Monthly Archives: September 2013

Contagious forgetting

My wife and I are both teachers, and in addition to our main jobs with our respective institutions, we both teach English classes at the local YMCA on Tuesday nights. Our classes are at the same time (6:30-9:40), so we usually just go together on my motorcycle.

This past Tuesday, my class ran several minutes late, so I expected my wife to be waiting for me when I finished — but she was still in class. She finally came out nearly half an hour after the scheduled time and explained to me what had happened. She hadn’t lost track of time — on the contrary, she had been keeping an eye on the clock — but for some reason she had misread it as saying it was about nine o’clock, when in fact it was about ten.


The very next day, I was teaching my regular classes at the college, which are also supposed to finish at 9:40, and the same thing happened to me! I glanced at the clock from time to time as I was teaching but always misread the time as being an hour earlier than it actually was. Towards the end I was a little worried because I had almost finished the material I had prepared but still had (I thought) 40 more minutes of class time to fill. When one of the staff knocked on the door and reminded me that it was time to wrap up, I said, “No, I’ve still got 40 minutes, see?” and pointed at the clock — at which point I finally realized my mistake. Quite embarrassing.


So is it just a coincidence that my wife and I made the same unlikely mistake within 24 hours of each other? The odds seem rather low. I won’t say I’ve never made this kind of mistake before, but surely only a few times in my adult life. It seems that hearing about my wife’s mistake somehow caused me to make the same mistake myself.

But it seems very strange that hearing a story about not noticing something could cause you to not-notice the same thing. Hearing something mentioned, no matter the context, puts that thing in your mind. It’s proverbial that when someone tells you not to think of a white bear, you immediately think of a white bear — so when someone talks about not noticing the correct time, you’d think that would make you more likely to notice the correct time. If I was in fact influenced by my wife’s mistake, the psychological mechanism of that influence is a mystery.


Something similar happened to me last year when I forgot the name of the country of which Monte Carlo is the capital, apparently due to the influence of a story Freud tells about how he once forgot the same thing — with the added twist that I read Freud’s story the day after my own memory blank!


Filed under Coincidence / Synchronicity, Psychology

Chinese for “one” and “two”: Correct use of 二, 兩, and the various pronunciations of 一

This is pretty basic Chinese — how to say the numbers “one” and “two” — but I’ve not yet found a grammar book that explains the rules in a clear and precise way, so I’ve decided to do it myself.


We’ll start with “two,” since the distinction between the two forms of the number, 二 (èr) and 兩 (liǎng), is more obvious. Because two different characters with two completely different pronunciations are used, a few months’ exposure to spoken or written Chinese is usually enough to give one an intuitive feel for when to use which one — which is good, because the textbooks (and native speakers, if you ask them) are terrible at explaining it. Here’s a typical example from Practical Audio-Visual Chinese, published by 國立台灣師範大學國語教學中心:

Comparison of 二 and 兩: 二 is usually translated as “two”, and can be used alone. In counting, numbers with two or more digits that end with the number 2 use the character  二, not 兩. Such as 十二, 二十二. 兩 is a bound form, i.e. it can never be used alone. It must always be followed by a measure word.

This is seriously misleading in several ways. Below are the real rules, as I’ve discovered them using the linguistic field methods I learned back in college:

For the number “two” itself:

  • If it’s a cardinal number used without a measure word — as in counting, in numbered lists, etc. — always use 二. “One, two, three” is 一 、二 、三.
  • If it’s a cardinal number used with a measure word (such as 個), always use 兩. “Two apples” is 兩個蘋果.
  • If it’s an ordinal number, always use 二, regardless of whether or not there is a measure word. “The second apple” is 第二個蘋果.
  • In compound words, four-character idioms, etc., there don’t seem to be any hard-and-fast rules — but in general, 兩 seems to carry the meaning “both” (i.e., both members of an understood set of two), whereas 二 is “two” in a more general sense. Here are a few examples:
    • 獨一無二 (“unique”; lit. “one alone, no two”), 二手貨 (“secondhand goods”), 一石二鳥 (“kill two birds with one stone”), 禮拜二 (“Tuesday,” considered the second day of the week), 二重唱 (“duet”)
    • 兩黨 (“bipartisan”), 兩極 (“bipolar”), 海峽兩岸 (“cross-strait,” i.e. relating to China-Taiwan relations), 兩邊討好 (“to please both sides”), 兩棲動物 (“amphibian”)

For larger numbers containing the digit “2”:

  • If “2” by itself (i.e., not as part of a larger number like “12” or “32”) is modifying 百 (“hundred”) or any larger power-of-ten word, use 兩. “Two thousand two hundred” is 兩千兩百. “Two hundred million” is 兩億.
  • Otherwise, use 二. “Twenty-two” is 二十二. “222,222,222” is 兩億兩千兩百二十二萬兩千兩百二十二.


Now for the number “one.” It is always written with the same character, 一, but can be pronounced in three different ways: first tone (), second tone (), and fourth tone ().

As an example of the unhelpful explanations given by reference books, here’s what the Far East Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary has to say:

Note: When  precedes a 4th-tone sound, it is pronounced as . When the sound followed [sic]  is a 1st-, 2nd-, or 3rd-tone sound,  is pronounced as .

Since there are only four tones in the language, this makes it sound as if 一 is never pronounced as  except when it is spoken in complete isolation, which is definitely not true.

What I suddenly realized one day (and what is, inexplicably, never explained in any dictionary or textbook I’ve seen) is that the rules for pronouncing 一 are basically the same as the rules for using 二 and 兩. Here they are:

  • In situations where you would use 二, use first-tone yī.
  • In situations where you would use 兩, follow the rules given in the dictionary. That is, use second-tone  when a fourth-tone syllable follows, and fourth-tone  otherwise. (This is the same rule as for 不.)
  • As far as I can tell, all compound words and four-character idioms use first-tone However, I can’t be entirely sure about that because dictionaries (and Google Translate) have an annoying habit of always transliterating 一 as regardless of how it is actually pronounced.


So, those are the rules for “one” and “two,” so far as I’ve been able to figure them out. I welcome corrections from native speakers, questions from fellow students of the language, and textbook recommendations from anyone who knows a good one.

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Filed under Language