Next Monday, Next Week

In the schadenfreude category, here’s an example of a college-aged native Mandarin speaker mis-parsing a sentence that would have been clear if it had been spoken or if writing with Chinese characters indicated word boundaries.

I wrote:


I meant:

(I next week) (continually with kid at home)
Gloss: “I’m home with my kid all next week”

But she read:

(I next Monday) (continually with kid at home)
Gloss: “I’m home next Monday with my kid”

The central ambiguity is in how to parse these four characters: 星期一直. Is it (i) or (ii)?

  1. 星期一 (Monday) plus 直 (continually)
  2. 星期 (week) plus 一直 (continually)

Now if I were more careful writer, I might have included a comma after 星期, week, or something to indicate that 星期 was to be read as a word separate from the next character. But in meager defense of my intended meaning, I wrote the text on a Sunday which meant that in accordance with a Chinese week, “next Monday” would actually have been “tomorrow”. That would have been an odd way to phrase a request to meet tomorrow.

And in fact, when I told my correspondent that I actually meant “all week” she responded sheepishly that her original interpretation didn’t make much sense and that she had been riding on the subway, somewhat distracted, and not paying attention.

So where’s the schadenfreude? Maybe it’s just me. As a non-native speaker I’m always mis-parsing and misreading sentences because of word boundary issues. My mistakes are usually laughably dumb, mis-parsings that a better reader would never make. This one was fun just because it is living evidence that the ailment is not just my own and not just limited to non-native speakers.

Still, this can hardly be the best example of Mandarin mis-parsing by native speakers. Anyone got others from real life? I seem to recall whole series of jokes that relied on mis-parsing, but I can’t seem to find a single one right now.


FYI: Lots of good comments about Mandarin word parsing on this post, including the idea, which I now heartily believe, that the syllabic nature of Chinese characters makes them much easier to parse without spaces than Englishwouldbeifitwerewrittenwithoutspaces.

9 responses to “Next Monday, Next Week”

  1. Karan says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever used (or heard used) just 直 as meaning 一直. So when I was reading that sentence I kept on wondering what could possibly be the second interpretation. I can see myself misreading 星期一直 as 星期一一直 while reading fast, though, by just reading the 一 twice by mistake.

  2. Mark S. says:

    “a sentence that would have been clear if it had been spoken or if writing with Chinese characters indicated word boundaries”

    … or, or course, if it had been written in Pinyin: “Wǒ xiàxīngqī yīzhí gēn xiǎohái zàijiā.”

  3. pott says:

    There are many jokes involving the character 性, which unfortunately represents both the word “sex” and the suffix “-ness” among other things. Thus 先进性教育 could be either xiānjìn xìng jiàoyù “advanced sex education” or xiānjìnxìng jiàoyù “education of the state of being advanced” (whatever that means).

  4. John B says:

    One that I was involved in (and I forget the specifics, forgive me), involved the days of the week too, and was something like 请订下周三的会议室, and the meeting room was reserved for this Wednesday instead of next because the secretary thought it was 订下※周三 rather than 订※下周三.

  5. Syz says:

    @Karan: good pt, I meant to mention that, personally, I wouldn’t use 直 this way by itself

    @Mark S: Oh, I thought the Pinyin would be WO XIA XING QI YI ZHI GEN XIAO HAI ZAI JIA 😉

    @pott: come to think of it, I think the one I vaguely remembered involved 性 too

    @John B: that one sounds totally realistic (what’s the nifty ※ symbol?)

  6. Carl says:

    In Japan, ※ is called the “kome mark” where kome means “rice” and is written 米. Anyway, for them it’s just another kind of asterisk, but a particularly pretty one.

  7. John B says:

    Syz, I was trying to figure out how to make the OSX Chinese IME input a vertical pipe | character, and failed, so I resorted to that instead :)

  8. Syz says:

    Carl, that’s kind of cool. But you don’t know of a name in Mandarin? I’ll ask around…||『』【】;‘、|“:?》《+——)(×&……%¥#@!~· Man, I can’t find it anywhere in the google ime

  9. John B says:

    On the Mac Simplified Chinese IME, it’s Shift-8 (replacing the normal asterisk)

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