What’s up with Persuade?

Another post from the ranting “What’s up with…?” series that focuses on vocabulary words we can’t quite get a straight answer about.

Look in the dictionary for “persuade” and you basically end up with:

Now, let’s ignore (for this whole post) the fact that these words often mean “try to persuade” and talk about the following two statements that native speakers around me insist on:

1. “We don’t use shuōfú 说服. That’s more of a formal / written form.”

They claim to prefer quàn in spoken Chinese. It would be nice if the dictionaries mentioned that, but I’m actually not even convinced it’s true. I’d like to hear what other people from other parts of the country (I’m in Guangzhou) have to say on this matter (please leave comments here).

2. “And besides, 说服 is really pronounced ‘shuìfú’. So ‘shuōfú’ is a mistake.

MDBG gives “shuìfú” as the Taiwan pronunciation, but I’ve never heard anyone down here say anything BUT “shuìfú” (and my friend Tommy has never heard anything BUT “shuōfú”). Also, a student told me the other day that during high school, in preparation for the gāokǎo 高考 (which includes a pinyin section to test students’ Mandarin–I’d love to get a hold of some online materials for that by the way if anyone knows of any), they were told to give the correct pinyin for 说服 and if they put “shuōfú” it was marked wrong.

Now, I know that informants are flawed and can be prone to shooting from the hip, selling their own opinions as universal laws, and are always influenced by their own fāngyán 方言 (this is Guangzhou, after all). But it’s not only one person who’s saying these things.

Also that gaokao story had a sort of ring of truth to it. Why would the character be included on a test if it was meant to be pronounced the same way it always is (“shuō”)? At the same time, none of my dictionaries give “shuìfú”. So, what are we to think? Any ideas are welcome.

14 Replies to “What’s up with Persuade?”

  1. Very cool. In other languages whenever you ‘irregularities’ it seems to always be chalked up to efficacy.. eg. when using a particular verb, if the regular form is awkward to say or hear, an ‘irregular’ form is used.

    In this case, it appears Shuo1fu2 actually exists, but it’s so awkward to say (1,2, tones—你不用说服我呀!), it’s much more pleasant to say shui4fu2

    Shui4 is listed as meaning ‘persuade’, so you can just use that, but of course, not in written form because it would read as 说。

    Again, just a theory. Which if these is the easiest to say? Which sounds the best? Which is hard to say/hear?


    Great post!

  2. In Taiwan I hear shui4fu2. It would be interesting to look at this from a historical perspective. I’ll see what I can dig up later this week.

  3. My theory would be that the “original” pronunciation of the character is shuì, because the right side is duì and shuì rhymes with duì. Later on, was also used to represent the sound shuō, and there the confusion started. A quick cross-reference to Cantonese will show that in Cantonese this compound is (always) pronounced seoi-fuhk and never syut-fuhk. The Cantonese “seoi” rhymes with “deoi” and corresponds to the shuì pronunciation in Mandarin whereas the “syut” pronunciation corresponds with the Mandarin “shuō”. Thus, I believe that shuìfú is the original pronunciation and “shuōfú” is the “popular misreading” of 说服 (just like 刹那 tends to be pronounced “shānà” instead of “chànà”) due to the fact that the shuì reading was rare and only used in one or two compounds.

  4. FWIW, I’m in Hainan, been here a year and a half, and only quan sounds familiar to me. I think I’ve usually heard it reduplicated as quan-quan. But I just asked my native speaker girlfriend, who has been in Hainan for 5 years but originally comes from farther north (Zhejiang province). She says shuifu and shuofu are the same meaning, and both pronunciations are acceptable, and the difference between shuifu/shuofu and quan is one of emphasis: shuifu/shuofu is, she says, “stronger” than quan (not necessarily a formal/informal distinction). Although again, from my experience, I would say quan is more common (and that would be in common/spoken Chinese that I’m more familiar with, not more formal/written Chinese).

  5. To my understanding,
    说服 means convince
    means persuade

    the first one has implies that the person trying to persuade has a greater chance of succeeding, while the second one implies that he is just as likely to succeed than to fail in persuading others.

