How do measure words work in Mandarin Chinese?

Measure words in Chinese follow this pattern:

Number + measure word + noun

For example, in the sentence 两椅子 (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



Describing types

 (“Type” means “people or things with common characteristic.s”)


老师 (liǎngwèi lǎoshī)

two teachers


马 (yīpǐ mǎ)

a horse


车 (sānliàng chē)

three vehicles

Describing features

(“Feature” means

“a prominent attribute or aspect of something.”)

e.g., things you can grab/hold in your hands


椅子 (sìbǎ yǐzi) 

four chairs

花 (yībǎ huā)

a bunch of flowers

e.g., pair of things that can be separated (see below)*

鞋* (yīshuāng xié)

a pair of shoes

Describing shapes

e.g., long and narrow things

鱼 (yītiáo yú)

a fish

Describing containers 

e.g., bottle, bowl, cup/glass

米饭 (liǎngwǎn mǐfàn)

two bowls of rice

Describing units of nouns 

(“Unit” means “a standard measurement of something.”)

e.g., money

10/钱 (10 yuán/kuài qián)


*We say 一鞋 (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: 



(zhèshuāng xié)

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. 



(yījiàn chènshān) 

a shirt 



(yījiàn lǐwù)

a gift

  • A noun can be used with different measure words depending on the situation. For example: 



(yīwǎn mǐfàn) 

a bowl of rice

As compared to: 



(yījīn mǐfàn) 

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 (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 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:


他想喝一茶。 = 他想喝茶。

(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:

  1. Follow the pattern “number + measure word + noun.”
  2. Pick your measure words depending on the noun in question: type, feature, shape, container, and unit of the noun.
  3. 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!

Meet The Author:
Author - ML LOGO
Mango Languages
Language is an Adventure

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We’d also like to set analytics cookies that help us make improvements by measuring how you use the site. These will be set only if you accept.

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Analytics cookies

We’d like to set Google Analytics cookies to help us improve our website by collecting and reporting information on how you use it. The cookies collect information in a way that does not directly identify anyone. For more information on how these cookies work please see our ‘Cookies page’.

Skip to content