Mandarin Tone Change Rules Explained

Someone from a Chinese learning forum asked me a question about tone changes in Pinyin the other day. Honestly, I was really shocked when I saw the question. I searched very hard from my limited memory of the Chinese lessons in primary school, and failed to get even a clue of tone changing. As a native speaker, I have no knowledge on this part. But when speaking Chinese in my daily life, I do change the tones of some characters in certain contexts. How come?


Since many people choose to learn Chinese online, I turn to the Internet for the answer. I searched “中文声调变化 zhōng wén shēng diào biàn huà” (Chinese Tone Changes) and “拼音声调变化 pīn yīn shēng diào biàn huà” (Tone Changes in Pinyin), there’s barely an answer. But to my surprise, when I searched “mandarin tone change”, there were quite some great answers to this question. I now list some of the basic and frequently-used rules as below:

  1.  Tone Change of the character “不 bù”: When it precedes a 4th tone character, it changes to a 2nd tone. For example, “不对 bú duì” (wrong). But basically, we do not regard “不 bù” as a polyphone (多音字 duō yīn zì).
  2.  Tone Change of the character “一 yī”: As a single character, it is 1st tone. But when followed by a 4th tone, it becomes a 2nd tone, for instance, “一定 yí dìng” (for sure). When it precedes a 1st tone, 2nd tone and 3rd tone, it becomes a 4th tone: “一些 yì xiē” (some), “一直yì zhí” (always) and “一点yì diǎn” (a little, a bit).
  3.  Rule for 3rd tone change: When there are two 3rd tones coming together, the first one changes into a 2nd tone: “你好 ní hǎo”.


To read more on this on StudyMoreChinese:

Yi Bu Yi Bu Lai (Tone Change Rules for 一 不) & phrase 一步一步来吧


Among all the various rules, these three seems most reasonable and acceptable. But still, when I asked some other Chinese friends, they hold different opinions. The only consensus we reached is the one rule about “不 bù”. In oral Chinese, we do change this tone. Besides, someone mentioned the “ABB” and “AABB” word patterns: “绿油油: lǜ + yóu + yóu → lǜ yōu yōu”, “马马虎虎: mǎ + mǎ + hǔ + hǔ → mǎ ma hū hū”.


To be honest, I was really confused by these rules. I was thinking, like, “Thank God, I do not have to memorize this. I’m so glad I’m Chinese.” Seriously, I think maybe it’s too much emphasis on tones. I do not know the learners’ purpose and reasons of learning the Chinese language. But if it’s for daily communication, then they may take it easy. It seems to me that all these tone changes are naturally there when you speak a little bit faster. When we say the phrase slower, say, character by character, then all the characters remain the original tone. And others will still understand you.


In addition, I think you can get a natural sense of tone changes with more listening and speaking practices. I remember when I was in junior high school; quite a few classmates could not figure out the right stressed syllables in English words. What’s worse, some could not pronounce them right even with the phonetic symbols. Our teacher thus told us an easy way to master stress. She asked us to read the stressed syllable first, repeatedly read it, and then read the whole word. Believe it or not, it did work. The more we practiced, the more fluent we read. I understand that it’s different to learn English and Chinese. My point is for language learning, especially when learners are focusing on speaking, it’s very important to practices more (listening and speaking) and to develop a natural sense of the language.


Getting a natural sense of the language is extremely important both in language learning and translation. In   English Chinese translation or vice versa, if you have a great sense of the language, your translation will read more native-like.


To sum up, it’s better for language learners to see the whole picture, say, a natural sense of the language, rather than a specific part which maybe neglected by native speakers. I’m not saying that tones are not important. They do matter, and we need to be accurate on the tone of every Chinese character. But we should not be too hung up on tones when we’re focusing on the learning of a whole sentence, paragraph or even a whole piece of article. After all, the foremost purpose is to make ourselves understood.        

This blog post was originally published on the Study More Chinese Blog

(photo credit: kevin dooley)

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Comment by Suray Su on August 2, 2012 at 3:11pm

Thomas Doherty :

Thanks for posting the links here. I'm too lazy and confused to list all the links. 

Top Member
Comment by Thomas Doherty on August 1, 2012 at 3:04pm

Wiki article on Tone Sandhi has 4 Mandarin rules : 


Mandarin features four sandhi tone rules.

1. When there are two 3rd tones in a row, the first one becomes 2nd tone, and the second one becomes a half-third tone (which only falls and does not rise). E.g. 你好 (nǐ + hǎo = ní hǎo)

2. The neutral tone is pronounced "low" when following the 1st, 2nd, and 4th tones, and pronounced "high" following the 3rd tone.

3. 不 (bù) is 4th tone except when followed by another 4th tone, when it becomes second tone. E.g. 不对 (bù + duì = bú duì)

4. 一 (Yī) 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 + huìr = yí huìr).

See link:


Top Member
Comment by Thomas Doherty on August 1, 2012 at 2:44pm

Cantonese tone changes can be found scattered in this massive Cantonese for English Speakers book found in Google Books : 

Comment by Suray Su on August 1, 2012 at 9:28am


Thank you. Glad that you like it. : ) Will definitely try to post more.

Comment by jono1001 on July 31, 2012 at 3:54pm

This is an excellent posting Suray.  I like your explanation.  Please post more excellent grammar explanations. 

Cheers jono1001

Comment by Suray Su on July 31, 2012 at 1:28pm

@ Lauren qinpei:

Absolutely. When you're so familiar with this language, then some rules just become so natural that you do not have to memorize them. 

Comment by Suray Su on July 31, 2012 at 1:26pm

@ Alastair:

Yes, I deliberately drop some other rules. They're too confusing. I cannot memorize  them as a native speaker. But anyway, it's good to know more about those rules.

Comment by Suray Su on July 31, 2012 at 1:24pm


Thank you. Glad it helps.

Comment by Alastair on July 30, 2012 at 9:41pm

Looking for "tone sandhi" will also bring up quite a few English language pages on the topic. Wikipedia, for example, is quite forthcoming - Standard Chinese Phonology. That mentions two topics not in the blog post: when a third tone becomes a half third tone and the different variants of the neutral tone.

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