Chinese Measure Words for Beginner and Elementary Learners
Chinese measure words - 量词 (liang4 ci2) - are a basic feature of Chinese grammar. It's essential we understand what they are and that we don't waste time with extreme low-frequency ones, but rather learn the most useful set of them.
With clear explanation and practical examples, this article will accomplish just that. Remember, efficiency is ever the key for success in learning Mandarin. Let's get started...
What Are Chinese Measure Words?
You can't find an exact equivalent of 'liang ci' in English. So let's quickly get a handle on what these little guys are all about...
In English we say:
- 'a pair of socks'
- 'a glass of wine'
- 'a bunch of flowers'
- 'a lock of hair'
These sorts of descriptors before the main nouns in the phrases above are about as close as we get in English to the measure words that exist in Chinese.
To see one of these measure words in action, let's focus in on a relatively common one: shuāng (双). Because shuāng is similar to the English word 'pair', it's easy for us to grasp.
- yī shuāng xié; 一双鞋 ...a pair of shoes
- yī shuāng wà zi; 一双袜子 ...a pair of socks
- yī shuāng kuài zi; 一双筷子 ...a pair of chopsticks
This seems straightforward enough. So then why say Chinese measure words are unique in Chinese?
Well, in Chinese, all countable nouns have measure words which often come before them in typical usage - whether we are talking about a pair of things, a bunch of them, or just one of them. In these examples below, there is no English equivalent for the measure words.
The measure word is highlighted:
- yī bǎ yǐ zi 一把椅子 ...a chair
- yī běn shū 一本书 ...a book
- yī fèn gōng zuò 一份工作 ...a job
- yī jiā gōng sī 一家公司 ...a company
Learning the Measure Words - (the Essential Ones)
If you understand the idea of Chinese measure words up to this point, then you may be getting a bit nervous thinking you must learn a whole mess of extra words and pair them with all the various nouns of the language.
Fortunately, the picture is not so grim. Why? For two reasons:
Firstly, there is one measure word (namely gè or '个', which you likely already know) that does the job for most nouns. In fact if you are not sure, you can just use gè before your noun, and you will probably be correct. If not, you'll still be understood, and may even be lucky enough to be corrected (allowing you to learn the right one!).
Secondly, the measure words are not used randomly. They have some logic to them, (one measure word being paired with a group of nouns that all share a like property), and like we saw in 双, sometimes overlap the English:
- yī bēi chá ; 一杯茶 ...a cup of tea
- yī bēi shuǐ; 一杯水 ...a cup (or glass) of water
The List of Chinese Measure Words You Need
I recall years ago when I was at an elementary Chinese level, sitting with a Chinese fellow who, typically proud of the perceived difficulty non-natives like myself have of learning his language, took it on himself to quiz me on all the obscure measure words he could think of.
Do you know the measure word for 'cattle'? How about the one for 'mud puddle'?
Needless to say, he was able to stump me nine times out of ten.
Nevertheless, the point I want to make is that nearly ten years later, I probably still don't know half of those Chinese measure words he was quizzing me on. But I seem to get by ok these days with my spoken Chinese.
(As an added note, it seemed his teenage daughter, who was listening along, didn't know one or two herself.)
So don't let long lists of measure words bog you down. Here are the most common ones that you are likely to stand in need of sooner or later:
|Character||Pinyin||Used with which kinds of nouns|
|把||bǎ||for something with a handle|
|包||bāo||for things packaged or bundled|
|本||běn||for books, parts of a serial, etc.|
|个||gè||for many things; difficult to classify!|
|件||jiàn||for clothing, matters in general; abstract things|
|根||gēn||for long objects; for hair and fur; vegetables with visible root|
|块||kuài||for piece of something; for Renminbi|
|位||wèi||for a person (talk about someone politely)|
|条||tiáo||for certain long and narrow objects, for certain insects or plants|
|节||jié||for something with joints, nodes or knots|
|张||zhāng||for something that can be rolled up and unfolded|
|只||zhī||for one of certain paried things;for certain animals|
|种||zhǒng||kind, sort, type, for a number of persons or things of the same kind|
|家||jiā||for households, families; for enterprises, establishments|
|遍||biàn||for actions done some number of times|
|层||céng||storeys (floors) or layers|
|点||diǎn||when expressing a little bit of something|
Consider this just an introduction to these words. The hardcore learning happens best through meeting them in context. Through repeatedly seeing and hearing these 量词 (liang4 ci2) paired with their various partners, they will gradually become second nature to you.