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When just beginning to study Chinese, many people get intimidated by the massive amount of measure words used in the language. Don’t let the measure words freak you out, though, especially if you’re a native English speaker – we use tons of measure words in English! Just see for yourself:
Of course, the big difference between Chinese and English when it comes to measure words is that only some nouns require one in English, while every noun requires one in Chinese. For example, you don’t need a measure word for “people” in English – you can just say “three people.” This is different in Chinese – “three people” (三个人 – sān gè rén). Different measure words are used for different nouns, and there are certain rules that you should learn in order to help you master this aspect of Chinese.
A nice intro to Chinese measure words from Transparent Language.
To help you get started a bit, here are ten crucial Chinese measure words that you must learn:
When you’re a total Chinese n00b, this measure word will save your life. It can basically be used for everything, and Chinese people will forgive your sorry 老外 ass for only knowing one all-encompassing measure word. It should be used for people and/or non-specific items, but you can basically use it all the time. Here are a few examples:
If 个 is the go-to measure word for people, then 只 is used for animals. Strangely enough, it’s also used for arms, hands, legs, and feet – body parts that come in pairs. Here’s this common measure word in action:
The best way to remember how to use this important measure word is that it is often connected with long, narrow, or skinny objects – fish, roads, pants, rivers, and so on. Check these examples:
You’re probably wondering if there’s a Chinese measure word that is the equivalent of “pair” in English, and why it’s not used for pants. Well, I can’t answer the second question, but there is in fact a word for “pair.”
As mentioned above, this is the Chinese equivalent of “pair” in English. Here are a few examples:
This measure word is used for vehicles with wheels, but not trains. You can use it to talk about cars, bikes, and the like, though. Let’s see it in action:
It’s pretty easy remembering how to use this measure word, as it is attached to flat objects – tables, paper, tickets, etc. You’ll find that you use this one quite often if you live in China, as you’ll always be buying subway, bus, or train tickets.
While you use 张 for a single sheet of paper, you need to use a different measure word when talking about things like books, magazines, or notebooks. That’s where 本 comes in handy! Here are some examples:
This is a very versatile Chinese character – it can mean “home” or “family,” and it can also be used as a measure word. In this context, it is attached to gatherings of people, or establishments (shops, restaurants, etc.) Let’s see how it’s used:
We’re going to put these two measure words together and relate them to the last example, as these are both very handy in a bar/restaurant. The first (瓶) means “bottle,” and the second (杯) means “glass.” This way you can distinguish between “a bottle of beer” and “a glass of wine.”
This measure word can be used in a few ways – with clothing, gifts, or matters/problems. Don’t ask me how all of those things are connected, because I couldn’t tell you!
Of course, there are tons more measure words in Chinese, but if you can master these ten, you’ll be well on your way to being a measure word expert! For an entertaining lesson about measure words, check out this video from Mike Laoshi: