Chinese sentence with different meanings spoken vs. written

Given that the are tonal changes under some circumstances (e.g. third tone + third tone), I heard that there are sentences with different meanings depending on whether it is spoken or written.

Can you please give me some examples?

Why don’t you ask the person who told you about this?


Person said they need to think about it, but couldn’t come up with one. Do you have any other helpful suggestions?

My advice is to tell any Chinese teacher (formal or random person “just trying to help you out”) that thinks focusing on the tone sandhi rule for more than “did you notice that the tones here are more like a rising, then low tone and not two low tones?” and then moving on with the lesson is wasting your time. There are soooo many more important things to pay attention to when learning Chinese. If you’re getting sufficient and appropriate listening in and attention is drawn (briefly!!! Like a minute max!) to the difference, your brain will more or less sort the tone rules out.

Also, tones in Taiwan are pretty loosely followed as it is. Shui4jiao4 (睡覺, sleep), for example, is definitely shui4jiao3, and that’s just the one of a bazillion examples of why should focus on listening so you have accurate pronunciation of the actual words of the language. Not saying “ignore the tones”, but only a true asshole is going to have trouble understanding “ni3hao3” instead of “ni2hao3”

Edit because I think i misunderstood your question: I don’t understand what you’re asking. You’re saying someone told you that the same sentence when spoken means something different when written? You’re going to need to give some examples, as I’ve never heard of this


The characters are the characters. Why would they mean something different when spoken and written? And what does this have to do with tone sandhi? I think somebody’s just trying to mess with your head.


I also never heard of this. You might be meaning such as 祖父, in Taiwan more in Central and Southern Taiwan does not use Standard Chinese word but Taiwanese version (or other) so you might hear different sounds (really spoken word is different) for 祖父 (Grandfater) example. You might be hearing Taiwanese mixed in.

This , I was thinking?

Or just mistaken

Well, it could be a kind of a pun or play on words (like an English example that you posted in another thread).

I guess that tonal ambiguity caused by tone sandhi might lead to a misinterpretation of the intention in some cases. As a very contrived example, say someone asks you what you are doing, and you say you’re buying water with “買水”. I guess that would be pronounced with a rising tone on the 買. I think that’s basically the same pronunciation as 埋, which could then mean that you’re burying water, which conceivably you might do if you had several bottles or containers of contaminated water that needed to be buried. Yes, contrived, but perhaps this is the sort of thing being referred to.

Hmm, I don’t know. There’s so many homophones (and related puns) in Chinese that it seems like you’d hardly need to rely on tone sandhi to come up with jokes.

Thank you for the example. I believe these are other ones:

Wǒ mǎi wǎnfàn (I bought dinner)

Wǒ mái wǎn fàn (I buried dinner)

Wǒ xǐhuān měi guǒ (I like every fruit)

Wǒ xǐhuān méi guǒ (I like plums)

Those are examples of how tone changes meaning, and different things are written because different things are spoken. It is not the case here that writing it somehow changes the meaning of what is spoken, speaking with different tones change the meaning

Those little lines above the vowels are used in pinyin to denote correct tone, pinyin is handy because it is phonetic, so every word that you can hear and understand you can read and understand

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Thanks for the explanation. Correct me if I am wrong, but if I intend to say:




I am supposed to say it “Wǒ mái wǎn fàn” or “Wǒ xǐhuān méi guǒ” due to the tone change rules.

Which means the spoken meaning is potentially different from what I intended to say?

If you mean to say

Wǒ mǎi wǎnfàn

But you say

Wǒ mái wǎn fàn

Then you mispronounced. It has nothing to do with tone change rules.

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I thought two third tones next to each other causes the preceding third tone to change to a second tone?

Here I’ll defer to someone who has really studied Chinese (I just had a crash course). @nz?

But like your OP, sounds like you’re probably getting bad information from somewhere. Can’t start changing tones to match some kind of sonic grammar without changing the meaning of words, it seems to me

Personally, I don’t even think about the tones, I just try to speak Chinese and tones tend to come out naturally and correctly :man_shrugging:

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I feel like the rule doesn’t apply to a verb+object situation in the same way as typical examples. Maybe someone can state it clearly (or I’m wrong)

I believe grammatically speaking, the speaker is obliged to change it according to the tone change rules.

Oh. So I have mostly acquired through natural immersion. That said, according to your link

So, maybe not clear obligation that always applies. I’d rather spend my time listening to native speakers and mimicing their pronunciation in context rather than learning rules that I have to think about when trying to produce language in authentic situations

In other words, I’m still not sure about these rules but quite sure it isn’t the best way to functional language use

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Looks like OP figured this out

More accurately, it’s something that occurs naturally across tonal languages. Basically, two third tones together is too much work to say, so speakers naturally make them a rising tone + low tone. Because this happens naturally across tonal languages, I STRONGLY encourage you to be aware that it exists and then move on to do other things with your studies.

Chinese is “complicated enough” without getting into the weeds over tone change rules. If your goal is to know all the rules of Chinese before working on listening comprehension and then production of spoken language, you will go to your grave before you can even greet someone. For me, the only time I think about rules of spoken Chinese (or grammar) is when I am teaching a student of Chinese that has had Chinese classes before working with me that asks “but shouldn’t it be x because y rule?”. Given proper input, you’re going to reach acquisition in Chinese whether or not you carefully memorize every rule. For further research into how well getting into the weeds instead of looking at the bigger picture in language acquisition works for people, talk to ten Taiwanese adults that had excellent English scores on tests growing up. They will be able to explain to you why your English grammar is wrong, but they wont be able to string together more than a sentence or two in English.

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