Mandarin Tone Changes

I recently got an e-mail from a beginner regarding tones in Mandarin:

> I was searching the web to find an answer with no luck. I read what you wrote about Debating “You’re Welcome” and I’m hoping you can help me.

> I keep finding different sources giving different tones for “bu keqi”. In Chinese for Dummies bu has a rising tone and keqi both have falling syllables. Another book gave a falling tone to bu, a flat tone to ke, and a rising tone to qi. Many websites tell me that I have the right words, but they don’t give the tones at all.

> If you have an extra minute, I’d also love to know the tones on the variants you wrote, or a good source to look them up at.

I realized that the author of the e-mail was confused because there is a rule in Mandarin Chinese that when when 不 precedes a 4th tone, it becomes second tone. Most textbooks will expect you to always remember this after they teach it, and will still mark 不 as 4th tone even though it should be read as 2nd tone. Some textbooks, however, mark 不 as 2nd tone when it should be read as 2nd tone. I can see how that could be very confusing to a new learner.

In responding, I wanted to include a link to a site which clearly outlined all the tones changes (AKA tone sandhi) that occur in Mandarin. I was disappointed that Wikipedia didn’t seem to have one. Eventually I found the rules outlined clearly in the Change of Tone section of a site called InstantSpeak Chinese.

I had never explicity learned Rule 3, regarding the “half third tone,” but when I thought about it, I realized it was true and that I even follow it. I guess I unconsciously acquired it.

Anyway, because I found them somewhat hard to find online, I’m going to reproduce the main tone rules here (leaving out the “half third tone” one) and add some examples to flesh them out a bit.

Mandarin Tone Sandhi

1. When there are two 3rd tones in a row, the first one becomes 2nd tone. Examples: 你好 (nǐ + hǎo = ní hǎo), 很好 (hěn + hǎo = hén hǎo), 好懂 (hǎo + dǒng = háo dǒng).

2. 不 is 4th tone except when followed by another 4th tone, when it becomes second tone. Examples: 不对 (bù + duì = bú duì), 不去 (bù + qù = bú qù), 不错 (bù + cuò = bú cuò).

3. 一 is 1st tone when alone, 2nd tone when followed by a 4th tone, and 4th tone when followed by any other tone. Examples: 一个 (yī + gè = yí gè), 一次 (yī + cì = yí cì), 一半 (yī + bàn = yí bàn), 一般 (yī + bān = yì bān), 一毛 (yī + máo = yì máo), 一会儿 (yī + huǐr = yì huǐr).

Again, it’s important for beginners to memorize these rules because textbooks will often not remind you. They usually provide words’ original tones before tone sandhi.

Related: my Chinese blog entry about lots of third tones strung together


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I used to wonder what happened when you had three or four third tones in a row. For example, the phrase “我给你” (wo3+gei3+ni3). I never got a satisfying answer out of any Chinese person I asked this question of, and am still surprised it’s not covered in any beginning Chinese textbooks I’ve seen, but now I know the answer and I will share my wisdom 😉 In this particular instance 我 becomes a half-third, 给 becomes a second and 你 stays as a third. There is more information on this important but frequently ignored topic in many places on, including this thread.

  2. I’m just halfway through my first year, but I definitely remember learning “我给你” as second/second/third.
    I quote from my ‘新实用汉语课本’ page 9:
    A third tone when immediately
    followed by another third tone,
    Should be pronounced in the
    second tone eg. Wo2 Hen2 Hao3

    • Adam Morris Says: January 7, 2012 at 9:07 am

      By my ear and experience for wo gei ni, half, second, third is correct. Definitely not second, second, third.

      It would be interesting to get tone changes rules for the different dialects too. I know in Tianjinhua they use different rules entirely.

  3. This is the first time I see this kind of rules. They are amazingly correct and I had never noticed them before. I guess very few of Chinese know those rules, which are pretty difficult to remember.

  4. On the multiple third-tones… I seem to remember reading a thread in chinese-forums that made a lot of sense to me; it was something about separating the tones into “word groups” and then applying the “all but the last third become seconds” rule to each word group.

    I’m too lazy to look up the thread itself.

  5. Thanks! I find that explanation very useful even though I am a so-called intermediate learner, this is one of those things which I may have been getting wrong for years.

