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Know which Chinese punctuation marks to use in your writing

Written by April Zhang on Monday, 03 July 2023. Posted in Chinese Writing Contest

Know which Chinese punctuation marks to use in your writing

Use “ “” ”, not “「」”.

Use “ 。”, not “.”.

As the opening day for Chinese Writing Contest 2023 is less than 30 days away, I’d like to remind all participants to pay attention to Chinese punctuation marks in their writings.

Using punctuation marks correctly is always important. However, some students find Chinese punctuation marks a bit confusing and can not use them correctly. 

The main reason is that they find Chinese punctuation marks and the English language punctuation marks are not congruent. 

It’s understandable since most participants are learning Chinese as their second language, which is to say that, after they’ve been familiar with the English language punctuation marks for quite some time, they have to deal with some new punctuation marks in Chinese. For example, since there are no capital letters in Chinese to indicate a book title, students must use designated punctuation marks. We’ll come to that later. 

Compared to the history of the Chinese language, the history of Chinese punctuation marks is really short. For thousands of years, Chinese people were fine with reading texts that did not include any punctuation marks. 

Prior to the early 20th century, books were printed with columns of characters arranged from top to bottom without any spaces between them, like the picture above. These books needed scholars to add special marks, “ ” and “ 、”, alongside the text to indicate boundaries of sentences or pauses for pedagogical purposes, i.e. to teach students how to read Chinese texts. Once students became good at it, they proceeded to read books without these special marks.

From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, people began to recognise the advantages of having punctuation marks in texts. Reading them with these marks is a lot easier than those without. It’s less ambiguous as well.

So, smart people set about getting punctuation marks for the Chinese language.

On top of the traditional Chinese marks, they borrowed a number of punctuation marks from European languages, also invented a few, thus they created a set of Chinese punctuation marks.

Remember, this set of punctuation marks were meant for Chinese texts that were printed from top to bottom.

But this layout was soon changed.

Printing Chinese characters from top to bottom was a legacy layout originated from ancient bamboo or wooden slips, which were used as writing materials before the invention of paper. This layout had remained to be the book’s layout until the early 20th century when people started to question the applicability of this layout.

They argued that this layout must go, because our eyes were horizontally arranged, why we arranged characters vertically. It did not make any sense. They promoted that Chinese books should follow the layout of western books, arranging characters from left to right in lines.

They won the argument and the book layout was gradually changed. As a result, certain punctuation marks that were used in vertical columns were replaced or dropped.

The quotation marks “「」” are one of them. They work beautifully in vertical texts, but are not necessary in horizontal texts. The widely used quotation marks “ “” ” are much better in horizontal texts. 

But this change is incomplete. We see a mixture of styles today. Some newly published books continue to be printed from top to bottom. Or the quotation marks “「」” are kept in books printed from left to right. 

Nevertheless, this incorporation of punctuation marks is a huge improvement. And most Chinese books are printed from left to right, horizontally, with a set of easily recognised punctuation marks incorporated into texts.

This is what Chinese Writing Contest follows.

Since this contest uses Google form as the online submission tool, it rules out any handwritten submissions. Participants are expected to type their stories using computer word processors.

This brings our attention to spaces that Chinese punctuation marks occupy.

In all computer word processors, Chinese characters occupy a full width space. 

This full width size goes to punctuation marks as well, i.e., Chinese punctuation marks take up the same space as Chinese characters do.

This posts a challenge to some computer input methods.

Based on my own experience, if pinyin is used as the input method, computers may not be smart enough to use full width for Chinese punctuation marks. For example, when a Chinese full stop “ 。” should be used, computer gives a “.”. Or, when a full width “,” should be used, computer gives a half width “,”. 

This problem largely disappears if you switch to a handwritten mode for input. Another way is to simply pay more attention to punctuation marks when you’re typing. 

Finally let’s take a look at the few Chinese punctuation marks that confuse people the most.

  • Full Stop - 句号 (jù hào) 

The Chinese full stop is a small circle “。”, used at the end of a sentence.

  • Slanted Comma - 顿号 (dùn hào)

Also translated into “enumeration comma”, a short dash going from top left to bottom right “ 、”. It is used to separate a list of items. This is different from a regular “comma”, see below.

  • Comma - 逗号 (dòu hào)

It has the same look as the English comma “,”, just takes more space. 

  • Book Title Marks -  书名号 (shū míng hào)

They look like these: 《 》with the name of a book, a newspaper, a magazine, an article, a film or other publication in the middle. 

  • Quotation Marks - 引号 (yǐn hào)

As mentioned earlier, use “ “” ”, not “「」”.

I hope you find this article useful. If there are other punctuation marks you think should be mentioned, drop me a line.

About the Author

April Zhang

April Zhang

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and she enjoys teaching and interacting with students. She constantly explores new and interesting ways of teaching Chinese through creative and imaginative activities.

With her help, many students have achieved outstanding result, which has enriched their understanding about China and has significantly contributed to their work.