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How do measure words work in Mandarin Chinese (Part 1)?

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Measure words in English are words like “two bottles of water.” A measure word (also called "classifier") categorizes a noun when counting, and is indispensable in Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is more nuanced than English in some aspects, the use of the measure words is definitely one of those. They are a bit more involved than their English counterparts, and many Chinese measure words have no English equivalent. Dictionaries normally include between 120 and 150 such words.

Measure words in Chinese follow this pattern:

Number + measure word + noun

For example, 两椅子 (liǎngbǎ yǐzi) [two chairs], where the amount is 两 [two], the measure word is 把, and the noun is 椅子 [chair].

There are two parts of this post on measure words: Part 1 focuses on how to use a measure word before a noun (a noun refers to people and things, e.g., words like, “teacher,” “table,” and “water”); Part 2 focuses on the patterns of the 10 most common measure words for nouns in Mandarin Chinese and explores measure words for verbs. 

Let’s dive in to find out the strategies for using measure words in Mandarin Chinese!

Measure words in English are words like “two bottles of water.” A measure word (also called “classifier’) categorizes a noun when counting, and is indispensable in Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is more nuanced than English in some aspects, the use of the measure words is definitely one of those. They are a bit more involved than their English counterparts, and many Chinese measure words have no English equivalent. Dictionaries normally include between 120 and 150 such words.

What do we use measure words for?

In Mandarin, measure words are used when we count nouns. For example, in English you can say “two chairs,” but in Mandarin you need to say “two [measure word] chairs.” Nouns take different measure words based on their types, features, shapes, containers, and units. For example, we can say that vehicles can form a group that have a common characteristic, they belong to a certain “type,” e.g., they are used for traveling. So, we would expect that a special measure word will go with them. People, animals, and things can be grouped together based on their shape: narrow and long, round, etc. For example, pencils, snakes, and scarves all share the same shape. We would expect a special measure word to precede them, and indeed, 条 (tiáo) is the measure word for “narrow and long” things.

Screen Shot 2021-09-18 at 3.44.40 PM

*We say 一鞋 (yīshuāng xié) [a pair of shoes], because the two shoes are separated. This does not apply to pants, glasses, or scissors, because they are not considered separable in Mandarin Chinese, therefore 双 cannot be used. The measure word for pants is 条 (tiáo), for glasses is 副 (fù), and for scissors is 把 (bǎ).

What else do you need to know about measure words?

  • Measure words are used after “this” and “that,” for example, 这鞋 (zhèshuāng xié) [this pair of shoes].

  • Measure words are also used after “which” and “how many.” For example,  你最喜欢哪城市? (Nǐ zuì xǐhuan nǎzuò chéngshì?) [Which city do you like most?], 来了几老师? (Lái le jǐwèi lǎoshī?) [How many teachers came?].

  • A measure word can be used with different nouns: For example, as mentioned before 条 (tiáo) can be used with fish, pencils, etc., because it is the measure word used for long and narrow things. Another example is 件 (jiàn) that can be used with clothes (top half), gifts, luggage, etc. 一衬衫 (yījiàn chènshān) [a shirt], 一礼物 (yījiàn lǐwù) [a gift].

  • A noun can be used with different measure words depending on the situation: For example, 一米饭 (yīwǎn mǐfàn) [a bowl of rice] as compared to 一米饭 (yījīn mǐfàn) [500 grams of rice]: the former is often used in a home context, and the latter can be used in a restaurant/take away context.

  • In very few cases, no measure word is needed, because the noun itself happens to be a measure word as well. For example, 三 (sāntiān) [three days], where 天 combines both the measure word for days and the noun “day.”

  • 两 (liǎng) [two] is used with measure words, not 二 (èr) [two]. For example, when you want to say “two men,” you use 两 not 二, and say 个男人 (liǎnggè nánrén).

  • When the quantity is one, the word 一 (yī) [one] is often omitted in spoken Chinese, but the measure word remains: 
    他想喝一茶。 = 他想喝茶。(Tā xiǎng hē yībēi chá. = Tā xiǎng hē bēi chá.)
    He wants to drink a cup of tea.

Summary

Three tips to master Mandarin Chinese measure words:

  1. Follow the pattern “number  + measure word + noun.”

  2. Pick your measure words depending on the noun in question: type, feature, shape, container, and unit of the noun.

  3. One measure word can be used with multiple nouns and one noun can have different measure words.

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Adventures in Language, from Mango Languages, is the best place online if you want to elevate your knowledge of linguistics and your proficiency at language learning and teaching. This wealth of knowledge is just a couple clicks away.

Now that you know what a measure word is, let’s make sure you use them like a pro. Ready to put them into practice? Check out the activities.

Grace Zhang

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