Massive miswriting

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"Can Chinese Write Their Own Language?" | ASIAN BOSS (7/19/18)

It's one thing when foreigners complain how hard it is to master Chinese characters.  It's quite another when Chinese are caught on camera, as in this video, not being able to write the characters for common words in their language.

By coincidence, just this morning I received confirmation of the difficulty of Chinese writing in a message from Wang Tong, a colleague in Beijing:

The sign reads:

mén qián jìnzhǐ tíngchē
hòuguǒ zìfù
shìchǎng bàn


No parking in front of the gate / door
You are responsible for the consequences
Market office

(My computer refuses to type 门 properly!)

See if you can spot which characters are miswritten.  There are some hints in this note from Wang Tong:

I found this picture by chance as I went through my iPhone album. It was taken last October when I took my daughter and her cousin on an excursion to a Beijing suburb. The two girls gurgled when they saw the Sinitic characters on the notice. Four very simple and commonly used characters are miswritten out of ten. The word 场 is also miswritten in a strict sense. I was a bit surprised too. The person who wrote the notice, apparently an adult, might have failed a grade 3 Chinese exam in primary school.

Earlier Language Log posts dealing with miswritten characters and the difficulty of the script are countless.  In the following Readings, I'll just list a few of those with more general implications

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. Michele said,

    July 25, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

    Seeing as how many Americans have trouble with English spelling (and grammar), I'm not so surprised about this.

  2. AntC said,

    July 25, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

    Yeah, there's a vacant building site I go past regularly. It's at a roundabout, between two of the radial roads. It's had an expensive-looking sign advertising it for sale, for several years:

    "Duel access, great visability" [sic].

    Should I pose as a French fencing-master looking to establish a martial arts school and ask for help getting work permits?

  3. David Marjanović said,

    July 25, 2018 @ 6:34 pm

    前, 停, 后, 负

  4. Bathrobe said,

    July 25, 2018 @ 7:14 pm

    The problem is partly the medium: red paint daubed on a sheet of metal using who knows what isn't a good medium for writing Chinese characters. 后 didn't strike me as wrong, just 'rough'. The finer parts of 停 would be hard to write properly. The writer may have wanted to convey just a general impression.

    Others were less deserving of latitude. 前 looks like a cross between 前 and 削. 负 is just straight out weird.

  5. unekdoud said,

    July 26, 2018 @ 12:01 am

    Here's what I misread each "word" as:
    停→停 (got the intended word even with the obvious error)
    Similar: 享 in 敦 and 郭, and 亨 in 哼
    后→店 (I suspect the white square above it is the dot getting erased)
    Similar: 咸 厉 厅
    负→價 (traditional form of 价)/価 (shinjitai kanji)
    Similar: 侦, but the left ⺅ probably comes from 付. Enclosed 人 in the right part would be like 内 丙 囚 冈.

    止 tilted up is also strictly wrong, since it might get confused with its radical form that occurs in 歧. Here, the only probable confusion is with䧳=雌.

  6. ~flow said,

    July 26, 2018 @ 4:20 am

    "The problem is partly the medium"—this. Whoever tried to do, with a pen a brush, something in the large (and maybe vertical instead of horizontal) that was easy to do in the small will know that the overall appearance of these characters is not so bad after all; actually 禁 and 车 are both written quite well in the picture.

    The problem with 前 is in deciding which elements group together; this is a classical problem in Chinese calligraphy, and there's a good number of cases in Unicode where the difference in choice is actually encoded as a difference in codepoints. As for this particular character, one could argue that its correct form should be 儛, i.e. ⿰⿱止舟刂. At least, that's what its history would suggest. In the modern sense, the form shown is not entirely correct, but at least the writer managed to collect the correct components in one square—I wonder whether you get credits for that when in school?

    As for 负, I never found it (and its brethren 见贝 and so on) easy to write well. Of course ⿰亻负 is wrong—or is it? maintains that 偩 is actually an old form for 负=負. Still wrong by any modern schooling standard, though.

    "The word 场 is also miswritten in a strict sense."—that one looks a bit awkward to me but not wrong. The writer tried to squeeze in the last two strokes without making a blob out of them. The effort counts. I once remember my sports teacher giving more points to the guy who did the shorter jump than to the more athletic-type one who jumped farther; he said 'he didn't jump as far, but I could see he tried much harder!'

  7. ~flow said,

    July 26, 2018 @ 4:21 am

    Blundah, that's 𠝣 not 儛 of course.

  8. Guy_H said,

    July 26, 2018 @ 5:37 am

    There is a Japanese version of this video as well:

    The Chinese did much worse than I expected, while the Japanese did on par with my expectations

  9. Tom gewecke said,

    July 26, 2018 @ 8:47 am

    If you are seeing the wrong character for mén, see this note:

  10. B.Ma said,

    July 27, 2018 @ 12:40 am

    unekdoud's comment is a bit strange. Yes, some of the characters look like other characters, but I had no trouble understanding what was intended upon my first glance.

    I didn't play the video, and except for the 负 with the unnecessary/incorrect radical which caused a bit of a double take, I barely noticed the weirdly written characters at all until VHM instructed me to "see if [I] can spot which characters are miswritten" when I went back to pay closer attention to the image.

    However, I did only spend 1 second looking at the image before reading the next line, and was expecting a grammatical error rather than an example of bad handwriting.