    BTW, I’m a Chinese native and shuifu is the only pronunciation I’ve heard in mainland; “shuofu” is generally considered as an incorrect pronunciation.

  6. When I first came to the United State 30 yrs. ago, I had to ask someone the differences between “convince” and “persuade”. I learned they are sometimes interchangeable, and sometimes they have different meanings, depending on the context and how you use them. (劝) and 說服 (说服)are a little like that, but is similar to “convince”, and 說服 is leaning towards “persuade”.

    is more of an action that involves a person kindly advising someone to do the right thing– you a married couple not to keep on fighting, or you a C student to study harder.

    When is used in 順服, 心服口服…it implies “willingly follow” or “truly impressed”.
    說服 is giving serious effort trying to talk someone into taking or changing a position, stand, or an action. It’s about winning someone over by your persuasive speech as in you have 說服了the king to give up his plan to attack a neighboring country.

  7. Let me post a couple of sentences in which and 说服cannot be swapped out with each other.

    我劝他,可是他不听。(I tried to talk to him, but I could not convince him.)
    我劝了他好几次,可是没法说服他。(I talked to him several times, but I could not persuade him.)

    说(shuoitself is “to speak” or “to say”, and when we studied 论语 and 孟子in our middle school in Taiwan, we learned that it is pronounced as “shui” when used with other characters to mean convince/persuade.

    劝(quanis to speak with an intention to convince. 说(shuoand 劝(quan), therfore, are not all that different here, and is the one that makes the biggest difference. For example, you can put and together, and 说服(shui4fu2) and 劝服 (quan4fu2) pretty much mean the same.

  8. I think is better translated as “encourage (sb. to do sth.)”; it refers to the act of trying to persuade someone to do something, or encouraging them to do something.

    For example, 劝酒 or 劝别人喝酒 means to encourage someone to drink more. 去劝劝他 means “go nag him” or “go nudge him”. tells us something about the person doing the 劝-ing, but not about the object. It focuses on the act of talking. It is like a weaker form of ; you are telling someone to do something, but subtly, encouraging them to do it and not forcing them.

    In 说服, serves as a resultative complement (meaning “convinced”); you talked to them with the result that they were convinced. From 百度:


    As such, 说服, unlike , implies success, much in the same way that the English “persuade” or “convince” does. You would never say 没能劝他 but you can say 没能说服他.

    As for pronunciation: I think the reason the “official” pronunciation is shuo1 is because here it means “talk”, not persuade. The is what makes this word mean persuade; it literally means talk with the result that someone is convinced. On the other hand, I think it makes perfect sense to pronounce it as shui4, considering that pronunciation is widely used and shui4 is defined as persuade.

  9. I live in the north, several hours from Beijing. I mostly hear quan4. So I am likely to agree with your friend who said that quan is more kouyu.

  10. Thanks, Ray. I did teach Chinese for 4 years, but that was long time ago. I got busy doing something else. I do enjoy doing translation from time to time. This website caught my attention recently, and I found some of the discussions particularly interesting.

    It’s been about a month since my last visit. I reviewed all the postings regarding this subject today, and I have just a little more to add.

    Please compare the following statements:

    1. I tried to tell him this is not a good business to get into, but he wouldn’t listen.

    2I tried to convince him this is not a good business to get into, but he was unconvinced.


    3I tried to tell him not to invest so much money into that business, but he wouldn’t listen.

    4I tried to persuade him not to invest so much money into that business, but he could not be persuaded.


    You can see why some people can go through entire life without using “convince”, “persuade”, and “说服

  11. @Wushi and Karan:
    According to Pulleyblank’s Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation : In Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese and Early Mandarin and William Baxter’s An Etymological Dictionary of Common Chinese Characters always had different pronunciations for “shuo” and “shui.” And to add to the confusion, there is always 學而時習之,不亦說乎?, though I assume here is just another way of writing . I don’t know another word pronounced “shui” that ever meant “to persuade”–which isn’t to say that there isn’t one. I just don’t know much about this topic.

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