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How do I know if characters can or can't be used as words?

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That might be a silly question, but so far I've found no information on it. Yet I've run into some clearly revealing situations already.


Like, I told a new Chinese online friend about my cat that ‘她的生很好' only to be corrected that 生 can't be used alone like this to mean 'life'. I swear I've seen this meaning in dictionaries, however, it's marked as a verb, but also as a noun meaning 'life'. So now I start to doubt everything. Sure, I know that music is 音乐, but if I did not, I'd probably say 我爱乐 without suspecting anything to be amiss, too. I could say 木 when I meant to say... well, actually, I don't yet know how to write a tree in Chinese, but I know that its syllable is shu, not mu.


So, how do I learn for sure that a character can or can't be used alone?

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Xiao Kui

There aren't really rules about this. You figure it out gradually through practice and exposure to the language.  It's part of usage. Usage is the toughest part of Chinese, but you can learn it through frequent "use" just as the word implies.

Another way is to use a dictionary (such as Pleco) that has example sentences.  That's a quick way to find out how a word is used in context.

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As Xiao Kui says there are no rules as such but I would err on the side of caution and use 2 or 3 characters as you find them in a good dictionary in Pleco. Only as you progress and have contact with native speakers and spend time in conversation will you be able work out what the current usage is.

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5 hours ago, Tomsima said:

Get pleco and buy a good chinese-english dictionary add on like ABC. When you type in a character, eg. 生 you can go to the 'words' tab and see how it appears in different words representing different meanings. 


The example sentences in Pleco are a good resource for determining if a character appears by itself or as part of a larger word.


In practice, native speakers will have a much easier time understanding you if you use a 2+ character translation of the word you are trying to convey.

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Here's a screencap of pg 40 (CHINESE-ENGLISH DICTIONARY How to Use this Dictionary V. Free and Bound Characters) from https://www.scribd.com/document/109344904/ABC (note especially the second paragraph, which should make the bound noun vs freer verb etc uses of 生 reasonably clear):




With the ABC ECCE you can thus be surer of a lot of things, including that 树 and sometimes 树木 indeed refer to trees (to be exact, "tree" versus "trees" respectively, with the latter given as "trees in general" in Pleco's definition) while 木 more heads bound compounds (such as 木材, 木头) relating to wood, timber etc; and that 音 and 乐 are (by dint again of the relevant B.F. indications in the entries for each of those characters) certainly bound one to the other in 音乐 .


So yeah, it would pay to get at least the free Pleco app plus either the flexibound ABC ECCE (which contains almost 38,000 C-E [that is, 4,644 character versus 33,308 polysyllabic] entries and almost 30,000 E-C ones, and is currently just £9.08 on Amazon Prime UK for example https://www.amazon.co.uk/ABC-English-Chinese-Chinese-English-Dictionary-Chinese/dp/0824834852/ , see also my review here https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/30185-abc-e-cc-e-whats-the-story/?do=findComment&comment=237924 ), or if you prefer, the ABC Comprehensive C-E (197,000 entries, £15.99) and possibly also the ABC E-C (62,000 entries, £7.99) paid Pleco add-ons instead (me, I have just the free Pleco and the print ECCE with regard to these particular ABC dictionaries).

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9 hours ago, Shelley said:

use 2 or 3 characters

Yes, very good insight.


Classic Chinese used most single character as word, modern Chinese use 2-4 characters word, mostly 2 characters.


There is still some single characters as  verb, adv etc. , these are the relics of classic Chinese, hard  remember these single words, mostly likely it is a key point of grammer.



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