Part of creating a more humane Chinese-English dictionary is figuring out ways to help Chinese learners with problems they face when using most dictionaries.

One such problem is the character/word conundrum. Historically, Chinese characters have been words, but modern Chinese changes the rules-- most words are made up of two or more characters.

Why all the confusion?

Basically, it's your dictionaries fault. Historically, Chinese dictionaries provided information about characters, which at the time, were also used as words. Even though modern Chinese uses more multi-character words than single-character words, you'll still find old, unused definitions for characters, even in so called "modern Chinese dictionaries".

In modern Chinese, when you write by itself, it doesn't mean body. It doesn't mean life. It doesn't mean oneself. But if you look up 身 in a good Chinese-English dictionary, you will see all of those definitions for 身. Those definitions aren't definitions for a word. They are old character definitions.

I don't mind that dictionaries have all this old information. Learning the different definitions of a character can be useful. But it should come with a big warning, like: this character isn't used by itself. That's the problem.

Character Friendliness: a solution to the character/word conundrum

Thankfully, 3000 Hanzi's Chinese Dictionary has come to the rescue. I've gone through data in over 10,000 documents to determine which characters commonly occur as part of a word, and which occur as single-character words. The result is something I've called Character Friendliness.

Character Friendliness, a new, exclusive feature from 3000 Hanzi's Chinese character dictionary tries to reduce the character/word conundrum. It starts with a question:

How often does this characater appear inside other words?

Character Friendliness categorizes each character into 4 groups: usually, friendly, often friendly, sometimes friendly, and rarely friendly.

  1. Usually friendly characters are usually part of a larger word, like 国、们、化.
  2. Often friendly characters will appear as part of a word quite often (but can also be used independently, like 一、有 and 不 ).
  3. Sometimes friendly characters sometimes appear as part of a word, but mostly appear by themselves (e.g. 是、我、说 ).
  4. And rarely friendly characters rarely need another character to act as a word (e.g. 的、了、在 ).

Why is it called character friendliness? Because characters that usually appear as part of a multi-character word are "friendly", and characters that often appear as individual words aren't "friendly".

This data helps you figure out whether a character should be used by itself, and it is exclusive to 3000 Hanzi's Chinese-English Dictionary.

A character friendliness analysis for common characters.

I did an Character Friendliness analysis on the most common 500, 1000, and 3000 characters using 3000 Hanzi's Chinese frequency data and the results go a long way towards proving that modern Chinese words are predominantly made up of multi-character words. Only 19 of the most common 500 characters will commonly appear as a word (3.8%). And by the time you get to the most common 3000 characters, only 2.4% (72 characters) will commonly appear as a word.

So what kind of character is rarely friendly or sometimes? Here's a list of the characters that are "rarely friendly" and characters that are "sometimes friendly" from from the most common 500 characters:

  1. Rarely Friendly: 的、了、在、和、也、着、与、都、你、她、把、又、两、很、或、将、呢、却、让.

  2. Sometimes Friendly: 是、我、他、这、就、对、年、说、种、而、从、等、还、它、但、去、被、使、三、月、并、向、给、已、更、几、元、较、再、则、该、做、即、便、叫、吃

It's interesting to note that 她 (she) is rarely friendly, but 他 and 它 are sometimes friendly. This is probably because 他们 and even 它们 are quite common, but 她们 isn't.

Overall, I believe that Character Friendliness is a useful indication for Chinese learners. I hope that you'll agree.

What do you think of Character Friendliness? Let me know in the comments.


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