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Recently, on another question, I left a comment where I said I thought 1・2・3・4 might be pronounced イチニーサンヨン. I was quickly corrected by another user, who said the following:

AFAIK, 1,2,3,4 is usually read "ichi ni san shi"

But a different user suggested that it depends on context:

I'd say it depends on what 4 counts: E.g. 1・2・3・4部屋 should be イチニーサンヨンヘヤ

This left me unsure. We do already have a couple questions discussing し versus よん:

Both of the answers I linked to discuss し and よん in terms of counting. Specifically, they say that when counting up し is usual, and when counting down よん is usual. And when I'm not counting, I usually read as よん. However, I'm not sure whether my example is "counting" or not!

Here is the context I originally had in mind when I wrote 1・2・3・4. It's from a sample question for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test:


Would be read as し or よん in this context? Or could it be either one?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

In this particular instance it can be read as either し or よん. Basically you're fine to call it either way as long as it's 単体, or rather a single number not being used as a counter (四枚{よんまい}) or in other set compound ([4月]{しがつ}) where the context makes it clear which one should be used.

In your example, I don't think it's counting. It's enumerating a list of possible answers. You could replace it with A B C D, アイウエ, or whatever. Despite the fact that it's sequential, I think it's still distinct from just 'counting,' and that's why it would be OK to use either in this situation. I discussed this with a native who said that both are definitely fine in this context.

I think the insistence on "ichi ni san shi" as a set kind of phrase comes from the kind of group call and response style of counting that they use for exercise or other things, where a leader will call out "いち に さん し!" and the response will be "ご ろく しち はち!" Even in this situation technically it could be both (as with 7), but that's just The Way It's Done.

So yeah, it can be both. As far as I know there's no rule that dictates which one it should be in these situations, and I have heard both used in this kind of test instruction setting.

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A generic rule is the RHYTHM. When we say 1-2-3 , long-short-long, the next word tend to be short, hence し(short) is preferred than よん(long). Since 10-9-8 is long-long-long , the next word 7 becomes to be also long なな ( なな is longer than しち ). –  jovanni Oct 21 '13 at 12:50
In the 1234/5678 call-response type thing they all tend to get modified to be short, though, so instead of fully pronouncing all of the words it's more like "ich ni san shi go rok shich hach," and outside of that I DO hear よん used in regular counting –  ssb Oct 21 '13 at 14:08
Any explanation for the downvoting? If I made a mistake I'd much rather fix it. –  ssb Oct 22 '13 at 7:17
@ssb The Middle Chinese numerals were something like "it nit san si go lok sit pat" –  user54609 Oct 22 '13 at 13:57
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