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应该 vs 该, 改变 vs 变, ...

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There are some cases where we have a one-character and a two-character version of a word (the original character plus another). I'm wondering if in general we can consider the one-character version as slightly more casual, or if the meanings themselves actually differ, or if there is no difference at all?

应该 vs 该

改变 vs 变

知道 vs 知 (only came across 知 as a standalone character once so far)

生活 vs 活 (as the verb "to live", haven't seen 活 as a noun)

Maybe other people have more examples too, I'm just a beginner to Chinese for now.

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It is my impression that shortening appropriate words to one character is both more casual and more aesthetic in a poetical sense.

Think of the difference between a photograph and a painting sketched with a few brush strokes.


Taken for itself, a shortened word will often be less precise in meaning, as the single character could be part of more than just one word.

However if the context within the sentence is clear, a shortened word can preserve its precise meaning.


Example: The verb 坐 can have multiple meanings, one of which is identical with 乘坐. However in the context of "坐车", it is clear that the

meaning of 坐 is identical to 乘坐.

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I like your point. What about cases where the meanings are actually the same though, like 应该 vs 该? Or is 应该 more precise? I was under the impression their meaning is the same. If not, what's the difference?

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I think it would be difficult to come up with an 应该 sentence where shortening the word to 该 will alter the meaning or make it unclear.

However it's easy to come up with a 该 sentence where the meaning is not the same as 应该。

For example 我该他五元钱。(I owe him five Yuan.)

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It's a really good question.


First, you need to know the difference b/w ancient Chinese (文言文) and modern Chinese(白话文).  文言文 consists of mainly singular character words, like 该/变/知/活 you mentioned; 白话文 consists of two-character words,  like 应该/改变/知道/生活 in your question.  The reason of this change is partly because of singular words can have multiple meanings and will likely create more confusion in modern days, when things are just more complex than the good old days (like, a thousand years ago).


Second, to answer your questions directly,  two-character version is more wordy but precise, one-character is more poetic but ambiguous.  In your example, by degree of ambiguity, 应该《=该,改变《=变,知道《=知,生活《=活.  To be more precise, I'm explaining details in Chinese:  

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Yorin marks a point. Characters hold a range of meanings and can yet form words with specific meaning. You could compare it with the word “audition”, where “audi” has to do with hearing, and can form audit, auditory, auditorium. While “活” generally refers to life and can form 生活,活动,活泼,活跃 etc. So we see “活” encompassing the meanings of activity, vivacious, envigorate, so it's like our “vi” root in English. Then the second character adds precision, nuance and depth to a new specific word.

From my point of view and my intuition, perhaps 该 is an abbrev to simplify and shorten the sentence: 你该去上课。先做该做的事。

If we compare “不是该不该的问题” and “不是应该不应该的问题”,I feel like more stress is put on, like you'd do for a debate in Chinese.

I've also seen single characters in formal written settings too: 该生就读于北京大学。

And of course you can break two character verbs to form the question sentences. 你知不知道?改不改颜色?Then you'll also see the beauty and essence of single characters in idioms like 知足常乐,半死不活,俗随时变 etc.

Chinese is really fascinating hehe, hope my answer helps to shed some light :)

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While there are some general guidelines, I would avoid taking those guidelines too far. There isn't a relationship between the long forms and the short forms that holds steady in all, or even most cases. In fact, it is better to think of the "short form" as the actual building block word, and the "long form" as a compound. In other words, the "short forms" are not always shortened versions of longer words. They're complete words on their own.


Keep in mind, Chinese has been undergoing a long process of evolving from a more monosyllabic language to a more disyllabic language. Because of this evolution, it is true that many monosyllabic forms will feel more ancient, and more poetic since so much classical poetry was written to a monosyllabic rhythm. This also means that single-character words are words in their own rights. As the two-character words began to proliferate, they didn't replace the single character forms. They existed side-by-side. Thus each fell into its own niche of use, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. Again, there is no general rule.


For example, 生活 and 活. The former can connote the entire range of activities one carries out in life, but I don't think the latter can. Look at 现代生活 meaning the entire condition of modern life. 现代活 doesn't mean the same thing at all. Or take a sentence 不知道我们能不能活下去 vs 不知道我们能不能生活下去. The former means our actual existence is uncertain. The latter more implies that it is our way of life that is uncertain. There is an overlap, depending the context of use. But the point is that you simply have to know how 活 is used and how 生活 is used. There is no general relationship between the long and short forms that will help you out here. 


That said, sometimes there is a one-character substitution for a two-character form. 该 and 应该 do seem to operate this way. But 该 is still a word in its own right, with its own meanings and usages in other contexts.






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I think that 该 patterns with other monosyllabic auxiliary verbs such as 会, 要, etc. This is normal since words with a more grammatical function are often shorter.


活 is not usually used purely as a monosyllabic verb. It is always used together with some form of complement or verbal marker, e.g., 活下去, 活到, 活着. A purely monosyllabic use of 活 would seem quite archaic to me.

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Wow Sharon_Too I enjoyed reading your post.  Your solid understanding of both English and Chinese is really impressive and a bit inspirational, I hope to develop a really deep understanding of both languages myself one day.


Also liked your analysis jawshoowa, that really goes along my natural intuitions as well.  I won't try to get a concrete all-encompassing answer to this question, I will just accept a rough understanding for now and wait for more exposure to make things clearer.

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It was also challenging for me to try to explain and I'm not sure linguists would agree with my comparison, but it's how I made some sense out of it. You're most welcome and 加油 :)

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  • 5 weeks later...
Daniel Tsui44

In Ancient Chinese(文言文), every character has its meaning. Some have close meaning but a slight difference. And they are usually being used alone.  In Modern Chinese, we tend to use two characters with close meaning as a word. 应该,改变,生活,are the examples. 

应,该 both have the meaning "should" and very close. 应该 also means should. So 应,该,应该 can replace each other without change the meaning.

你本该走了。You should have left.                                                                     

你本应走了。You should have left.

你本应该走了。You should leave have left.

该 and 应该 can almost replace each other in any situation when they mean "should". 该 can also mean "this". Such as 该学生, which means "this student", you cannot use 应该。


改,变 both have the meaning "change" but different. 改变 also means change. 

你的生活方式改了。You way of living is changed.

你的生活方式变了。You way of living is changed.

你的生活方式改变了。You way of living is changed.

改can also mean correct as a verb. We can talk about "改正” here, which also means correct as a verb.  正 can also mean right.

改变 can be a noun, well, 改,变 can't in Modern Chinese.

你的生活有了些改变。 Your life have some change.  

We can also take about "变化" here, which also means change. 化 can also mean change. When used as a noun, it has the same meaning with 改变 and can be replaced with each other.


生,活 both have the meaning of life but much different. they can both be a noun, a verb, adj or adv. 生活 means life but have one meaning as a noun or a verb. 


There is no one for all formula for those one character word vs two character word. Two character word can be intersection or union of the two one-character word.

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