How To Write Katakana: シ, ツ, ソ, ン



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There are two pairs of Japanese katakana characters that are probably the most confusing for Japanese language students. The first pair is (shi) and (tsu). The second pair is (so) and (n). In each case, the two characters are so similar that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. As an instructor, I have been asked many times about how to write these characters in a way that reflects their subtle differences. In the following post, you will learn all that you need to know about how to do that.

The key to understanding these differences involves the stroke order, the direction of strokes and the proximity of one stroke to another. The first pair of characters, (shi) and ツ (tsu), is made up of three strokes each while the second pair of characters, ソ (so) and (n), is made up of two strokes each. Let’s start with the three-stroke characters and break them down. See the first pair of three-stroke characters in Figure 1 to compare.

stroke-shi-tsu Figure 1.

To write (shi), start with the short lines at the top of the character and complete the character by articulating the long curved line at the bottom. Notice that the third stroke starts at bottom-left and moves upwards toward the right. Writing the next character, (tsu), likewise starts with two short strokes and concludes with a long stroke. In this case, however, the long stroke starts at top-right and moves downward.

Now that you know the correct stroke orders of (shi) and (tsu), there are some finer points to consider. These involve the two short strokes in each character. When I write these two characters, I emphasize these differences. See Figure 2. Compare the pairs of short lines in (shi) to those in (tsu) and notice that their layout and orientation are different.

hand-shi-tsu Figure 2.

I write a pair of short horizontal lines for (shi) and a pair of short vertical lines for (tsu). This is completely acceptable and, in fact, is a simple way for you to make a clear distinction between the two characters. By combining the correct stroke order and applying horizontal lines for (shi) and vertical lines for (tsu), you will no longer have a problem distinguishing between (shi) and (tsu) when you write them!

Now let’s review the second set of the characters, (so) and (n); i.e. our two-stroke characters. See Figure 3.

stroke-so-n Figure 3.

To write (so), start with the short line at the top of the character and conclude by articulating the long line. Notice that the long stroke starts at top-right and moves downward. Writing the next character, (n), likewise starts with the short stroke at top and concludes with a long stroke. In this case, however, the long stroke starts at bottom-left and moves upward.

Producing distinct instances of our three-stroke characters, (shi) and (tsu) from the previous example, involves how you write the pair of short lines in each case. However, in the case of (so) and (n), the single short strokes have the same orientation. As a result, the key to producing a clear version of (so) and (n) respectively involves the long stroke.

Look at (so) and (n) closely and notice that the ソ(so) character has a comparatively narrow space between the short line and the long line. By contrast, the (n) character reflects a comparatively wide space between the short line and the long line. While spacing between the strokes is one feature of character composition to keep in mind, there is an even-better writing trick! See a handwriting example in Figure 4 and the difference becomes clear:

hand-so-n Figure 4.

As the writing sample indicates, the (so) character shows a straight diagonal stroke while the (n) character shows a curved line. When writing, I do this to make an unmistakable distinction between the two. This too is a completely acceptable technique and I recommend that you write this way, too.

Now you should have a clear grasp on how to write these characters and, even more important, how to do so in such a way that people who read your writing can understand your script. As an instructor, when I’m asked by students, “Does stroke order really matter? Does it really affect the final look of the characters?” My answer is, “Yes, the stroke order definitely matters. And yes, it definitely affects the final look of the characters.” Following the correct stroke order is always important; but it is especially important when you try to distinguish between similar-looking characters like the ones described here.

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