Measure words can be a difficult concept for beginner Chinese learners, so in this guide I want to explain as simply as I can what they are and how they work.
What are measure words and when do you use them?
Measure words are one of the key differences between Chinese and other languages.
Let me explain how they work by giving you some practical examples.
In English, you would say ‘two boys’, but in Chinese you have to say ‘two + a measure word + boys’. (两个男孩)
‘Two cats’ would be ‘two + a measure word + cats’. (两只猫)
So when you are using a number with an object, then you have to put a measure word in the middle.
The other situation where you generally have to use measure words is when you are asking ‘how many’ of something.
So in English we would say ‘How many cats?’ but in Chinese this would be ‘How many + measure word + cats’.
There are two words for ‘how much’ or ‘how many’ in Chinese: 几 and 多少.
几 is generally used when you are talking about just several of something, definitely less than 10.
多少 is used for ‘how many’ when you are talking about a larger number.
And 几 also means ‘several’, so you also have to use a measure word when you are talking about several of something.
You also have to use a measure word after ‘which’ (哪), ‘this’ (这), ‘that’ (那) and ‘every’ (每)
So let’s recap on exactly when you have to use measure words in Chinese:
- When you are talking about a number + an object
- When you are asking how much (几 or 多少)
- After ‘several’ (几)
- After ‘which’ (哪), ‘this’ (这), ‘that’ (那) and ‘every’ (每)
Examples of how to use measure words
Let me take the example of ‘cats’ from above to show how measure words are used.
Notice that there is no singular and plural in Chinese. The character for cat stays the same.
One cat: 一只猫 (one + measure word + cat)
Two cats: 两只猫 (two + measure word + cat)
How many cats: 几只猫 (how many + measure word + cat)
Several cats: 几只猫 (several + measure word + cat) – the same as the previous sentence
How many cats (talking about a larger number): 多少只猫 (how many + measure word + cat)
This cat: 这只猫 (this + measure word + cat)
That cat: 那只猫 (that + measure word + cat)
Which cat: 哪只猫 (which + measure word + cat)
Every cat: 每一只猫 (every + one + measure word + cat)
You can see that the measure word stays the same every time, and you can simply put the different pieces together, with the measure word when necessary.
There are other situation where you might not need a measure word, for example ‘my cat’ is 我的猫 (no measure word), and a few nouns don’t need a measure word, such as 钱 (money).
You might already know that to ask how much something is, you say 多少钱? (how much money – no measure word there).
Sometimes measure words work like English
In some situations, Chinese measure words can work in the same way as in English.
For example, in English you could say ‘two bottles of beer’, and in Chinese this would be 两瓶啤酒 (literally two + bottle + beer)
Another example would be ‘three sheets of paper’. In Chinese this would be 三张纸 (literally three + measure word + paper).
Which measure word do you use?
The difficulty with measure words is that there is not just one that you use all the time, in fact there are dozens of them!
The best way to go about fixing them in your brain is not to memorise a list of words (which is never very effective). Instead, every time you learn a word in Chinese, try to learn the measure word with it.
To take the example above, don’t just learn ‘cat’ (猫) but also learn that its measure word is 只, and ‘a cat’ would be 一只猫 (one + 只 + cat).
If you get into the habit of learning measure words at the same time as you learn words, then you will quickly start to be able to use them correctly and spot the different patterns of which measure word is used when.
It’s important to have a dictionary that will give you the measure word whenever you look up a word. One dictionary that includes measure words in definitions is the Oxford Beginners’ Chinese Dictionary. I also use the ABC English – Chinese dictionary that comes with the software Wenlin, which will also tell you the measure word.
Common measure words to know
When you learn about different measure words and you start to spot patterns, you’ll find that the measure words are grouped according to the type, shape and the nature of the object that you’re talking about.
Here are some common examples: (you don’t have to learn them by heart, just be aware of how they work and it will help you recognise them when you come across them).
把 – bă – objects which you can hold in your hand – eg. 一把勺子 (a spoon) 一把叉子 (a fork) 一把伞 (an umbrella) 一把剪刀 (a pair of scissors)
本 – bĕn – book-like objects – eg. 一本书 (a book) 一本杂志 (a magazine)
件 – jiàn – clothes on the top half of the body, matters – eg 一件衣服 (an item of clothing), 一件衬衫 (a shirt) 一件事情 (a matter)
辆 – liàng – vehicles – eg. 一辆车 (a car) 一辆自行车 (a bicycle)
家 – jiā – establishments – eg. 一家公司 (a company) 一家银行 (a bank)
条 – tiáo – objects that are narrow, long or twisting – eg. 一条裤子 (a pair of trousers/pants), 一条鱼 (a fish) 一条河 (a river).
张 – zhāng – objects that are flat / paper – eg. 一张纸 (a sheet of paper), 一张明信片 (a postcard), 一张饼 (a pancake).
支 – zhī – long thin/rounded objects – eg 一支笔 (a pen)
只 – zhī – smaller animals – eg. 一只猫 (a cat) 一只狗 (a dog) 一只鸡 (a chicken)
头 – tóu – larger animals – eg. 一头牛 (an ox) 一头大象 (an elephant)
间 – jiān – any kinds of room – eg. 一间房间 (a room) 一间卧室 (a bedroom)
棵 – kē – trees – eg. 一棵树 (a tree)
篇 – piān – writings – eg 一篇文章 (an essay) 一篇论文 (a thesis)
堂 – táng – lessons/periods – eg. 一堂课 (a lesson).
And there are many others.
The catch-all measure word: 个
Some items and nouns in Chinese don’t have a specific measure word associated with them, in which case we use the catch-all generic measure word: 个 (gè). To me, it looks like an arrow pointing upwards, so it’s really easy to pick out of any text of Chinese characters.
For example, there not really a specific measure word for ‘apple’, so ‘an apple’ would simply be 一个苹果.
个 is also used as the measure word for people, for example one person is 一个人.
Sometimes, in spoken Chinese, you will hear people using 个 when they should strictly be using a specific measure word. It’s either because they are speaking in a colloquial way and just didn’t pay attention to the measure word, or it could be because they don’t know the specific measure word that should be used.
For example, a hat should strictly be 一顶帽子, but you will also hear people using 个 and saying 一个帽子.
If you don’t know which measure word to use, try 个
And here’s a tip: if you don’t know which measure word you should use for something, you can generally get away with using 个 instead.
It might not be strictly correct, but you can use it first before you learn the correct measure word, so you don’t have to worry too much about not knowing all the right measure words, you can pick them up as you go.
I hope this article has helped to demystify the measure words in Chinese. If you’ve got any questions, just leave a comment and I’ll answer them for you!