Project:Ci Free and Bound Characters
As an integral part of our labeling of parts of speech we make a distinction between those that are “free” and those that are “bound” and we further recognize two levels of “boundness”. First there are those characters that individually have no meaning of their own (at least in modern Chinese) but require one or more companion characters to form a meaningful word. The characters xī 蟋 and shuài 蟀 separately have no more meaning than English ‘cric’ and ‘ket’, but together they represent a word, xīshuài, meaning ‘cricket’. In our single-character entries, such characters are neither labeled [in printed form, but in electronic form they are labeled char.] nor defined but simply followed by a word (occasionally more than one word) in which the given character occurs.
Exhibiting a second level of boundness are those characters that do have meaning of their own, and often carry this meaning into many different compound words, but that do not occur independently as free words in standard modern Chinese (though they may be free words in classical Chinese or in very formal written styles of the language). Examples are nǚ 女 ‘female’ in nǚrén ‘woman’, nǚháizi ‘girl’, nǚde ‘woman, female’, and fùnǚ ‘woman, women’; and ²shēng 生 ‘student’ in xuésheng ‘student’, nánshēng ‘male student’, nǚshēng ‘female student’, and zhāoshēng ‘recruit students’. Many characters are bound in some meanings but free in others. For example, ²shēng 生, in addition to being bound in the meaning of ‘student’, is also bound in its meaning of ‘life’, as in shēnghuó ‘life, livelihood’ and shēngsǐ ‘life and death’. But in the meaning ‘to give birth’ or ‘to be born’ it is a free word, a verb. We label such characters b.f., for ‘bound form’, when they occur only in compound words; and those that are bound in some meanings and free in others are labeled accordingly in the several sub-definitions within their entries.
These categorizations should be valuable to users of the dictionary in at least two ways. Like the other entry labels, n., v., s.v., etc., they enhance the semantic definition of a term, providing grammatical information to improve the user’s understanding of how the terms are used. And beyond that, they serve the very practical purpose of a caution sign, indicating that one cannot turn the Chinese-to-English definitional equivalents around and assume that a given English concept is expressed in Chinese by the single character in question. For example, one cannot say that the Chinese word for ‘woman’ is nǚ or the word for student is shēng, because these are not “words” in Chinese but bound morphemes, or “parts” of words.