The input methods (“keyboards”) provided within iOS include one that lets you produce hanzi by typing the pinyin for the character, but what if you actually want to type the pinyin transliteration itself, with proper tone marks?
You can almost do this with the English input of iOS. ā, á, and à are all easy to get by holding down the a key and picking from the palette (same with e , i, o, and u). But how do you get an ǎ when using an iOS device, like the iPad I’m typing on right now?
Until a couple of days ago, I would have drafted this in the WordPress iOS app and then gone to a computer to stick in anything with a third tone before I could post. But a couple of days ago, I was given a promotional copy of Pinyin Typist by its developer, Wayne Wong.
Pinyin Typist does a lot more than let you type pinyin with all the tone marks. With the iOS English input I could type “ài” in the way I just described: by holding down the “a” key, selecting “à”, and then typing “i”. With Pinyin Typist, you type in all the base letters first (“ai”, in this case) and then hit a special key with the right tone. The app intelligently places the tone mark for you over the correct letter. This is a nice feature for beginners, who may be unsure of where the tone mark should go.
The app adds special keys for all four tones, plus ü (and an apostrophe and a hyphen) in an extra row above the usual virtual keyboard. Inputting with these keys feels decidedly faster than the press-hold-select method, even if one could get all the tone marks that way.
There are many other thoughtful details built into the app.
- First of all, it’s an actual basic text editor, so you can use all the iOS keyboards within it. For example, I can type 汉语 using the iOS handwriting or pinyin input and then transliterate it hànyǔ using Pinyin Typist’s keyboard without leaving the app.
- There is a feature to save snippets of text so you can reuse them easily.
- There is a dedicated copy button, so you don’t have to place the cursor, select all, then hit copy.
- Text can be exported directly to an e-mail with just two taps.
- Pinyin Typist retains any text entered, even after you leave the app.
- The text can be zoomed up to an enormous size, not only so that you can easily see the tone marks, but also so that you can hold up your iOS device to show someone else. This could be useful in a teaching or tutoring situation, or when traveling (even if your Chinese is OK, you may have dialect issues in some places, so it might be handy to have something like an address written large to show a driver). The size of snippets is saved with them.
- Rich text formatting. When mixing roman letters and hanzi, I like to have the hanzi a couple of point sizes larger for easy reading. Also, being able to do some simple formatting, like italics, would reduce the amount of “post-production” to be done when you paste your text from Pinyin Typist to another app. Rich text wouldn’t normally be necessary for e-mail, but would be very handy for preparing teaching materials in Pages or Keynote. This is a small desideratum, though. What the app does, it does extremely well.
Pinyin Typist not only solves a particular problem in iOS (i.e. entry of third tone marks), but provides a very convenient environment for working with Chinese text and transliteration, even when mixed with other languages. There are other ways to get pinyin with tone marks (such as using a character converter, as discussed in this post), but Pinyin Typist is probably the fastest to use; the fact that you can do all your basic text editing right in the app with minimal switching back and forth between apps, makes Pinyin Typist the most efficient way that I’ve seen to get proper tones marks in iOS.
Pinyin Typist is a universal app for iOS. My screenshots are from the iPad, but it works on iPhone as well.