difference of 做 and 作 - such charecter choices generally

November 15, 2010, 03:32 AM posted in General Discussion

I was about to answer Emasur's question about the difference between 做 and 作 in a lesson board - when I realized it was a Newbie lesson and my response a bit unfitting.  So I posted a short answer there and the remainder here, for any who might find it useful or interesting:

The meaning of 作 and 做 is essentially the same - and if all you are worried about is recognizing and reading, then you can leave it at that.  If you'd like to be able to write and know which to use, the simplest take is that 做zuo4 is used for more concrete actions, and simpler words, while  作zuo4 is used for more abstract actions and more complicated and formal words.  

English dictionaries don't tend to include the same extensive discussion of such issues that Chinese dictionaries do (and english ones often get subtle distinctions wrong anyway), so I'll translate a Chinese dictionary's explanation below:

taken from http://www.nciku.com/search/zh/detail/%E4%BD%9C/1320456

作 and 做are not the same.:  In words of abstract meaning, or words with comparatively heavy literary/formal flavor, especially Chengyu, for the most part you will use 作.  For example - 作罢 zuo4ba4 -cancel, stop; 作对 zuo4dui4 oppose, compete; 作废zuo4fei4 abandon, become useless, discard; 作怪 zuo4guai4 original meaning ghosts/demons causing trouble, now mainly used by analogy to mean for someone to cause trouble; 作乱 zuo4luan4 rebel, violently rise up in revolt; 作战 zuo4zhan4  fight, battle; 装模作样 zhuang1mu2zuo4yang4 pretend, fake; 忸怩作态 niu3ni2zuo4tai4 acting in an affected and unnatural manner, act coyly,(I think usually describing females).

If after zuo4 you are going to use a 2-syllable VERB, then you will also usually use 作。For example, 作调查zuo4diao4cha2 conduct an investigation; 作处理zuo4chu3li3 conduct a process and deal with a matter.

If you are discussing creating some specific object, then you will usually use 做.  For example, 做药材 zuo4yao4cai2 make medicine做衣服 zuo4yi1fu0 make clothes.
END of translation

note - I'd add to the above a few words that it makes sense to know which zuo4 to use, and some also specifically chosen to help you get the pattern.  工作 gong1zuo4 work; 做作zuo4zuo4 to act in an affected unnatural false manner (I'd remember this also with 各个ge4ge4 each, one by one - in both cases the more complicated character goes first), 做作业zuo4zuo4ye4 do homework (again, making something) , 做夫妻zuo4fu1qi1 to be husband and wife (I include this to point out the rule above is about being followed by 2 syllable VERBS, 2 syllable nouns can be 做) 做鬼脸zuo4gui3lian3 make strange faces appearance, 作文zuo4wen2 write article, 做文章 zuo4wen2zhang1 write article (ok, so why the difference?  Because the shorter 作文 is a more formal word for the same thing...and more formal means 作)


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November 15, 2010, 03:46 AM

Such character choices generally
Yah, a giant headache.  Also, typing programs will guess the write one for you usually anyway (if you use a good typing program) so we are really just talking about handwriting.  And probably most natives don't pay much attention to this anyway. 

I've been reading alot of political memoirs lately regarding Maoist era politics for a class, and pretty much everyone uses zhang4 in meanings where the dictionary is quite adamant that they should use  zhang4....And ignoring such distinctions has a long pedigree in Chinese culture.  Reading the classical texts, you'll often find shen3 (used in proper names) used in place of  chen2 (deep, heavy), zu2 (finally, in the end, die, and soldier) often is written when what is meant is cu4 (hurried, rushed, sudden), hui4 (wisdom) and  hui4 (kindness) are 'mixed up' constantly in older writings, yu3 (with) and yu3 (give) ...and a million other examples - reading classical texts is often a game of guessing what other similar looking or sounding character the author might have meant (or what charecter may have been mistakenly copied by some guy sometime in the last few thousand years), and then reading it as if it were the 'correct' character.  Though the reason I keep putting quotes around 'correct' is because its not always mistakes - often its a matter of the complicated history of charecter development and how meanings shifted around over time.  Though sometimes it is clearly copying mistakes. ;)

Actually, there's an example in modern mandarin that preserves one of these classical 'mistakes' - 败北bai4bei3 (to suffer a defeat). bai4 lose, be defeated, bei3 North...clearly there is the question of what the word 'North' is doing in here.  The explanation is that this word comes from older texts, and in classical texts bei3 north is often standing in for bei4 back (of a person), or betray....here 败北bai4bei3 describes you are defeated and with your back facing the enemy you flee.  Kind of a fun relic in the modern language...oh, 螳臂当车 tang2bi4dang1che1 (a praying mantis using its arm to try to stop a chariot, ie it would be useless to attempt against overwhelming force) really would be 螳臂挡车 - dang3 (to oppose, block, stop) rather than dang1 if someone had made the chengyu up today - but because it comes down to us from a time when covered the meaning of not sure if the later charecter simply hadn't been 'born' yet, or it was simply it hadn't clearly taken over the meanings), so we inherited the chengyu as 螳臂当车, and that remains the 'correct' way to write it.  Actually, I remember a fairly modern piece of prose, 腊梅 since there are so many works by that name, I searched and found a link here: http://www.eduzhai.net/wenxue/ddmj/yuqiuyu/whkl/033.htm , used in this sense of 'block, resist' - the author is somewhat known for 'showing off' his education by bringing in alot of classical uses, and so you can find people who still purposfully write the 'wrong' charecter in order to adhere to an older use.  

So, thats my 絮絮叨叨 xu4xu4dao1dao1 (overly wordy, speaking on endlessly) manner of saying - if you occasionally pick the 'wrong' charecter, you are in good company, that is just about every Chinese person past or present.