Journal of East Asian Linguistics

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 89-114

First online:

Word-length preferences in Chinese: a corpus study

  • San DuanmuAffiliated withDepartment of Linguistics, University of Michigan Email author 

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Are there preferred word-length combinations in Chinese? If there are, are they motivated by semantics, syntax, prosody, or a combination of these? While the issue has been discussed for some time, opinions remain divided. This study offers a quantitative analysis of word-length patterns in Chinese [N N] and [V O] sequences, using the Lancaster Corpus of Mandarin Chinese. It is found that 1+2 is overwhelmingly disfavored in [N N] and 2+1 is overwhelmingly disfavored in [V O]. In addition, it is found that apparent exceptions, ranging between 1 and 2%, are limited to certain specific structures, and when these are factored out, both 1+2 [N N] and 2+1 [V O] are well below 1% in either token count or type count. The result bears on several theoretical debates, such as the validity of word-length preferences in Chinese, the motivation of the preferences, the extent and the nature of exceptions, and the interaction among syntax, semantics, and phonology.


Word-length preferences Elastic word length Corpus analysis Syntax–phonology interaction Prosody Metrical structure