Measure words in Chinese follow this pattern:
For example, in the sentence 两把椅子 (liǎngbǎ yǐzi,”two chairs”), the number is 两 (two), the measure word is 把, and the noun is 椅子 (chair).
A measure word (also called “classifier”) categorizes a noun when counting, and is indispensable in Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is more nuanced than English in some aspects, and the use of the measure words is one of these cases. They are a bit more involved than their English counterparts, and many Chinese measure words have no English equivalent.
There are two parts to the topic on measure words. This post focuses on how to use a measure word before a noun (a noun refers to people and things, such as words like: “teacher,” “table,” and “water”).
Let’s dive in and learn about the strategies for using measure words in Mandarin Chinese!
Table of Contents
What do we use measure words for in Mandarin Chinese?
Measure words are used when we count nouns in Mandarin. For example, in English you can say “two chairs,” but in Mandarin you need to say “two – measure word – chairs.” Nouns take different measure words based on their types, features, shapes, containers, and units. For example, we can say that vehicles can form a group that have a common characteristic, so they belong to a certain “type,” e.g., they are used for traveling. So, we would expect that a special measure word will go with them. People, animals, and things can be grouped together based on their shape: narrow and long, round, etc. For example, pencils, snakes, and scarves all share the same shape. We would expect a special measure word to precede them, and indeed, 条 (tiáo) is the measure word for “narrow and long” things.
Purpose of measure words
(“Type” means “people or things with common characteristic.s”)
两位老师 (liǎngwèi lǎoshī)
一匹马 (yīpǐ mǎ)
三辆车 (sānliàng chē)
“a prominent attribute or aspect of something.”)
e.g., things you can grab/hold in your hands
四把椅子 (sìbǎ yǐzi)
一把花 (yībǎ huā)
a bunch of flowers
e.g., pair of things that can be separated (see below)*
一双鞋* (yīshuāng xié)
a pair of shoes
e.g., long and narrow things
一条鱼 (yītiáo yú)
e.g., bottle, bowl, cup/glass
两碗米饭 (liǎngwǎn mǐfàn)
two bowls of rice
Describing units of nouns
(“Unit” means “a standard measurement of something.”)
10元/块钱 (10 yuán/kuài qián)
*We say 一双鞋 (yīshuāng xié, “a pair of shoes”) because the two shoes are separated. This does not apply to pants, glasses, or scissors, because they are not considered separable in Mandarin Chinese, therefore 双 cannot be used. The measure word for pants is 条 (tiáo), for glasses is 副 (fù), and for scissors is 把 (bǎ).
What else do you need to know about measure words?
Here are a few more points you need to keep in mind in regard to measure words.
- Measure words are used after “this” and “that,” for example:
this pair of shoes
- Measure words are also used after “which” and “how many.” For example:
(Nǐ zuì xǐhuan nǎzuò chéngshì?)
Which city do you like most?
(Lái le jǐwèi lǎoshī?)
How many teachers came?
- A measure word can be used with different nouns. For example, as mentioned before, 条 (tiáo) can be used with fish, pencils, etc., because it is the measure word used for long and narrow things. Another example is 件 (jiàn) that can be used with clothes (top half), gifts, luggage, etc.
- A noun can be used with different measure words depending on the situation. For example:
a bowl of rice
As compared to:
500 grams of rice
The former is often used in a home context, and the latter can be used in a restaurant/take away context.
- In very few cases, no measure word is needed, because the noun itself happens to be a measure word as well. For example, 三天 (sāntiān, “three days”), where 天 combines both the measure word for days and the noun “day.”
- 两 (liǎng) [two] is used with measure words, not 二 (èr, “two”). For example, when you want to say “two men,” you use 两 not 二, and say 两个男人 (liǎnggè nánrén).
- When the quantity is one, the word 一 (yī, “one”) is often omitted in spoken Chinese, but the measure word remains:
他想喝一杯茶。 = 他想喝杯茶。
(Tā xiǎng hē yībēi chá. = Tā xiǎng hē bēi chá.)
He wants to drink a cup of tea.
To sum up
In this post, we reviewed the three tips to master measure words in Mandarin Chinese:
- Follow the pattern “number + measure word + noun.”
- Pick your measure words depending on the noun in question: type, feature, shape, container, and unit of the noun.
- One measure word can be used with multiple nouns and one noun can have different measure words.
Now that you know what a measure word is in Mandarin Chinese, let’s make sure you can use them like a pro. Put your new skills into practice with some activities on Mandarin measure words!