Mandarin grammar: Tones

What are tones?

Tones are a key part of pinyin, which was invented to help those learning Mandarin with pronunciation.

Tones with Burt Bessington

How many tones are there in Mandarin?

There are four tones in Mandarin, plus a neutral tone:

  • The first tone (-) is flat

  • The second tone (´) rises

  • The third tone (v) goes down then up

  • The fourth tone (`) falls

  • The neutral tone is light

The use of tones makes more sounds available in Mandarin, which has fewer than many other languages.

They are an essential part of how you say a word in Mandarin, and if you use the wrong tone you end up saying a completely different word from the one you meant.

For example:

  • listen (mother)

  • listen (linen cloth)

  • listen (horse)

  • listen (tell off)

  • listen ma (question particle)

Exception rules for Mandarin tones

There are only three exceptions for how tones are said in Mandarin.

These help make the sounds flow better:

Rule one:

If there are two third tones in a row, the first third tone becomes a second tone, for example:

listen (you) + listen hǎo (good) = listen 你好 ní hǎo (hello)

Rule two:

If listen (not) comes before a fourth tone, listen becomes a second tone, for example:

listen (not) + listen duì (correct) = listen 不对 bú duì (wrong)

Rule three:

listen (one) is a first tone when alone, a second tone when it comes before a fourth tone and a fourth tone before any other tone, for example:

listen (one) + listen (measure word) = listen 一个 yí gè (a or an)

listen (one) + listen bǎi (hundred) = listen 一百 yì bǎi (one hundred)

This change of tone only affects the pronunciation of the words, not how they are written down.

For example, you would write ‘你好 nǐ hǎo’, but you would say listen 你好 ní hǎo.

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