The Mini Edition: How to Use it


Everyone learning Chinese wants to make the most effective use of their time. And, as we all know, wasted time = wasted money. So, why do so many people give up on learning Chinese characters? There are two main issues to deal with:

       1. the how
       2. the actual learning

The real kicker is that you won’t even know if you’ve figured out the how until you’re already months down the road. The real test is not whether you remember what you study tomorrow or next week, but whether you remember it six months or a year from now, and the resulting frustration is what causes many students of Chinese to give up altogether. But, given an optimized system for the how, anyone can do the actual learning. This is exactly what the Outlier Mini Edition does for you; it solves the problem of how and what to learn. Your only job is to do the actual learning.

Everyone on our team knows this struggle. We have spent years and years researching how Chinese characters actually work, how memory works, and what types of problems learners of Chinese come up against (not to mention the fact that we’ve already gone through all of that ourselves). We did this so that you don’t have to. We have the how covered so that you can spend your time and energy on the actual learning.


So, how does the Outlier Mini Edition solve the problem of knowing how and what to study? First off, the dictionary uses the principles of effective memorization: meaningfulness, organization, association, visualization, attention, and interest (for more on this, see Kenneth L. Higbee’s Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It). Here, “meaningfulness” refers to how much meaning each character has to you. We answer the question “Why does this character look this way?” by breaking each character down into its functional components and also by showing how those components do their job. Not only does this help you understand the character more clearly, it also helps with mental organization. Your brain will no longer see a character as a pile of meaningless strokes, but as an organized unit made up of functioning parts. 

Learning each character via understanding its functional components allows you to make real sound and meaning connections between characters, creating a mutually-reinforcing memory web. Knowledge of one character helps you remember and recognize characters with similar sound or semantic components.

Characters that can’t be broken down are given form explanations to help you better visualize what they originally represented, and hopefully to pique your interest as well! Meaning trees for the semantic components allow you to make associations between the various meanings of a character by showing the relationships between them.

By using this system, you can learn how to make use of these sound and meaning patterns early on, when you really need them. You don’t have to wait until after you have a thousand characters under your belt. The Outlier Mini Edition not only gives you reliable information, but does so in a systematic and consistent way, so that you can spend your time and energy on learning and not on figuring out what is going on in the characters you want to learn.

If you want to see the benefits of learning this way, click here!

Learning sound-meaning characters:

One problem with relying solely on made up stories to learn a character is that there is an infinite number of possible stories about any one character. Many of these stories hide sound and meaning patterns. The first crucial step to learning a character effectively is starting with a correct breakdown of its functional components. Someone once told me “the story” of 偷 tōu “to steal” as follows:

A person () climbed onto the roof () at night () with a knife () in order to break into a house and steal the owner’s possessions. While such a story might help you remember this one character, it hides the character’s sound and meaning clues and gives a wrong impression of how characters work in general (making for more difficult recall later). For instance, when you want to learn other characters containing 俞 , how do you fit the above story into these characters?

() shū “to transport”

“to get better; to heal”

“happy; delighted”

And if you don’t fit the above story into these characters, you’re going to have to explain 俞 differently in different characters, which puts you in the awkward position of having multiple stories for the same component, and even worse, not understanding what the functional components even are or how they work.

Using the Outlier method, you would look up , which gives you its breakdown into functional components. (Note that the information given in brackets [ ] will be added in the next update):

In , is a semantic component. [Here, indicating that “stealing” is something done by people.]

In 偷 [tōu], 俞 [] is a sound component.

      • If you don’t know that is “person,” you can tap on it and the Essentials entry for that component will appear (all semantic components have Essentials entries).
      • If you don’t know the sound of , you can tap on it and check another dictionary for its sound. (Future updates to the Mini Edition will have the sound listed in the entry itself.) Sound relations such as the one between 偷 tōu and 俞 may not be immediately obvious. These will be explained clearly in the Essentials and Expert Editions.
      • If you don’t know what a semantic or sound component is, you can tap on the key word to see the explanation (replete with examples).

If, after understanding how this character actually functions, you wanted to go back and use the story above to help you remember the character (as long as you understand it has basically nothing to do with how the character functions), then that is probably okay. I say “probably” because there is a chance, after having learned hundreds or thousands of characters, that you may find it difficult to keep straight what the real story is vs. the memory story. And, it’s the real story that will allow you to understand that individual character as well as how characters work as a system. I myself made use of memory stories when learning Chinese, but those based upon how the character actually works are more effective and less likely to cause problems later.

