Where do I put the tone marks in pinyin words?

In my first year of studying Chinese I learned (by doing it wrong in front of Chinese friends) that there are rules for where to put tone markings in words with more than one vowel. The official rules, according to Mark Swofford’s very helpful site, are:

  • A and e trump all other vowels and always take the tone mark. There are no Mandarin syllables in Hanyu Pinyin that contain both a and e.
  • In the combination ou, o takes the mark.
  • In all other cases, the final vowel takes the mark.

But I noticed the craziest little pattern. If you want to remember only one rule and one exception think of it like this:

  • Alphabetical order dictates which letter gets the tone mark. (if it’s “biāo” then the “a” is alphabetically first, so give it the tone mark)
  • The only exception I’ve found is the “iu” combination. In this case the “u” gets the mark even though it’s alphabetically after “i”
  • Oh wait, there is another rather rare exception and that’s “io” combination (“o” get’s the mark”)

So here’s the way I remember it:

  • “duì ” in Chinese means “correct,” so the alphabetical rule is correct for that word
  • “diū ” in Chinese means “to lose,” so the alphabetical rule has lost it’s integrity (and face) for that word
  • Since “io” is also an exception (xiōngdì 兄弟), “I owe” everyone an apology for saying there was only one exception

Still, since the “io” combo is very rare, and the “ui” and “iu” combos are easy to watch for, I’ve found the alphabetical rule to be the easiest to remember and use.


  1. You can find such things on my list of Hanyu Pinyin’s syllables. So, for io combinations (not counting yong, in which the i becomes a y), there are:

    xiong — as in xiongdi (“brothers”)
    qiong — as in qiongren (“poor people”)
    jiong (but that’s fairly obscure)

    Thanks for all the links. 🙂

  2. Does anyone care? I thought Pinyin, and particularly tone-marks, was just a tool for helping poor foreigners to learn pronunciation. I shan’t be burning memory cells on this one.
    That said, I came across a handy little hint about it. In some cases some vowels don’t sound under the tone, so they don’t get the tone written under them. For example piao : the i will make the same y-sound whatever tone the word has, so the tone is not written above the i. (I don’t know where it does go. I would put it above the a, because I think I read or noticed that it normally goes on the first vowel of a combination. This could be wrong.)

  3. As to where to put tone markings in words with more than one vowel, there is indeed a rule, that is, the tone-graph should be placed above the main vowel(namely the one pronounced with the mouth widest open), e.g.”hāo”.

  4. the rule is:

    There is a prior order in pinyin, a ,e ,o ,i ,u
    so you should look for a in pinyin,and then e ,then o ,…..
    But there is a exception when u meets i, the last vower takes the tone marking. for example

    I’m a native chinese teacher,if you have any question about chinese, you can send email to me. i am glad to answer you.

  5. easiest way to think of this for the “i” case just remember to just take the vowel after the “i” and everthing else in alphabetical order

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