Tone changes for third tones

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

Tone Change Rule for Consecutive 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”).

This rule applies to words as well as phrases. It even applies to what was probably the first word you ever learned in Chinese!

  • 你好 hǎo hi


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

Here are examples of individual words composed of two third tones:

Audio Chinese We Write We Say English
可以 kěyǐ may, can
有点儿 yǒudiǎnr yóudiǎnr a little (too); somewhat
想法 xiǎngfǎ xiáng idea, thinking
所以 suǒyǐ suó so, therefore
老板 lǎobǎn láobǎn boss

Here are examples of two simple third-tone words which result in a tone change when combined:

Audio Chinese We Write We Say English
很 好 hěn hǎo hén hǎo very good
很 小 hěn xiǎo hén xiǎo very small
很 早 hěn zǎo hén zǎo very early
很 少 hěn shǎo hén shǎo very few; rarely
很 远 hěn yuǎn hén yuǎn very far

For more examples of this 3-3 type, see also tone pair 3-3.

Multiple Consecutive Third Tones

The smart students always ask, "OK, so what happens when there are a bunch of 3rd tones in a row?" This is an excellent question!

In theory, all third tones would become second tone except for the very last one. In practice, such a "string" of third tones doesn't usually go beyond three in a row. This is because in natural speech multiple third tones in a row will usually broken up by pauses. In this case, the last word/character in each "group" will be pronounced as a third tone.

So, in theory, it would go like this:

  • 3-3-3-3-3-3 → 2-2-2-2-2-3

In practice, it usually goes something like this:

  • 3-3-3-3-3-3 → 2-2-3, 2-2-3

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