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What are the best ways to learn measure words in Mandarin Chinese (Part 2)?

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In this post, we talk about 10 commonly used measure words for nouns, and how to use measure words for verbs. We chose these 10 measure words because they have helpful patterns for learners to follow, and can be learned more effectively. 

Learners often say that measure words are one of the most challenging things to learn because, in most cases, there is no equivalent in English. Some learners also resort to memorizing them as the only way to learn measure words in Chinese. Don’t panic, the use of measure words actually isn’t all random, there are rules to help you to master measure words more efficiently. In this post, it is these rules that we focus on.

In this post, we talk about 10 commonly used measure words for nouns, and how to use measure words for verbs. We chose these 10 measure words because they have helpful patterns for learners to follow, and can be learned more effectively. 

Learners often say that measure words are one of the most challenging things to learn because, in most cases, there is no equivalent in English. Some learners also resort to memorizing them as the only way to learn measure words in Chinese. Don’t panic, the use of measure words actually isn’t all random, there are rules to help you to master measure words more efficiently. In this post, it is these rules that we focus on.

In English you can say “two dogs,” but in Chinese you have to say “two [measure word] dogs.” The tricky thing with Chinese is that different nouns (people, animals, things, etc., e.g., “boss,” “cat,” “table”) often pair up with different measure words depending on the characteristics of the nouns. The clues rest in the nouns themselves: is the noun referring to a person, animal, object, or concept? What about the size and shape? To help you get your head around the measure words, here are 10 common measure words, and knowing how to use them will take you very far.

10 common measure words

Smart learning relies on recognizing patterns. If you follow the patterns for the measure words below, you should have an easier time learning them. We hope you find these patterns helpful!

#1 个 (gè)

is a generic and all-purpose measure word. Whenever you get stuck, catch-all can come to your rescue. It can be used most of the time for most things. Putting in place of a more appropriate measure word is better than nothing.

  • Correct use: 两苹果 (liǎnggè píngguǒ) [two apples]

  • Not quite grammatically correct but acceptable use: 那车 (nàgè chē) [that vehicle]. The correct measure word should be 那车 (nàliàng chē) [that vehicle]

⤷TIP: Avoid overusing 个, it can be used at the start of your learning as a fall back. However, to move forward you need to make an effort to learn more accurate measure words.

#2 条 (tiáo)

is used for counting long and narrow items such as fish, snakes, ropes, ties, rivers, roads, pants, ribbons, and the like. For example, 两鱼 (liǎngtiáo yú) [two fish]. Once you know this pattern, you can then make educated guesses about the measure word to use for other items of this shape. Another similar measure word is (gēn), it also works for long and thin objects like sticks or bananas. For example, 一香蕉 (yīgēn xiāngjiāo) [two bananas].

#3 张 (zhāng)

is used for counting flat items such as tables, tickets, CDs, papers, cards, faces, and the like. Next time you come across a flat item, chances are will probably fit. For example: 十票 (shízhāng piào) [10 tickets].

#4 只 (zhī)

is used for a few different categories of nouns, which we’ll outline below:

  • Use ​​for counting birds and some other animals such as cats, tigers, and dogs. For example, 两鸡 (liǎngzhī jī) [two chickens]. 

  • Use for counting one half of a pair of objects, for example, 一手套 (yīzhī shǒutào) [one glove].

  • Use for counting human or animal body parts, for example,一手 (yīzhī shǒu) [one hand].

  IMPORTANT  

  (tóu) is another measure word for animals, but normally for large animals. It also refers to the head of something. For large animals, we can use either 只 (zhī) or 头 (tóu), for example, 两只/头狮子 (liǎng zhī/tóu shīzi) [two lions]. For smaller ones we stick to 只 (zhī) only, for example, 两鸡 (liǎngzhī jī) [two chickens], but not鸡 (liǎngtóu jī) [two chickens].

#5 双 (shuāng)

is used for counting items in pairs such as chopsticks, shoes, socks, gloves, eyes, ears, and the like. For example, 一眼睛 (yīshuāng yǎnjing) [a pair of eyes].

#6 套 (tào)

is used for counting a set of things, including furniture, coins (in the collectible sense), clothing, and figurines. For example, 一公寓 (yītào gōngyù) [an apartment]. here means that an apartment has a set of components, including a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, balcony, etc.

#7 瓶 (píng)

is used for counting bottled items. For example, 一水 (yīpíng shuǐ) [one bottle of water].

#8 杯 (bēi)

is used for counting items in cups or glasses. For example, 一水 (yībēi shuǐ) [a glass of water].

#9 块 (kuài)

is used for counting chunks or pieces of something (e.g. stones, wood), or for portions produced by cutting, tearing, or breaking (e.g., cakes, breads, soaps). For example, 一蛋糕 (yīkuài dàngāo) [a piece of cake].

#10 辆 (liàng)

is used for counting wheeled vehicles such as bikes, buses, cars, trucks but not trains. For example, 一公共汽车 (yīliàng gōnggòngqìchē) [a bus]. Keep in mind though that the measure word for train is 列 (liè) [a row of], probably because a train has a number of carriages, so 列 is used to highlight that a train has “a row of” carriages, which differs from other vehicles.  

Now that you know 10 of the most common measure words, you can make educated guesses as to which measure words go with which nouns. Keep practicing and you’ll be on your way to fluency! Let’s take a look at how measure words work with verbs.

Mandarin Chinese measure words for verbs

We have discussed measure words for nouns, 名量词 (míngliàngcí) [nominal measure word] in the first post of our “Measure Words” series. Now let’s talk about measure words for verbs, 动量词 (dòngliàngcí) [verbal measure word]. Verbs are words such as “to run” and “to dance.”

  • Most measure words in Chinese are nominal measure words, but there are also a handful of verbal measure words which count the number of times an action occurs (frequency).

  • Verbal measure words include (cì), (biàn), (huí), (xià), and (tàng), which all roughly translate to [times]. For example, 看过一 (kànguo yībiàn) [seen once, literally “one time”].

Verbal and nominal measure word patterns

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次 (cì) and 遍 (biàn)

次 (cì) and 遍 (biàn) both mean “times” in English; however, they differ in detail. 

  • 次 (cì) focuses on the frequency of action, simply confirming the frequency of an action.

  • 遍 (biàn) highlights the process of action, emphasizing that the action occurs completely.

这部电影他看过一。(Zhèbù diànyǐng tā kànguo yīcì.)
He has watched this movie once.

这部电影他看过一。(Zhèbù diànyǐng tā kànguo yībiàn.)
He has watched this movie once.

Although the English translations are the same, the first sentence does not say whether he has watched the whole movie, but the second sentence implies that he has watched the movie from start to finish.

Summary

We’ve gone through the basics for learning measure words for nouns and verbs, so to recap, here are four tips to master Chinese measure words:

  1. Start with the 10 commonly used measure words discussed in this post, which should give you a head start.

  2. Verbal and nominal measure words have different structures: the former is ‘verb + number + measure word’ and the latter is ‘number + measure word + noun’.

  3. 次 (cì) focuses on the frequency of action, simply confirming the frequency of action.

  4. 遍 (biàn) highlights the process of action, emphasizing that the action occurs completely.

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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.

You probably want more practice, right? We’ve prepared some activities to help you do just that! Give them a whirl and become a master of the measure words in Mandarin. Let’s go!

Grace Zhang

In the Press: Iowa High School partners with Mango Languages to build its growing English Learner program.
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