19. Pinyin Spelling Conventions

Pinyin adopts Latin letters to render Chinese sounds with a few special spelling rules. The capitalization and punctuation with Pinyin basically follow the Latinate rules.  This module will discuss Pinyin spelling conventions, including tone mark placement, modification of letters to accommodate tone marks, and spacing.

Tone Mark Placement

The tone mark is always placed above a vowel in Pinyin. For syllables with two or three vowel letters, the vowel listed earliest in the sequence a o e i u ü gets the tone mark. For example:

  • bài (拜 ‘worship’)
  • xióng (熊 ‘bear’)
  • jiāo (教 ‘teach’)

The only exception to this is when i and u occur together.  In those cases, the tone mark is placed on whichever vowel comes last. For example:

  • duì  (对 ‘correct’)
  • diū  (丢 ‘lost’)

Special Rules with i, u and umlauts on ü

As you may have noticed in the duì 对 example above, if the tone mark is on i, the dot over the i is omitted to accommodate the tone mark.  This occurs with all tone marks, as can be seen in other words like   (笔 ‘pen).

One can see a similar loss of the umlaut when ü or finals starting with ü follow the letters j, q, or x. This can be seen in the Pinyin for words like (句 ‘sentence), quē (缺 ‘lack’) and xùn (训 ‘to teach’).  The letters still represent the sound of ü, but there is no possibility of confusion as j, q, and x are never followed by finals starting with u.

When finals that begin with i, u or ü occur without an initial consonant, the syllable is rendered in Pinyin with y or w at the beginning. So the final iao is rendered as yao when it is used to refer to the Chinese basketball player Yáo Míng (姚明) and the final ui becomes wei when used to refer to the Chinese technology company Huáwéi (华为).


Each syllable in Chinese is represented by one character. Many words are, however, disyllabic, that is they have two syllables represented by two characters. When two syllables form a word, the word is written in Pinyin with no space in between the characters, as shown below.

  • wánquán  (完全  completely)
  • bùtóng  (不同 different)
  • shìjiè  (世界 world)

As in English (and in Mandarin), there are spaces between words:

Zhè shì yíge wánquán bùtóng de shìjiè.
这 是 一个 完全 不同 的 世界。
This is a completely different world.

There is one other exception of note. When two syllables come together to form a word and the second syllable begins with a, e, or o, the second syllable is usually separated from the preceding syllable by an apostrophe. For example:

  • Xī’ ān (西安 a city in China)
  • xiāng’ài (相爱 love each other)

Without the apostrophe, xī’ ān maybe read as xiān, which means ‘first’ (). In much the same way, xiāng’ ài without an apostrophe, might be read as xiān’ gài (先盖 cover first).

Listening Quiz

Listen to the following syllables and type in the letter above which the tone mark should be placed. For example, you hear tián, you type a, because the tone mark should be placed above the a.

Pinyin Spelling Quiz

Indicate whether the following Pinyin syllables are spelled correctly.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison.

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