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The "3-3" Tone Change Rule Explained | Best of the Comments


In this new blog series, we’ll be going over the top questions our support team sees from our students! 

If you check out the comments on our lesson pages here on, you'll see that there's a lively conversation between students, and our support team popping in to answer questions about the lesson.

In this segment of the series, we’re setting the record straight for the “3-3” tone rule, and what happens when you have more than two third tones in a row.

This question comes up ALL the time in the comments on the lesson pages:

Let's break it down!

Introduction to the “3-3” Tone Rule

If you’ve been studying Mandarin for some time, you’ve probably heard of the “3-3” tone rule. This rule states that if two consecutive characters have a third tone, the first “third tone” character should be changed to the second tone. So, it goes from “3-3” to “2-3”.

Here are some common examples of this that we see a lot: 

  • 你好: “nǐ hǎo” becomes “ní hǎo”
  • 可以: “kě yǐ” becomes “ké yǐ”
  • 所以: “suǒ yǐ” becomes “suó yǐ”
  • 很好: “hěn hǎo” becomes “hén hǎo”

We talk about this “3-3” rule in this free lesson of our Beginner Conversational Course:

Rule for More Than One “3rd” Tone in a Row

OK, so 3-3 becomes 2-3 - easy enough, right? Now, where things get tricky, and a lot of student questions come in: 

What happens when there are more than two third tones in a row?

The answer lies in two specific rules. Please note that the two rules can be a bit complicated in application, but if you learn them and try to use them, your spoken Chinese will be even better and more like a native speaker! 

The rule first applies across word boundaries, and then across the entire phrase.

First, let’s look at word boundaries with the following example. 

老虎管理老鼠 (lǎo hǔ guǎn lǐ lǎo shǔ) - “The lion manages the mice.”

Here, we have three individual words - 老虎 (lǎo hǔ) - “tiger”, 管理 (guǎn lǐ) - “to manage” and 老鼠 (lǎo shǔ) - “mouse”. 

So "lǎo hǔ guǎn lǐ lǎo shǔ” would be spoken as “[láo hǔ] [guán lǐ] [láo shǔ]” - it’s a 2-3, 2-3, 2-3 pattern.

Now let’s see another example, this time showing single characters where the rule applies across the entire phrase.

我想起你了 (wǒ xiǎng qǐ nǐ le) - “I thought of you”. 

We have 我 (wǒ) - ”I”, 想 (xiǎng) - “to think”, 起 (qǐ) - “up/of”, 你 (nǐ) - “you”, and 了 (le) - particle that indicates completion of the action. 

So, “wǒ xiǎng qǐ nǐ le” would be spoken as “[wó] [xiáng] [qí] [nǐ] [le]” - it’s 2-2-2-3-5.

Now, let’s look at some combination examples:

#1: 老板想买哪种水果?(lǎo bǎn xiǎng mǎi nǎ zhǒng shuǐ guǒ) - “What kind of fruit does your boss want to buy?”

Here, we have the words 老板 (lǎo bǎn) - “boss”, 想 (xiǎng) - “to want”, 买 (mǎi) -  “to buy”, 哪 (nǎ) - “which”, 种 (zhǒng) - “type/kind” and 水果 (shuǐ guǒ) - “fruit”. 

So, the sentence would be read as “[láo bǎn] [xiáng] [mǎi] [ná] [zhǒng] [shuí guǒ]”.

#2: 李老板想找你演讲。(lǐ lǎo bǎn xiǎng zhǎo nǐ yǎn jiǎng) - “The boss Li wants you to give a speech.”

In this sentence, we see the words 李 (lǐ) - the surname “Li”, 老板 lǎo bǎn) - “boss”, 想 (xiǎng)- “to want”, 找 (zhǎo) - “to look for”, 你 (nǐ) - “you”, 演讲 (yǎn jiǎng) - “to make a speech”.

So, it would be read “[lǐ] [láo bǎn] [xiáng] [zháo] [nǐ] [yán jiǎng]”

Please note: The rules for tricky tone changes can have some grey areas. For instance, in the above example, 想 (xiǎng) could be pronounced as the third or second tone. If a native speaker uses the third in this instance, they’ll usually pause for a moment after the character 想 (xiǎng), since there would be two third tones in a row. They might also just use the second tone for the ‘domino effect’, as illustrated in the second rule above. 

Test Yourself

Now, it’s time to test yourself! See if you can change the below tones to the correct “spoken” tones based on the above rules!

1. 你的法语很好。(nǐ de fǎ yǔ hěn hǎo)
2. 你可以帮我吗?(nǐ kě yǐ bāng wǒ ma)
3. 我理解你老板的意思。(wǒ lǐ jiě nǐ lǎo bǎn de yì si)


1. 你的法语很好。(nǐ de fá yǔ hén hǎo)
2. 你可以帮我吗?(nǐ ké yǐ bāng wǒ ma)
3. 我理解你老板的意思。(wǒ lí jiě nǐ* láo bǎn de yì si)

*Note: 你 (nǐ) can be pronounced as the second or third tone here. If as a third tone, there will be a slight pause after 你 (nǐ) since there are two third tones.

Want more practice with the “3-3” rule in Chinese? 

Then make sure to check out our FREE lesson on it from our Beginner Conversational Course! After watching the lesson video, be sure to use the study features like Audio Review to practice speaking, the Lecture Notes PDF, and also take the quiz. Click here to check it out!

We hope this blog post was helpful to you! 

Don’t worry too much if these rules are a bit scary, just keep them in mind and the more you practice, the more these rules will ‘click’ when you’re speaking full sentences!