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Measure words for counting

Chinese uses measure words, a type of word called classifiers in linguistics which are common in East Asian languages. Measure words have a number of important uses, but one of the first ways you'll need to use them is for counting. Chinese learners should master them, starting with the measure word 个 (gè).

Structure

Whenever you talk about the quantity of something in Chinese, you need a measure word.

Number + Measure Word + Noun

English does actually have measure words, it's just that most nouns usually don't need them. In English, most nouns are count nouns - they specify one instance of something. "An apple," for example. Some nouns are mass nouns and refer to something without specifying how much of it there is. Examples are "furniture," "paper," "water," etc. You can't say "a furniture"; you need a measure word: "a piece of furniture," "two sheets of paper," "three glasses of water," and so on.

In Chinese, all nouns are mass nouns so they all need measure words. Just as in English, different nouns are associated with different measure words (e.g. it wouldn't make sense to talk about "a glass of furniture" unless something went horribly wrong in the factory).

Examples

  • réna person
  • liǎng zhī māotwo cats
  • sān tiáothree fish
  • 牛奶 bēi niúnǎifour glasses of milk
  • píng shuǐfive bottles of water
  • 巧克力 liù kuài qiǎokèlìsix pieces of chocolate
  • 茶叶 cháyèseven boxes of tea leaves
  • 电脑 tái diànnǎoeight computers
  • 玫瑰 jiǔ zhī méiguīnine roses
  • 美女 shí měinǚten beautiful women

Also remember that there isn't a one-to-one relationship between nouns and measure words. One measure word can be used with several different nouns:

  • tiáo gǒua dog
  • tiáoa river
  • tiáoa road
  • tiáo lónga dragon
  • tiáoa fish
  • 短信 tiáo duǎnxìna text (message)

And one noun can take different measure words in different situations:

  • 巧克力 kuài qiǎokèlì a piece of chocolate
  • 巧克力 qiǎokèlì a box of chocolate
  • 巧克力 qiǎokèlì a small piece of chocolate

See Also

Sources and further reading

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