When asking most Chinese learners what sets learning Chinese apart from learning other languages, in addition to Chinese characters and tones, one common response that comes to mind is Chinese measure words (量詞/量词; liàng cí).
So, what are Chinese measure words?
Chinese measure words are words that indicate units of measurement, similar to the English phrases “a cup of,” “a piece of,” or “a slice of,” which are known as measure words. Measure words (MW) are used with almost all Chinese nouns following a simple pattern:
– numeral + MW + noun
Now, you may wonder how many Chinese measure words are 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 used with many Chinese nouns. Let’s introduce you to the four most basic ones to get you started!
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 ge rén; a/one + MW + person)
- an apple; one apple 一個蘋果/一个苹果 (yī ge píngguǒ; an/one + MW + apple)
This measure word is often referred to as a generic measure word because it can be used as a substitute for an unknown measure word when counting a specific noun.
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)
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 for now.
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, it is important to use 兩/两. You can remember 兩/两 as “two” of something, which will help you use these two Chinese words correctly.
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 Chinese words related to occupations. Moreover, 家 can act as a measure word for some business establishments, e.g. shops, restaurants, 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 possesses its own uniqueness, and the Chinese language is no exception. Chinese measure words are one of its distinctive features. By learning to appreciate and embrace them, you will greatly enhance your Chinese language skills.