Understanding semantic components and how they work:

Each semantic component has its own Essentials entry, including a meaning tree for both its character meanings and component meanings, which are often not the same. Take as an example. As a character, it most often means “again,” but this is not used as a component meaning. As a component, 又 usually means “hand; actions done with the hand.”

In the entry for , the meaning tree shows the different meanings that 又 takes on whether it appears as an independent character or as a component. Note that the 〇 symbol indicates that the meaning “again” is related to the character form only by way of sound loan. That’s a fancy way of saying that there was a word pronounced yòu meaning “again” that didn’t have a character, so the character originally meaning “right hand” (also pronounced yòu) was borrowed to write it. The single arrow → indicates that the meaning “in addition” is derived from the meaning “again.”

Under the heading Component meanings, the double arrow ⇒ indicates that “actions done with the hand” was derived from “hand.”

Consider . As a Simplified character it is pronounced ér and means “child,” but as a character component, it is a variant of 人 rén “person.” 

The meaning trees here show that character meanings for 儿 are pronounced ér, while component meanings are pronounced rén. This situation arose because the character ér “child” was simplified to , but when 儿 appears inside of another character, it is still a variant of 人 rén “human; person.”

Learning characters that can’t be broken down:

If you look up a character like 为() or that can’t be broken down further, you will get a form explanation, such as:


is an abbreviated form of , which originally depicted a hand guiding an elephant doing labor.

This is helpful for understanding what the form originally represented. In some cases, the modern forms have been stylized to the point that it is difficult to see the resemblance. The Essentials version will have abbreviated Expert information, containing an ancient form. The Expert version will show multiple ancient forms and explain the character’s evolution.

Learning characters that contain corruption (i.e., that contain components that look like one thing but are actually another):

Some characters contain components that look like one thing, but are actually another thing entirely.  What does that mean? Let’s look up the entry for (Note that the information given below in brackets [ ] will be added in the next update):

In 李 [], is an empty component. [is a corrupted version of 來 lái, the original sound component.]

In , is a semantic component. [Here, likely similar in meaning to English “fruit of the womb.”]

Note: When something is labeled as an empty component, it means that this component does not give a sound or meaning in this character. In other words, in , what looks like 木  “tree” is actually something else. In this case, it is the remnants of .

In the entry for :

In , is an empty component. [It was originally 屮 chè “newly sprouted vegetation,” indicating the color green.]

In , ⺝ is an empty component. [It was originally the sound component 井 jǐng.]

To learn more about the types of functional components there are and how they work, simply click on the component type and a popup window with an explanation will appear.

For a video walkthrough of the Mini Edition, watch this:

How to Use the Mini Edition from Outlier Linguistic Solutions on Vimeo.

9 comments on “The Mini Edition: How to Use it”

  1. Will Newcomb Reply

    Many thanks. Having a video introduction to the use of your dictionary is very helpful. I’m looking forward to future updates and the publication of the expert edition in due course.

    Before I moved to China I went to classes run by Su LaoShi at the MeridianChinese classes ( who used similar techniques to explain how characters were formed.

    Many blessings


  2. 王思博 Reply

    Thanks much for this blog post and video; very helpful.

    Please consider working together with Pleco to provide a feature in which the user can see a list of characters having the same semantic component. This is roughly possible at the moment using Pleco’s CHARS tab -> Compounds (, but I take it Pleco isn’t using the Outlier Dictionary’s component breakdown data to construct the list of compounds. Perhaps a Pleco setting, or some user interface design wizardry can give a sane approach to choosing between Pleco’s default Compounds list and another based on Outlier’s data.

    If the above isn’t feasible, please consider providing to Outlier subscribers the component breakdown data in a fashion similar to that provided to the author of, in particular the files outlier_decomp.json and outlier_target.json. Advanced users could then use the data to get a list of characters having the same semantic component.

    Keep up the excellent work! Looking forward to the next update, but especially looking forward to the fully completed Expert Edition.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply


      We will have a way of listing all characters containing a given component. If you go to the entry for 立 in the demo, then click “System,” you’ll see how we’re thinking of doing it. Of course, the actual form it takes may be different (we’ll be working on that with Pleco), but the functionality will be there; you’ll be able to see all characters in which a component appears, sorted by function.

      That feature will be available in the Essentials and Expert Editions. Maybe not in the first release of those editions, but it’s a key part of the dictionary so it will be a high priority.

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