    I read this blog all the time, do you know you are mentioned in last weekend’s 周末画报? There is a screenshot of this blog and a paragraph on it….

  6. Rule #5: If you’re in Taiwan, every 3rd tone and its grandmother (yes, 3rd tones have grandmothers) becomes a “half 3rd tone”. Real 3rd tones on the CDs that accompany your textbooks will be mis-interpretted as “2nd tones” by Taiwanese people, including your Chinese tutor.

  7. to Ming:
    Yes Chinese people know this rule. I remember clearly that I learnt this rule in primary school, when all pupils had to copy hundreds of times of characters to remember them. But of course most Chinese students speak Mandarin in schools everyday so fluently that we don’t need to pay attention to this rule anymore.

  8. It’s really nice to have a forum for these discussions… Thanks again to John or hosting us…

    Now, as it relates to the tones in dui bu qi. Chinese, like other languages, has a contextual meaning, often emphasized by tones in conversation.
    For example, if someone dui bu qi…with an extended emphasis on the dui (which results in it being a 2nd tone, but beginning at an exaggerated lower tone) the meaning quite different from a duibuqi (spoken together quickly, dui2bu-qi1 lowflat).
    Basically what I am trying to say is that learning the tones for individual words is 100% required. But, instead of learning the rules for 3rd tone 3rd tone 3rd tone, it would do all of us some good to learn the nuances of the entire “sentence”, as opposed to trying to learn hardfast rules as to 3+3 = 2+4., or 3+3 = 2+3…
    Oh well, hope this helps….

  9. Great post on learning Chinese John!

    You touched on something very important – those darn tones!

    May I suggest to the newbies that (please let mw know how you all feel
    about this…) that dun get TOO hung up on the tones.

    Reason why I say this is because a lot of my students before meeting me
    confessed of “Paralysis Through Analysis”.

    Having said that, it’s Absolutely Great to see that everyone is striving to master
    Chinese and not getting put off by it!

    Keep it all up!

    I was learning Uighur (in Way West XinJiang province) and the joy of communicating is immeasurable!

    Learning to speak is pretty straight forward. If you’re really interested
    get in touch and I can send you a free lesson.

    To Your Chinese Learning Success!


    P.S. I SO miss the people and food…
    esp in Urumqi where I was for a year training the local teachers to teach English.

  10. Ha.. this is something difficult I encountered almost every class in the first few months. People never seem to remember that ! But to me and I believe most Chinese, it’s as natural as the pronunciation of “the”. People know how to say it different when it’s before the vowel or consonant.. but as Chinese students, I learnt the rule and try hard to remember to apply them when needed. The same happens to neutral tone words. A lot of neutral tones are not marked as neutral tones in dictionary , but in daily life it’s pronounced neutral tones. Such as ” zhi1 dao4 ” and “zhi1 dao”. That’s a pain for me too. I don’t even remember every one of those exactly , not to mention the guys who’re struggling with their tones…. “sigh”

  11. John, you don’t mention Tone 2 Sandhi. Yes, I know, your teachers have probably never heard of it either, and probably deny that it exists (but surf the Internet for Tone 2 sandhi and you will see a lot of academic papers discussing this). Let me give you an example:

    A good umbrella: 一把好雨伞 yi4ba3 hao3yu3san3….>hao2yu2san3….>hao2yu1san3

    The middle tone, a converted Tone 2 (converted from a Tone 3), is pronounced as a Tone 1. 333 and 223 both tend to become 213.

    Another example: 湖南省: hu2nan2sheng3….> hu2nan1sheng3

    Another example: 没有走: mei2you3 zou3…> mei2you1zou3

    Now please don’t engage me in a stupid argument about this just because nearly all of the idiots teaching Chinese in this country don’t even know the theory of how to pronounce their own language. You will find that I am right by looking in 新编普通话教程published by 浙江大学出版社. Pages 92 and 93.

    Basically, the reason why so few foreigners speak good Chinese in this country, is because few of their teachers have heard of Tone 2 Sandhi.

    • Thank you!

      2nd tone sandhi is for some reason neglected in every Chinese textbook I’ve read.

      I do not totally agree with you John for saying:

      “…but I don’t think it’s something that most learners should be concerned with unless they are already high level and their goal is absolutely perfect Mandarin”.

