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Hey, I know this has been covered before, but this here is alittle bit different. I have given up on the idea that chinese is monosyllabic, since there are so many disyllabic words, but I also realize that mandarin isn't completely disyllabic either. So here's the problem, I can't tell when to use a word monosyllabically, and when not to, for example, the word narrow, as in, "this door is too narrow" 這個門太窄了, I didn't know that the word for narrow is just 窄, I normally would have used 狹窄. So is there anyway to tell when a word is can be used by itself, and when it cannot? I know there are some obvious ones like:訴 I don't think you can use this by itself (I maybe wrong though) or 期. Thanx in advance,


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I think I can add a little to this discussion. In addition to whether characters can or cannot be used independently as words, there are also general tendencies regarding the usage of monosyllabic and disyllabic synonyms.

In Classical Chinese, 99% of characters could be used with an independent meaning. Whenever Modern Standard Chinese mimics Classical Chinese, monosyllabic words can always be used and are generally preferred. An example is how characters are used in chéngyǔ.

When writing in an elevated style, monosyllabic synonyms seem to be preferred, but may be subject to rhythmic constraints. There are, of course, many monosyllabic words used in Classical Chinese that cannot be so used Modern Standard Chinese.

In speech, disyllabic synonyms are easier to understand and may be preferred if there is no other context. I think that 象 xiàng and 大象 dàxiàng ("elephant") are examples of this. In compounds or where context otherwise makes the meaning clear, I think that monosyllabic synonyms become more common and are sometimes required.

An overall constraint on these matters comes from the notions of stress and rhythm. The rules for these are quite difficult to describe in non-technical language, but I give a few examples below to show where stress seems to affect word choice. I should add that the rules for stress in Chinese are still being worked out by linguists, and so different scholars take different approaches. It also seems that stress tends to operate in a subtle way in Chinese, and native speakers are frequently unable to detect it, even when their speech seems to reflect rules determined by stress. English has similar difficulties in certain areas (e.g., the stress pattern in "town hall"); however lexical (or "dictionary-word") stress is a clear aspect of English phonetics that has no real equivalent in Chinese.

It seems that Chinese prefers to put stress on distinguishing information. In verb-object structures, the object gets more stress; and in modifier-noun structures, the modifier gets stress. (It is important to note that the order of these two structures is different.) Particles never receive stress. Other monosyllables are stressed or unstressed according to their position and use in a particular sentence. Disyllabic words tend to receive stress in preference to monosyllabic words. The first syllable of a polysyllabic word receives stress, but "sentence"-final syllables seem to receive "sentence" or "phase" stress that may make the syllabic stresses hard to perceive.

Below are examples of instances where stress and rhythm seem to mattter. The examples come from Chinese Phonology in Generative Grammar by De Bao Xu.

蒜 suàn and 大蒜 dàsuàn both mean "garlic." 种 zhòng and 种植 zhòngzhí both mean "to plant." In theory, there should be four combinations that would mean "to plant garlic." In reality, one combination seems to violate the stress rules. One can say 种植大蒜, 种大蒜, or 种蒜, but *种植蒜 zhòngzhí suàn is apparently not permitted. The reason is that monosyllabic 蒜 cannot be stressed over disyllabic 种植 in the same structure.

煤 méi and 煤炭 煤炭 both mean "coal." 店 diàn and 商店 shàngdiàn both mean "store." In order to say "coal store," one can apparently say 煤炭商店, 煤炭点, or 煤店. *煤商店 méi shāngdiǎn is not permittend, because monosyllabic 煤 cannot be stressed over disyllabic 商店.

Notice that the results in the above two examples are not the same, because the stress in verb-object "compounds" is different from the stress in modifier-noun compounds.

Here is another interesting example. To say "large Chinese dictionary,: one can say 大型汉语词典 dàxíng hànyǔ cídiǎn or 汉语大词典 hànyǔ dàcídiǎn, but one cannot apparently say *汉语大型词典 hànyǔ dàxíng cídiǎn. One can apparently say 大汉语词典 dà hànyǔ cídiǎn, but the order 汉语大词典 hànyǔ dàcídiǎn is preferred.

A last example I can give are alternate ways to say "road-sweeping machine." 路 lù and 马路 mǎlù both mean "road." 扫 sǎo and 清扫 qīngsǎo both mean "sweep." 机 jī and 机器 jīqì both mean "machine." As far as I understand, 机 is not generally used by itself and 机器 is is not generally used in compounds. Of the remaining four possibilities for "road-sweeping machine," only two appear to be allowed: 扫路机 sǎo lù jī and 马路清扫机 mǎlù qīngsǎo jī. Apparently, one cannot say 路扫机 or 清扫马路机. Notice the non-symmetical difference in the word orders.

The above examples show that stress and rhythm may affect whether a monosyllabic or disyllabic synonym is permitted, allowed, or required.

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