Chinese, when written in Han characters, does not have "word boundaries". Because Han script is a morphosyllabic script where under most circumstances each character correspond to a morpheme, it is intelligible without resorting to word boundaries.

However, if we are given a piece of Chinese text written in Han script, how can we separate the script into words?

Use a very simple Chinese sentence as an example:


There are 3 characters corresponding to exactly 3 morphemes: you, good, (question), but actually how many words are in this sentence? Is the last morpheme 嗎 considered an inflectional morpheme changing the mood of the previous morpheme?

Let's consider another Chinese sentence:

我今天去了你家。 (I have been to your home today.)

Again, the 7 characters also corresponds to morphemes one-by-one. Is it true that the sentence consists of 5 words? 我/今天/去了/你/家

For more complicated examples, how to determine a phrase is a word itself or a compound consisting of multiple words, e.g. 飯盒 (lunch box, morpheme-by-morpheme "rice box")、高速公路 (motorway, morpheme-by-morpheme "high speed public road")、地下鐡路 (underground railway, morpheme-by-morpheme "ground under iron road"). These examples are clearly lexemes but actually how many words they contain?

As Dungan script is a working example of writing Mandarin in a western style with spaces of word delimiter, what's the rule when writing the morphemes out to determine if a morpheme is written as a single word or part of another word containing a freestanding morpheme? The orthography may serve as a valuable reference when analysing Mandarin samples.

  • For one I think the script would be out of use of things were not decodable. Two there should be some rules in place if not there could have been some word forming constraints etc. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 11:10
  • 4
    Check out the rules for separation of words ( 詞) in standard pīnyīn, they might be instructive. For more details check out Packard's The Morphology of Chinese. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 13:20
  • 3
    The concept of word is not really universally applicable; rather than hard word boundaries, there are various degrees of wordhood in Chinese, so how words are segmented is largely determined by convention and standardisation... Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 16:34
  • I am reading the GB/T 16159-2012 basic rules of the Chinese phonetic alphabet orthography, however it has differences when compared to Dungan orthography. For example, the particle 的 is always written separately in Chinese Pinyin but connected to the previous word in Dungan. In a grammatical sense is the particle 的 considered a separate word in Mandarin? Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 4:21
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    Is your interest in the somewhat theoretical analysis of multisyllabic utterances into the well-known construct "word", or are you looking for practical suggestions about where to put spaces when rending text in pinyin?
    – user6726
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 15:20

1 Answer 1


Practically speaking, each character in Chinese is counted as a 字. It is most practical that way, because there is no limit to a 词. A 词 can be composed of two, three, four, or even more 字.

Looking at your example: 你好嗎?

你 = word, meaning "you"

好 = word, meaning "good"

嗎 = word, used as a yes/no question marker

Totally, there are 3 字.


Totally, there are 7 字 and 6 词.

我 = word, meaning first-person pronoun

今天 = word, made up of an adjective/static verb and a noun

去 = word, verb

了 = word, past-action marker

你 = word, second-person pronoun

家 = word, noun.


This is an incorrect analysis, or at least not really a Chinese analysis. In elementary school, young children learn how to use characters to make words (用字组词). The main problem with your example is 去了. Some characters, such as 了, cannot be used with other characters to form words. In other words, 去了 would never be recognized as one word. It's actually recognized as two words -- 去 and 了.

飯盒 is a word. 飯 is a word. 盒 is a word.

高速公路 is a word. 高 is a word. 速 is a word. 公 is a word. 路 is a word. 高速 is a word, involving one adjective and one noun. 公路 is a word, involving one adjective and one noun.

地下鐡路 is a word. 地 is a word. 下 is a word. 鐡 is a word. 路 is a word. 地下 is a word. 鐡路 is a word.

Further note: It should be kept in mind that a "word" is a feature associated strongly with more synthetic languages. Written Chinese is highly analytic. The concept of a word in an English sense does not exist in Chinese. In Chinese, there are 字 (often translated as "characters" or "writing") and 词 (often translated as "words" or "expressions"). 词语 is a chain of Chinese characters that would be interpreted as a "word" in an English sense. 单词 is a term used specifically for English words and other foreign words; 单词, such as "detriment", is what English speakers would recognize as a "word". 单词 does not exist in Chinese. Therefore, when I used the term "word" above, I really meant to say 词, but seeing that 词 as a concept really doesn't exist in English, I have to say "word". I don't mean "word" in an English sense, though.

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