      Why? Because the elementary students will face the 2 tone sandhi already in lesson 3 or 4 or so…Since most of the text books introduces the individually pronounced tones as the basis of everything, the first question raised is already in 你好,if the book/teacher has NOT mentioned the 3rd tone sandhi.

      Next time a similar type of a question rises is when teaching “What is your nationality”.

      TEST: ask a native chinese to read these aloud:

      First pronounce this: 美国。
      Then pronounce this: 美国人。

      First pronounce this: 哪国
      Then pronounce this: 哪国人?

      See the change in 2nd tone? In combination of 3-2-2, tones should be pronounced: low-high-second (low3-1-2). Anyone agree?

      Therefore I do not get the 2nd tone changes introduced in here:

      Any ideas, comments?


  12. The book I mentioned has a lot of details on how to handle 3 third tones, which vary acccording to the circumstances. What I just outlined is valid for rapid speech where there is no break or emphasis in the middle of the 3 third tones. 很理想, emphasising the hen3, would be different, because this is fundamentally hen3 + li3xiang3, and not hen3li3xiang3, and so the emphasis here matters. This textbooks recommends the following tonal values for this phrase: 211, 35, 214. But if it is more of a 3-character phrase that hangs together, like 展览馆, zhan3lan3guan3 becomes zhan2lan1guan3. How can I upload 2 scanned pictures of some pages of this book?

  13. DJW,

    Yes, I have heard of “tone 2 sandhi,” and I do believe it exists. I have also observed it “in the wild.” I think it’s interesting academically, but I don’t think it’s something that most learners should be concerned with unless they are already high level and their goal is absolutely perfect Mandarin.

  14. DJW,

    If you e-mail me the images I’ll post them.

  15. Alex,

    I agree that it’s important not to get TOO hung up on tones at the early stages, but I also think it’s a huge mistake to neglect them too much. Improving your tones will improve your perceived fluency by a lot.

  16. Can I say that you need to know the various types of Sandhi fairly early on in learning Chinese. Hoping to just hear the difference and copy the locals didn’t work for me.

  17. I put DJW’s scans online. I have to say, they are certainly interesting. I’ve never seen such a detailed academic study of Mandarin sandhi (although I haven’t really looked either).

    The descriptions are completely in Chinese. Took a look: pages 92-93, pages 94-95.

  18. Facinating. It took me a moment to realize that the pitch numbers on those pages are in the opposite order as those in text books I’ve seen before. In other words, 1 is low and 5 is high- “35” is rising, or a 2nd tone. “214” is a third tone. I’ve never heard a “214” third tone in “the wild”. What I was saying about the tones spoken by Taiwanese people is that their third tones are all cropped down to “21”.

    I think a book like the one DJW could be very useful for me, if I were to ever go to the mainland.

  19. Third tones are very often reduced. The 214 is the citation tone, and it is optional at the end of a phrase or sentence how much of a guai3wanr1 you want to make it. By the way: 5 is always high and 1 is always low in Chinese linguistics. It would be the other wayy round if you have just been studying Amerindian linguistics. Have you? Forget Taiwanese Mandarin. Go to the Mainland for the Real Deal.

  20. DJW: It’s interesting you ask about Amerindian linguistics. I haven’t been studying any, but I do have Navajo family members and some vague interest in learning how to talk with them in Navajo before they’re all gone. Chinese is definitely number one on my list, though.

    To be honest, I have been fighting off the urge to move to mainland China to study Chinese. However, a few people (who have excellent Chinese skills) have told me that by missing the chance to study at ICLP, I’d be short-changing myself. My current plan is to finish up my teaching contract, study at ICLP for a year, and then go to China. Any suggestions? What do you think?

  21. Nice post and comment feedback on Mandarin tone changes. I would describe myself as an intermediate to advanced beginner in learning Chinese (i.e. I’m not advanced enough to escape the beginner catagory, but I’m also not new at learning Chinese either.).

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is the neutral tone. I think that the typical way that almost every text book that I’ve seen explains the neutral tone is completely inadequate. Most say something like: “it is unstressed” or “no emphasis” or something like that. But that didn’t help me at all with how to pronounce the neutral tone.

