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The 'word-character error' whilst learning Chinese

Visualisation of word-character problem: 负责 superimposed on each other

The ‘word-character error’ is my term for a common mistake that people learning Chinese make: getting the characters in a word confused when they’re seen in isolation. I think it’s a special kind of mistake that may be fairly exclusive to Chinese or languages that use similar writing systems.

The error happens when you learn a character as part of a word, let’s say 负责 (fùzé) as a quick example. You’re comfortable with the word, but because you’re using the whole word to remember its pronunciation and meaning, your knowledge of the individual characters isn’t actually very secure.

This is fine until you come across on its own, for example. You know you know the character but can only recall the entire word 负责 . Sometimes you’ll misread as because of this problem, or the other way round. It’s generally a problem in reading and not so much in writing. My term for this error is ‘word-character error’.

It’s not a particularly good name for the problem, but I couldn’t think of a better one. Ideally we’d have a concise, accurate term for it. If anyone has any ideas, or knows if there is actually a term for this specific error, please share it in the comments.

Some points of definition for this error

I’m very aware that everyone will think I’m talking about getting characters wrong in general, which I’m not. So to re-iterate, here are some criteria for the word-character error:

  • It happens with single characters.
  • It’s generally a problem during reading.
  • It’s mostly about mispronouncing a character (you can remember the meaning from the word you know it in).
  • The confusion has to be with the other character in the word that you know this character from.

That last point is the most important here.

Greg helpfully came up with some example words that might be likely to occur with the word-character error:

  • 讨论 (tǎolùn)
  • 自己 (zìjǐ)
  • 休息 (xiūxi)

These sorts of words are likely to cause the error because the meaning of each character alone is the same as the word overall, so it can be hard to remember which is which if you only know them in that word. You can see more words like this in Greg’s post.

What the word-character error is not

I want to emphasise that I’m trying to find a term for a very narrow kind of problem that learners of Chinese encounter. The word-character error is very specifically about misreading a hanzi as one that it appears with as part of a word.

It is not any of the following, although they might be involved as part of the problem:

  • Just generally getting the tone or reading wrong for a character.
  • Writing a character incorrectly.
  • Writing one character instead of another.
  • Mixing up similarly pronounced words or characters (e.g. 围巾 and 味精 ).
  • Confusing similar hanzi with each other (e.g. and ).
  • Using a single character where a word / binome would be better (some people who study a lot of Classical Chinese do this).
  • Thinking that a character in a word is a different one (e.g. thinking 稍等 is 小等 ).
  • Getting the characters the wrong way round in a word (e.g. saying 泉矿 instead of 矿泉 ).

Those are all common and interesting mistakes that people learning Chinese make, but they’re not the word-character error! The error I’m talking about only applies when you see a character you only know as part of a word, and can’t remember which character it is, or mistake it for the other.

I think my “word-character error” only occurs in reading (very rarely with writing at least). It’s when you can only recognise a character when it’s part of a word you know, and otherwise you confuse it with the other character in that word.

Special features of the word-character error

As far as I know, this kind of mistake should be particular to Chinese as a foreign language. I think some special features of Chinese make this the case:

  • Chinese uses hanzi! This separates it from the vast majority of other writing systems in the world, most of which are largely phonetic and focus on words, thus avoiding this problem entirely.
  • Chinese is written pretty much entirely in hanzi. This is different to say Korean and Japanese, which whilst they make use of hanzi, also make much heavier use of their own scripts. This means that in Chinese there is less opportunity to use other cues to identify a character.
  • Chinese nearly always has one syllable per character. Somehow I get the feeling that if there could be multiple syllables per character as in Japanese, it would make it easier to firmly attach identities to each character in your mind.
  • I would imagine the chance of this happening reduces with the number of words you know that contain the character. So if you’re mixing up the characters in 负责 , learning 负担 might help a bit.
  • I would also guess that the word-character error is more likely with rarer words / characters. E.g., I doubt many learners are getting confused with (although maybe they do in the early stages).


This isn’t a big issue for most people learning Chinese - it crops up very rarely - so in general it’s not something you need a solution for. However, I would guess the two most effective things you can do to avoid it for particular words and their characters are:

  • Can the character be used on its own? If so, learn some sentences that use it as a word on its own and put them in your SRS system.
  • Learn other words that contain the characters of the word in question. Get the head character and find other words that contain it, and do the same with the tail character. Again, find sentences that contain them and put them in your SRS.

Both of the above are very easy to implement using Anki and Jukuu or whatever. Also note that you can set Skritter to separately add in the individual characters of any words you add to your list.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this idea. Do you experience it? Do you have a better name for it? Please share all in the comments!

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net