it is pronounced without the tone change (regular first tone "yī")

  • 二 三 四 五 èr sān sì wǔ one, two, three, four, five
  • 0.12líng diǎn èr zero point one two
  • ge the first one
  • 一 千 一 百 yī qiān yī bǎi shí one thousand one hundred eleven
  • 2011èr líng nián the year two thousand eleven
  • lóu first floor
  • 二 零 房间èr líng fángjiān room 201
  • yīwǔyīshí in full detail [idiom]
  • 到 周五Zhōu dào Zhōuwǔ from Monday to Friday
  • yuè January
  • 三月 Sānyuè hào March 1st

Tone Changes for Multiple 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”).

Examples

Remember, normally you do not write the tone change. We're just doing it here to make it extra clear.

  • 你好 hǎo hi
  • 很 好 hén hǎo very good
  • 可以 can, may
  • 所以 suó so, therefore
  • 语法 grammar

Exceptions

While not exactly an "exception," sometimes multiple third tones in a row will be broken up by pauses. In this case, the last word/character in each "group" will be pronounced as a third tone. Beginners should not worry about this, as lots of third tones in a row is not super common.

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