Pinyin Tutorial – Change of Tones

In Chinese it happens that sometimes we change the Tones of certain Pinyin syllable to improve the clarity or ease pronunciation difficulties, here are some general rules:

  • When two 3rd tones come together, the first tone changes into the 2nd (but its tone mark remains unchanged), e.g. “你好 nǐ hǎo” (How are you) is actually pronounced as “ní hǎo”.
  • When a syllable in the 3rd tone precedes a syllable in the 1st, 2nd, 4th or neutral tone, it is pronounced in the half 3rd tone, that is, the tone only falls but doesn’t rise, e.g. “你们 nǐ men”.

Change of Tones of “不” and “一”

  • “不 bù” is pronounced in the 2nd tone (bú) when it is put before a syllable in the 4th tone or a syllable in the neutral tone developed from 4th tone, e.g. “不谢 bú xiè” (Don’t mention it), “不是 bú shì” (No, it isn’t). But “不” is still pronounced in the 4th tone (bù) when it precedes a syllable in the 1st, 2nd or 3rd tone, e.g. “不新 bù xīn” (not new), “不来 bù lái” (not come), “不好 bù hǎo” (not good).
  • “一 yī” is pronounced in the 2nd tone (yí) when it precedes a syllable in the 4th tone or a syllable in the neutral tone developed from the 4th tone, e.g. “一块 yí kuài” (a block/bar), “一个 yí gè” (a piece). But “一” is pronounced in the 4th tone (yì) when it precedes a syllable in the 1st, 2nd or 3rd tone, e.g. “一天 yì tiān” (a day), “一年 yì nián” (a year), “一起 yì qǐ ” (together).

Retroflexion with -r 儿化

“er” is often added to another final to make it retroflexed. The retroflex final is transcribed by adding “r” to the original final, e.g. “玩儿 wánr” (play), “花儿 huār” (flower).

Book reference:
MANDARIN CHINESE – Learning Through Conversation I

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9 thoughts on “Pinyin Tutorial – Change of Tones”

  1. Hi MinMin

    Regarding how when there are two third tones one becomes the second tone and another the third. I have only just recently learnt this and while I thought i was talking good mandarin, i guess this is important to improve the speed at which i speak? although is it very necessary that the pronounciation for say 给我 is gei2wo3? I believe the way i was doing it, especially when i spoke fast maybe I was automatically speaking 2nd and 3rd tone anyway.. but I try to keep my voice low when i try to still dip both words such as 给我 when i try to say them

    anyway just a question, in the following how would i pronounce these:
    wo3 ke2yi3 shuo1hua4 ta1 ma?还是 wo2 ke2yi3 shuo1hua4 ta1 ma?
    i get very confused

    qing3 ta1 gei2 wo3 da3dian4hua4 hao3 ma? 还是 qing3 ta1 gei2 wo2 da3dian4hua4 hao3 ma?

    好, 我转告他
    hao2, wo2zhuan3gao4 ta1, 还是 hao3, wo2zhuan3gao4 ta1 还是 hao3, wo3zhuan3gao4 ta1?

    its really frustrating me at the moment, some help would be appreciated 🙂


    1. Hi Tian,
      Have you downloaded my Pinyin ebook? If you haven’t, please go to this link. The ebook is free:

      In lesson 24 in the ebook, I have pointed out a few rules that the tones of words change depending on the tone of the word precedes or come after it.

      For example:
      The pinyin of these 2 characters are :
      给 = gěi
      我 = wǒ
      When you read them together, we should pronounce it as : 给我 (géi wǒ)
      From the Pinyin ebook:
      Rule # 1: If a 3rd tone is followed by a 3rd tone, the first 3rd tone becomes a 2nd tone.

      For your questions:
      1. 我可以说话他妈?
      The structure of this sentence is not really correct. Do you mean:

      The pinyin for 可以 is kě yǐ. But since both have 3rd tone, as mentioned in Rule #1, the first 3rd tone 可 kě should be pronounced as 2nd tone.

      wǒ kě(ké) yǐ hé tā shuō huà ma ?
      change of tone: 可以

      2. 请他给我打电话好吗?

      qǐng tā gěi (géi)wǒ dǎ diàn huà hǎo ma ?
      change of tone : 给我

      3. 好,我转告他。

      hǎo ,wǒ(wó) zhuǎn gào tā 。
      change of tone : 我

  2. See that last sentence i wrote?

    What really confused me there is that wo3 is a seperate word, and zhuan3gao4 is a seperate, but when they are side by side.. do i pronounce as wo2 zhuan3gao4 or wo3 zhuan3gao4?

    Thanks again

    1. Hi Tian,
      You have to change the tone 我 (wǒ ) to 2nd tone (wó).
      Rule # 1: If a 3rd tone is followed by a 3rd tone, the first 3rd tone becomes a 2nd tone.

  3. sorry 我可以和他说话吗? is what i meant

    I see, so is it very important to master this rule? I find myself now getting stuck on tones again because im focusing so much on making sure I go from second to third tone… but i think I might have been doing it anyway?

    1. Hi Ivan,
      This question is a bit complicated.
      When there is a sentence with three 3rd tone together, like ” 我可以 …” ( wǒ kě yǐ ) , the first 3rd tone of the “pair words” would become a 2nd tone.
      我/可以 ( wǒ / kě yǐ -> wǒ ké yǐ )
      纸/老虎 ( zhǐ / lǎo hǔ -> zhǐ / láo hǔ )

      I hope you understand what I am trying to explain.

  4. Reading these tutorials explain why tones always sounded different when I was learning Chinese years ago. The teacher would give oral tests and would say something like 你。你好的你。 I just had to remember to go off what I learned in the book to write the correct tome mark. This just confirms that tones really do change when spoken in phrases.

    1. Hi Alita,
      Yes. You are right. Change of tones always depends on the tone before or after it.
      Once you can speak fluent Chinese, you will automatically know when to change tones without memorize the rules.

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