Chinese measure words are one of the most notorious parts of the Mandarin Chinese language. Measure words in Chinese are slightly different than in most other languages (such as English) and therefore cause some headaches to Chinese learners.
— Written by Anna老师
Whenever I’m teaching Chinese, I often hear Chinese language students complain about how many Chinese measure words they need to remember. In English when you want to count something, you generally just put numbers right in front of the nouns. You can say things like ‘one apple’, ‘two cars’, or ‘three bananas’. But in fact, in English, people have already been exposed to the concept of measure words.
When it comes to mass nouns in English, we use measure words as well! Let’s look at the noun ‘water’.
We don’t say ‘one water’, ‘two waters’, or ‘three waters’. It’s a body of water (like lakes), a bottle of water, a drop of water, or a cup of water. Just like the measure words in Chinese:
- 一瓶水yì píng shuǐ (one bottle of water)
- 两滴水liǎng dī shuǐ (two drops of water)
- 三杯水sān bēi shuǐ (three cups of water)
So you see, ‘bottle’, ‘drop’, and ‘cup’ these are the measure words. The measure word is very important because it makes our expression more specific.
If you want to give your girlfriend flowers, do you give her ‘一朵 duǒ’ (one) or ‘一束shù’ (a bunch)?
If you are thirsty, you want to drink ‘三滴水sāndīshuǐ’ (three drops of water) or ‘三杯水sānbēishuǐ’ (three glasses of water)?
The structure of Chinese measure words
Number + Measure Word + Noun
- 一 is the number
- 个 is the measure word
- 学生 is a noun
Another example: 三杯咖啡:
- 三 is the number
- 杯 is the measure word for cup
- 咖啡 is a noun
Common measure words
Before we start to learn Chinese measure words, we need to understand that Chinese and English cannot be one-to-one translated. We have more measure words in Chinese than that in English. If we have a measure word for a noun in English, we would for sure have one in Chinese. But if we have a measure word for a noun in Chinese, we may not have one in English.
Of course, measure words in Chinese are also more logical. Let’s introduce some common measure words below. Click on the image to expand.
How to use Chinese measure words
There are many measure words in Chinese, so when you are not sure which measure word should be used for a noun, you can use a dictionary. For example, when I search for the word “衬衫” with Pleco, the measure word of “衬衫” appears below: “件”
At the same time, we can also use songs to help us remember Mandarin measure words through melodic tunes. You can learn from this YouTube video.
In addition, if you are really not sure which measure word should be used for a specific Chinese noun in spoken language, then you can use the king of quantifiers “个”. Of course, we cannot avoid learning other measure words for convenience, and “个” cannot replace all.
There are about 187 Chinese measure words (classifiers). Learning around 100 (and when to use them) will be enough for most Chinese speakers. It also becomes easier to learn more measure words over time, because of the logical nature, and how they add detail to the language you use. You’ll really have to learn Chinese measure words if you want to advance your Chinese fluency.