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Chinese Grammar: [Refresher] An intro to Chinese measure words

Now that you’ve learned numbers in Chinese, I bet Lupishu, you’re eager to count things. However, lovely little dragon, you can’t quite count objects yet. You’re missing one key notion to do so: 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 about these magical measure words, and you’ll quickly understand how to use them to count things. It’s simple!

First, what’s a measure word?

In English, 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 in between the number and the noun to count nouns.

For instance, to say 3 apples (苹果) in Chinese, you'll say:

3 apples

Let’s set something straight before we go into more detail: the word “measure word” (it can also be called a “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? You've been surrounded by measure words and didn't even know!

Chinese measure words work the same way, so nothing too unusual here. The trick is remembering that, save for a few exceptions, with a number, there’s always a measure word before a noun in Mandarin.

Always use measure words to 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. Without a measure word, the number of a Chinese noun cannot be expressed.

Basic structure

Number + Measure word (classifier) + Noun

Let’s see how that works with examples. We’ll use two common measure words, , which is the most common, and , which is good with cats.


A person.

He has three apples.

7 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. Picture these measure words as nouns’ bodyguards, if you will. “Hey number, you’re not getting any closer to the noun. You’ll have to go through me first!”

Measure words get demonstrative too

In addition to being used to count nouns, measure words are also used between a demonstrative pronoun (i.e., , this and , that) and a noun. You’ll also want to use them with some question words, such as and .


Demonstrative pronoun/ Question Word + Measure Word + Noun


This book

How many apples?

Measure words are useful to classify nouns too

Lastly, you also need to know that there exists a lot of measure words in Chinese. Because words like to be classified. By size, shape, and so on. You’d be sad if you had no way to distinguish a glass of wine from a bottle of wine, trust me. That’s what measure words are for in Chinese. And that's why you need to know which you can use with which nouns.

Let’s start exploring measure words with the most common one: .

, the (nearly) universal classifier

can be used in most situations, to describe people, animals, objects, and a lot more.


A person.

is so common it’s sometimes called the Universal classifier. Don’t let that fool you: can’t be used all the time. You need to keep in mind that not all nouns like . Words like books, cows, and cars, for example, all like a different measure word by their side.

Gradually, you'll learn other measure words in Chinese that nouns like better and are more adapted to them.

Four common measure words

In fact, great news! You’ve already learned four since you started on Ninchanese. Yup, you already know 5 measure words, lucky cat!

is a measure word for certain animals, such as cats, tigers, dogs, birds, and more.

A cat

Ten cats

is also used for parts (half) of a pair, such as 1 sock, 1 ear, 1 eye.

is the measure word you want to use for sinuous, elongated animals, such as snakes, fish, and dragons, of course. Similarly, you’ll want to use with sinuous, elongated objects such as roads, rivers, long items of clothing (like pants), and even news.

A dragon

A fish

is shaped like an open mouth, now made a little more square. So as you can imagine, as a measure word, it goes well with things with mouths such as people, family members, domestic animals, and more. It goes well with actions of the mouth too, such as bites, mouthfuls, language, and sound. It is also used to talk about the number of family members.

Three people (in my household)

Quite recently, you also learned . is the measure word for bound items, such as books, magazines.

A book

Starting to get a feel for what measure words are and how to use them? Great, let’s go practice using , , , and with nouns!

We’ll explore more measure words later on, in part 2.

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