    As has been pointed out, similar or worse examples exist in English-speaking countries and presumably in all countries where ad-hoc messages are scrawled onto large sheets of metal.

    When I see errors like "duel access, great visability" I don't have any trouble understanding what was intended, but the misspellings are easily identified. Although the shape of English (and all alphabetical language) words plays a part in reading them quickly, with Chinese characters that are all shapes perhaps small errors are not that noticeable if one is just skimming and not looking too closely.

  11. Ellen K. said,

    July 27, 2018 @ 10:28 am

    Looking at these from the perspective of someone who does not read Chinese characters, I do think that some of them, the differences may amount to poor handwriting or too thick a brush for the character size and complexity. Other differences, though, are definitely either error or character variation.

  12. Nikhil Sonnad said,

    July 27, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

    I noticed in the Japanese version that @Guy_H shared that, in the example of 賄賂 (wairo, corruption) many people were using the incorrect radical/component on the left side. The radical, 貝, of course means "money; currency." As someone who speaks/reads Mandarin but knows little about Japanese, may I ask: Does Japanese education spend less time teaching the meanings of radicals/components? It seems odd to me that with such an obviously money-related term people would default to other components.

  13. Bathrobe said,

    July 27, 2018 @ 6:31 pm

    The problem with 賄賂 in Japanese is that the phonetic components are so far off base. The on-yomi of 有 is usually in Japanese. 各 is kaku but pronounced as raku in a number of characters (絡, 酪, 落, 烙, etc). (Also ro in some like 路, but this only caused people to choose 路 instead of 賂.) Wai and ro are just plain unintuitive to most people. Wai is more likely to call up 歪 (crooked) or 隈 (obscene) in people's minds. Ro calls up 路 (road). As Nikhil Sonnad said, if they had remembered that 'bribery' is related to money (貝 shell, money), they would have been on the right track, but because these characters are so rare, virtually found only as a set in the word wairo, and because the pronunciation cues are so far off base, people don't know where to start.

    With 翻訳 hon'yaku, the substitution of 本 for 翻 is understandable because of a feeling that translation involves translating books (本 hon).

  14. unekdoud said,

    July 27, 2018 @ 9:17 pm

    @B.Ma I'm not sure if my experience is different from others, but as you probably guessed I didn't/couldn't skim the sign, and trying to read/sound out each character individually makes the errors obvious to my eyes.

    The examples of similar-shaped components I gave demonstrate that these miswritten forms are basically useless as phonetic and semantic hints. Stretching the English sign analogy, it would be closer to "dzal access great visitibly".

    "Bad handwriting" or "poor handwriting" might invoke the mental image of a haphazard imbalance of forms, but the characters here are almost as neat (by modern standards) as those written with pen and paper, except for that awkward stroke thickness in the additional 亻 radical (which, on second look, seems like it was added after the rest of 负). I believe the signwriter could have easily included details like the missing strokes in 停 and the hook in 市 even on this medium.

  15. Bathrobe said,

    July 27, 2018 @ 11:30 pm

    I had no trouble reading what it said, but only because it's such stereotyped wording that I knew what it said before I'd read more than two or three characters. The 负 was unreadable, but no problem since I knew what it said.

  16. Scott P. said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 3:04 pm

    Similarly with english, much of english is allophonic & redundant, for example, we spell 'way, but 'wa' without the 'y' wood have the SAME pronunciation per the traditional rules, since a long 'a' is the same as 'ay'. similarly 'tha' wood equal 'they', wood wood equal 'would', since obviously the 'l' in would was lost from the beginning, english having vocalized the 'l' as common thruout Europe.

    Not redundant, because 'would' and 'wood' are homonyms, but have different meanings. I have seen studies that show that distinguishing homonyms visually speeds reading and comprehension.

    And I would think 'wa' would be pronounced like 'ma' and 'pa', and nothing like 'way,' given usual patterns of English phonology.

  17. Michele said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    Scott P wrote: “And I would think 'wa' would be pronounced like 'ma' and 'pa', and nothing like 'way,' given usual patterns of English phonology.”

    I was going to say the same thing. And not just English phonology, but also others, including Japanese romaji. “E” would indicate the “long A” sound.

    So, I think “we” would be “way” and “wi” would be “we” in this system. Wa wi wu we wo = wah we woo way woah.

  18. unekdoud said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 11:30 pm

    @Michelle: As far as I can tell, the vowel/dipthong of "way" is the long vowel EI えい in Japanese. For me, E え is the vowel in "when". A short word with both sounds is keiken 経験. For Mandarin, this distinction can be found between wèi 位 and yè 夜.

  19. Michele said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 4:30 pm


    I agree that "way" is more properly rendered as "ei" — but "we" is closer to "way" than "wa" is. "Wa" is "wah".

  20. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 7:53 pm

    @ Scott P.

    Personally, I didn't even notice that Yoandri Dominguez had used some wrong spellings (presumably on purpose) in his post, when I read it the first time, reading all the words in context. It wasn't till later, seeing your post quoting him, and noticing one of the words while not reading through that part of the post, that I realized he's used the wrong homophones in spots.

    Although, I have noticed sometimes spelling differences with homophones, and in particular proper nouns being capitalized, can make up for differences in how we say things that aren't encoded in writing.

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