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Chinese Grammar: An intro to measure words in Chinese

After learning numbers in Chinese, I know, Lupishu, you were eager to count things. However, lovely little dragon, you can’t quite count objects yet. You’re missing a key notion: measure words in Chinese!

I know you know nothing about these yet, but that’s why your good old Master Yocha is here! Let me tell you a few things about the magical little words that are measure words, and then I’m sure you’ll be pleased to practice using these to count things!

What’s a measure word?

In English or French, we use “a/an” or numbers to count nouns - an apple, ten cats - (Good thing most cats don’t like apples, or we’d have a major catfight on our hands). In Chinese, it works a little differently: you need to add a measure word (which you'll also sometimes see called a classifier) in between the number and the noun to count nouns.

Let’s set something straight before we go into more details: the word “measure word” or “classifier” may seem foreign to you but worry not, you've been running into measure words all your life. In English. A lump of sugar. Two spoonfuls of maple syrup. Three cups of chocolate chips. Four pieces of furniture. See? These examples are full of measure words.

You've been surrounded by measure words and didn't even know! Chinese measure words, therefore, shouldn't seem too unusual for you. The trick is remembering that, save for a few exceptions, there’s always a measure word before a noun in Mandarin.

Always quantify

Whenever you talk about the quantity of something in Chinese, you need a measure word. In Chinese, every object needs to be quantified, so measure words are used all the time. Don’t forget to use them!

Basic structure

Number + Measure word (classifier) + Noun

Let’s see how that works with a few examples.

Examples

一个人
A person.

苹果
An apple


Ten cats

See? The structure to use a measure word is simple. The important thing to remember: Measure words should be always placed before the noun.

Measure words are also used between a demonstrative pronoun (i.e., , this and , that) and a noun, as well as with some question words, such as and .

Examples


This book

几个 苹果
How many apples?

Pick your flavor

Great. Now you know that the huge majority of nouns don't go out without their measure word in Chinese. The other important thing to know is that there exists a large number of measure words to use in Chinese.

They go with different types of nouns to classify and specify what you’re saying. Measure words classify nouns by size, shape and so on. You wouldn't want to get a glass, and a bottle of beer confused, right? That’s why measure words exist in Chinese. Let’s start with the most common one: .

the universal classifier

The most common measure word (so much it’s sometimes called universal) is . can be used with lots of nouns (but not all. It can be used in most situations to describe people, animals, objects and a lot more.

can be used in most situations: to describe people, animals, objects...

Example

一个人
A person.

At first, when in doubt, if you don’t know the correct measure word, use . That’s better than no measure word at all.

However, keep in mind that not all nouns like , so you can’t just learn and use it with any noun you run into. This is a mistake a lot of beginners do, but we know you won’t, right? A lot of nouns are often accompanied by a more precise measure word, such as or 牛奶, so in such cases, is not a good choice.

What can you use then? Other measure words!

In addition to *, there are other basic measure words that you should and will quickly get acquainted with because they are often used in daily conversation, and you’ll hear them often. Let’s see some of the most commonly used.

13 very common measure words

There are a lot of measure words in Chinese, which are used with different types of nouns, based on their size, shape, type and so on. But before you get dizzy from this idea, let's start by looking at the first 13 measure words you should know, in addition to .

These 13 measure words are very common. You’ll be running into them a lot in day-to-day conversations. You'll have time to delve into more specific ones as you journey more into Chinese :)

  1. for bound items, such as books, magazines.
  2. for parts (half) of a pair (1 sock, 1 ear, 1 eye) and for certain animals (such as cats, tigers, birds, dogs and more).
  3. for pairs (2 chopsticks, 2 sock shoes, 2 eyes) --- perfect for when you thought you only had 只 sock, but realize you actually have a of socks!
  4. for flat things (pieces of paper, tables, CDs) -- as long as it’s flat, the size doesn’t matter, it can be small like a CD or big like a table.
  5. for vehicles (such as bikes, buses, trains, cars, trucks).
  6. is commonly used for elongated objects, such as roads, rivers, long items of clothing (such as pants), or news. It is also used to quantify some elongated animals, such as snakes and fish.
  7. can be used in a few different ways, for clothes, things, events.
  8. for people (polite) -- you use this one when referring to people in the proper, polite way.
  9. for bundles and batches (servings of food, documents, jobs).
  10. for thick, solid, pieces of something (watches, stones, wood). It also works for a portion produced by cutting, tearing, or breaking (cake, bread, watermelons). This measure word is also used to talk about money, orally.
  11. a measure word for small numbers and amounts.
  12. for bottles of liquid, water, milk, beer,...
  13. for cups of liquid, coffee, water, orange juice,...

Examples

Yes, classifiers can get very specific!

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