Jan 18, 2021

Measure Words: The Unique Grammar Point in Chinese

When asking most of the learners of Chinese what makes learning Chinese so different from learning other languages, besides Chinese characters and tones, the answers come to their mind would often include Chinese measure words (量詞/量词; liàng cí). 

So, what are the Chinese measure words

They are the words that denote units of measurement, much like the English phrases “a cup of,” “a piece of,” or “a slice of,” are known as measure words. Measure words (MW) are applied to almost all Chinese nouns by the following simple pattern:

– numeral + MW + noun

Now, you might askhow many of the Chinese measure words out there? The short answer is A LOT! However, the good news is that if you start with the most basic ones, the task won’t be so daunting because those basic ones can be applied to many Chinese nouns. Let’s show you the four most basic ones to get you started!

個/个 (gè; ge)

The very first Chinese measure words that most learners would learn is 個/个. For example: 

– a person; one person = 一個人/一个人 (yī gè rén; a/one + MW + person)

– an apple; one apple = 一個蘋果/一个苹果 (yī gè píngguǒ; an/one + MW + apple).

This measure word is also commonly referred to as a ‘generic’ measure word because you can use it in place of the measure word that you do not know when counting a specific noun.

杯 (bēi)

This measure word is used to quantify drinks. Coincidentally, the meaning of the word by itself relates to drinks as well, i.e. “cup/mug/glass.” Let’s put the pattern [numeral + MW + noun] into practice!

– a cup of tea = 一杯茶 (yī bēi chá; a + MW + tea)

– a glass of cola = 一杯可樂/一杯可乐 (yī bēi kělè; a + MW + cola)

隻/只 (zhī)

You can use this measure word when talking about most small animals. For instance, 

– a dog; one dog = 一隻狗/一只狗 (yī zhī gǒu; a/one + MW + dog)

– two cats = 兩隻貓/两只猫 (liǎng zhī māo; two + MW + cat)

– three birds = 三隻鳥/三只鸟 (sān zhī niǎo; three + MW + bird)

For bigger animals, though, you’ll need to apply other measure words instead of 隻/只. For now, let’s just focus on this one. 

本 (běn)

本  can act as a measure word for bound items, such as books, notebooks, magazines, etc. See the examples below. 

– a book; one book = 一本書/一本书 (yī běn shū; a/one + MW + book)

– two magazines = 兩本雜誌/两本杂志 (liǎng běn zázhì; two + MW + magazine)

In Chinese, there are TWO words for “two,” namely 二 (èr) and 兩/两 (liǎng). When quantifying nouns, you need to apply the latter. You can also remember 兩/两 as “two” of something so that you can use those ‘two’ Chinese words correctly. 

家 (jiā)

家 is such a versatile word. On its own, it can mean “home,” “house” or “family.” It can also be used as a suffix in the Chinese words related to occupations. Moreover, 家 can act as a measure word for some business establishments (ex. shop, restaurant, etc.). For example: 

– a shop; one shop = 一家店 (yī jiā diàn; a/one + MW + shop)

– two restaurants = 兩家餐廳/两家餐厅 (liǎng jiā cāntīng; two + MW + restaurant)

– three companies = 三家公司 (sān jiā gōngsī; three + MW + company)

Every language has its uniqueness, so does the Chinese language. The concept of Chinese measure words is certainly one of the language’s features. Learning to appreciate and embrace them will help your Chinese learning go a long way!

By Chineasy | A Super Chineasian

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