    One day, I came across an explanation of the neutral tone in an old textbook that amazed me. By that time, I had just started getting used to the tones. When I read it, I thought, “wow. that’s true.” I wish I had the book with me right now so I can quote it, but I don’t. It had a chart that would have given me good guidence on the neutral tone if I had had it in the beginning. The chart basically showed what the pitch position of the neutral tone would be when following the other tones. In other words, the pitch of the neutral tone is different depending on what the tone of the preceding character is. I know the neutral tone gave me trouble for a long while when I first started learning.

    I wonder if anyone here can give a good explanation of the neutral tone. If I can find the book where I found the good explanation of the neutral tone, I’ll post a quote from it.

    Btw, thanks for such a cool blog.

  22. Mark, I heard that ICLP is a shadow of its former self and that the IUP programme in Beijing is better. Look for Inter University Programme on the net.

  23. Neutral tone:

    1) After 1st tone: tonal value is 2, so ma1ma would be like a 55 followed by a 2
    2) After 2nd tone: tonal value is 3, so mian2hua would be like a 35 followed by a 3
    3) After 3rd tone: tonal value is 4, so ni3men would be like a 21 followed by a 4
    4) After 4th tone: tonal value is 1, so di4fang would be like a 51 followed by a 1

    I can send John another scan-in from 汉语普通话语音辩证

  24. Michael Lomker Says: April 3, 2006 at 11:23 pm

    Mark–Are you pressed for time or is there another reason that you’re pursuing such an expensive program? I find those programs a curiosity, but at five times the cost I’m not sold on the value equation. I could afford it, but perhaps I’d enjoy spending a couple years in Bejing. You could live awful large for US $10k/yr!

  25. I know the ICLP programme in Taipei is thought to be not what it once was, now that IUP has gone to Peking, but I would like to know what Taiwan-based China learners think of the ICLP 8 week summer programme for $3000, which they claim substantially improves oral fluency. The IUP Summer programme in Peking is already closed to new entrants – it costs $4000 (yeah, I know, those greedy Chinese) but the closing data was in January – but you still have a couple of weeks to apply for the Taiwan one.

  26. The Blakemore Foundation has a comparison of IUP and ICLP posted on their web site, written by a student who attended at IUP from 2003-2004 at IUP and 2004-2005 at ICLP. His comparison heavily favored ICLP over IUP. Can you direct me to anything confirming your idea that ICLP has gone down hill?

  27. Mark, no, I can’t, other than comments on But I am not sure if those people commenting there really know anything. See the Universities and Schools forum and then search IUP or ICLP

  28. John, where is the scanned page I sent you?

  29. Patience, DJW. I am a busy man.

    OK, pages 150-151 are up in all their smudgey linguisticky glory.

  30. Mark,

    Believe me, I understand your dilemma and second-guessing. At the end of the day, no one is going to be able to make up your mind for you. You just have to make a decision and go with it. Whichever one you make, do not look back.

  31. Since it’s so expensive and would mean investing most of my time for a full year, of course I have to get all the information I can. So far, I’ve IMed a coupld of previous students, talked to you, and looked around on all the message boards I can. With the exception of DJW, nobody has had anything negative to say about it except the price. I’ve already saved up enough to go there and not work for a year, and once my work contract has finished, that’s where I’ll go unless I hear a lot of really bad things about the place from people who actually went there.

  32. This is very intersting reading, I always thought that 往北走 should be pronounced wang3 bei2 zou3, since
    往左拐 is pronounced wang3 zuo2 guai3. But the file here
    seems to indicate that 往北走 should actually be prnounced wang2 bei2 zou3. I wonder why that is.
    Anyway I think you can pick up these things by ear. I figured out the 2nd tone sandhi by ear before I ever read the rule.
    In my mandarin studies I’m now trying to forget everything I ever learnt about tone sandhi and just listen to the intonation of native speakers.

    • Ralph Dratman Says: January 28, 2013 at 1:52 am

      Max, learning by ear is my preference too, and seems (to me) to produce better results than trying to puzzle things out mechanically. However, I want to mention two cautions:

      First, one needs a lot of immersion to learn the tones (as well as other language features) that way.

      Second, the immersion should preferably happen within a single geographic area, and probably works best within just one household. regional differences can become a problem in the early stages. That is not to say that one mustn’t travel around while learning, but I think it would be better to stay in one family during the first few months.

