Intro to Chinese Punctuation for English Speakers

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This page is a tutorial of Chinese punctuation. The symbols used and their purpose. Comparison to English punctuation, and as they are practiced in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the minor differences in their usage. The commentary takes the perspective of notation grammar in computer language.

This page is mostly for English speakers. I assume that you are well acquainted with English punctuation.

Note that punctuation usage is not a precision science. For example, US and UK have slightly different habits, and even in US, different style guides differ in their opinion in minor details.

Chinese punctuation usage is very similar to Western language punctuation, except that a few symbols are not used, and with few additional symbols.

Shared English and Chinese Punctuation Symbols

The following symbols are used in both English and Chinese, with the same meaning:

SymbolName
.Period
,Comma
:Colon
;Semicolon
?Question mark
!exclamation mark
quotation mark (double)
quotation mark (single)
-hyphen
dash (em-dash). (In Chinese, often 2 of them are used.)
( )round brackets (aka parenthesis)
[ ]square brackets
{ }curly brackets (aka braces)

Chinese Punctuation Symbols Not in English

The following are punctuation symbols used in Chinese but not seen in Western langs:

SymbolChinese NameLiteral TranslationEnglish NameUnicode name
句號sentence markChinese periodIDEOGRAPHIC FULL STOP
頓號pause markenumeration commaIDEOGRAPHIC COMMA
書名號 (單)book title mark (single)angle bracket (single)LEFT/RIGHT ANGLE BRACKET
書名號 (雙)book title mark (double)angle bracket (double)LEFT/RIGHT DOUBLE ANGLE BRACKET
單引號single quotation marksingle quotation markLEFT/RIGHT CORNER BRACKET
雙引號double quotation markdouble quotation markLEFT/RIGHT WHITE CORNER BRACKET
六角括號six angles brackettortoise shell bracketLEFT/RIGHT TORTOISE SHELL BRACKET
黑方頭括號black square bracketblack lenticular bracketLEFT/RIGHT BLACK LENTICULAR BRACKET
白方頭括號white square bracketwhite lenticular bracketLEFT/RIGHT WHITE LENTICULAR BRACKET

Chinese Period 。

The Chinese period symbol , has the same semantics as English period, but with full width. (meaning, it occupies the same square as a Chinese character. Most letters of Western alphabets are so-called half-width, because in general they are half the width of a Chinese char.)

In Unicode, almost all Western lang punctuation symbols also have a Asian variant that's full width. Here are some examples commonly used in Chinese writing:

For a complete list of full version of English characters, see: Unicode Full-Width Characters.

Note that Chinese can be written both vertically and horizontally. Vertical is traditional, but due to Western lang's influence, horizontal, left to right, is the common practice today in all Chinese speaking regions (except Taiwan newspapers). Horizontal practice is started by China. Quote from Wikipedia:

People's Republic of China decided to use horizontal writing. All newspapers in China changed from vertical to horizontal alignment on January 1, 1956.

The problem with vertical writing is that it's hard to intermix with Western languages (names, phrases, quotes), scientific formula, and hard to use in software because the first 30 or so years of software are developed using English for English users (in US).

With the adoption of horizontal writing, the Western style glyph (half-with) for period, comma, colon, question mark, etc are sometimes seen, especially in online chat or personal blog. Though, they are considered eyesore.

Enumeration Comma 、

The symbol , in Chinese is called 頓號. Literally it means “pause symbol”. Proper English name for it is Enumeration Comma. The Unicode name for the char is “IDEOGRAPHIC COMMA”.

In Chinese, when you have a sequence of things, such as “in my bag, i have: peach, banana, cherry.”, you don't use comma to separate them, you use this enumeration comma. So, you'd write: “in my bag, i have: peach、banana、cherry.”. (See also: English Writing Style: Oxford Comma and Strippers)

Quotation Marks 「」 『』

Quotation signs are pretty much used the same way in most languages, European or Asian. They are a pair of matching glyph. The 2 glyph for left and right are usually symmetrically opposite in their appearance. For example, French uses «LEFT/RIGHT-POINTING DOUBLE ANGLE QUOTATION MARK» and also ‹SINGLE LEFT/RIGHT-POINTING ANGLE QUOTATION MARK›.

(Some euro countries, e.g. Finnish and Swedish, use the same symbol for both opening and closing. Like ”this” or »this». Quite IDIOTIC. See: The Moronicities of Typography.)

Also, usually there's a double and single version. For example, in US, if you have a quote within a quote, the outer is double, the inner is single. More level of nesting alternate the double and single.

Whether non-nested quotation should use the double or single version differ by region. e.g. US uses “double” as primary, while UK uses ‘single’ as primary

In China, the Western style “matching curly quote” is often used. In fact, they are the government's official quotation symbols, both “double” and ‘single’. Double as primary and single as secondary, same as US.

The traditional Chinese quotation symbol is 「single corner bracket」 and 『double corner bracket』. They are used in China too, but more so in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The following are the vertical versions:

Title Brackets 〈〉《》

One interesting symbol used in Chinese is the 《angle bracket》 and 〈single〉 version. These are used for book titles. The double version is primary. The single version is often used for chapter names, or titles of film, song, show, etc, or nested title. (note, these are different in appearance from the French's «» and ‹›.)

A well-established alternative practice for marking book titles is to use wavy underline. But that's going out of fashion in digital age because it's not as easy to produce on computer as compared to simply typing 2 matching chars. (Also interesting to note, that Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) so far does not support wavy underline.)

Note that in Western langs, the convention for book title is to slant the print (aka “italics”) and without any delimiter or explicit marking.

The following are the vertical versions:

Other Brackets 【】〖〗〔〕⦗⦘ 〘〙

Now, there's also these brackets, roughly in order of frequency of occurrence: 【BLACK LENTICULAR BRACKET】, 〖WHITE LENTICULAR BRACKET〗, 〔TORTOISE SHELL BRACKET〕. They are frequently seen, especially from older books. These are the traditional brackets for Chinese. The meaning and usage varies. They are analogous to Western's (paren), [square], {curly}. The Western style brackets are commonly seen in Chinese today too, though the Chinese lenticular bracket is still common.

The following are more variation of brackets, but rarely seen:

References

To see common punctuation practices in China, you can go to Chinese site such as baidu.com, sina.com.cn, qq.com. For Taiwan, visit “Yahoo! Taiwan” at tw.yahoo.com.

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