  33. Mark,
    I understand all that, but you have to take anyone’s appraisal of a program with a certain grain of salt. You’ll have as many opinions as alumni. In the final analysis, it will come down to the effort you put into the program. ICLP and IUP are very similar. Princeton in Beijing offers a summer session that could also be highly effective. I think the trick is to go into any you choose with both barrels blazing. You sound like you are very serious about learning Chinese, and I’m glad to hear it. There will be students at any of those who are not so serious as you are and the trick is #1: don’t take classes with them, #2: if you are stuck with them, make sure the teacher realizes how motivated you are, and go for broke in your one-on-one tutorials. Maybe you could arrange to sit in on a lesson there, since you already live in Taipei. If you’d like, I can try to contact one of my former teachers.

    Bottom line: all your choices are good ones. I am recommending you do the year at ICLP simply because I had a positive experience there, and the teachers I had were on top of things. And I still think that Taiwan is a better place for formal Mandarin instruction. Good luck, and whatever you do, don’t leave Taiwan until after I get there in June!

  34. Max: some of these tone sandhi combinations depend on how fast you are saying the sentence etc.

  35. Peter Silversweig Says: April 15, 2006 at 1:22 am

    Everyone that I’ve talked to that has attended other Taiwan or China Chinese programs and then gone to ICLP has said that ICLP is far above and beyond anything else, whether it’s the Princeton program, the Columbia program, the Middlebury program, Mandarin Training Center (at National Taiwan Normal University, also in Taipei), Nanjing, etc…

    This is not to say that ICLP is perfect, but that usually the problem is how hard you want to work and how much time you’re willing to spend than anything else… the general consensus is that going to ICLP is like drinking from a firehose. The teachers know your weaknesses and give you plenty to work on. The use of digital audio files and the emphasis on participation (beyond repeating what the teacher says which is really common in schools in China) is also what sets the school apart. Most students go to the computer class after class to drill themselves listening to the audio files, and then work on written homework.

  36. Drinking from a firehose? There’s a chengyu for you…

  37. […] John recently wrote a similar post. The comments on get into a lot more details than I did. Wikipedia also has a good article on this. […]

  38. […] (first tone). It stays second tone because in 一个 the 一 has to be second tone due to Mandarin’s tone changes for 一. It’s not normal for that tone change to stick if you remove the reason for it, […]

  39. Is two 3rd tones in a row 35 21 or 35 214? Or does it depend on what comes after? (i.e. 35 214 at end of sentence and 35 21 if another non-3rd-tone follows)

  40. You’ve mentioned in other posts how 3rd tone is rarely actually a 3rd tone, as it’s either changed by the rules given here or is pronounced as a low falling tone. Do you think you could describe the low falling 3rd tone phenomenon as a tone change rule? I.e. ‘a 3rd tone becomes a ‘low tone’ if followed by any other tone’ or something to that effect.
    Also, I’ve come across a rule that says a 2nd tone becomes a 1st tone when it’s preceded by a 1st or 2nd, and followed by any of the four tones. Is this correct in your experience?

  41. […] Mandarin Tone Changes | Sinosplice […]

  42. […] that for all uses of 一 above, the tone change rule changes “yī” (1st tone) to “yì” (4th […]

  43. […] Mandarin Tone Changes – It is important for beginners to memorize these rules because textbooks will often not remind you. […]

  44. Thankyou

    I am trying to learn some mandarin as my in-laws are chinese Vietnamese and do not speak English. My wife, who speaks some mandarin as a second language, was telling me my tones was wrong but from the Pinyin I said I was right.
    I now know that the first tone rule you mentioned above applied so my wife was right but (though she could not explain why she was right).

    Good to see this spelt out clearly on this website. I certainly not seen rule one or three before.

    Thanks again.

  45. Ralph Dratman Says: January 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    In what I have read here (but maybe I missed something), I haven’t seen any mention of whether these complex sandhi rules actually change the meaning or intelligibility of an utterance. Or do they just make the phrase “sound right”?

    I ask because there are various such side-issues (I believe linguists refer to them as “prosody”) in both tonal and non-tonal languages.

    I do not think “我给你” is going to be misunderstood, even if the tone sandhi is messed up. Of course I might be wrong. So, are there any examples in which incorrect tone sandhi might create unintelligibility or significant ambiguity when heard by a native speaker?

  46. 教室里还有几把椅子。

    please mark the tones for this.

  47. […] puts it succinctly (h/t Sinosplice, where John follows up with some other good comments on […]

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