4 Common Chinese Measure Words – 个/只/支/头

Many people have trouble understanding which “measure word” they should use in different situations. If you don’t know what a measure word is – it’s a word that is used in Chinese to specify a certain quantity of a given noun. We also have measure words in English, such as the words in the example below:


A Slice of Pizza

A Cup of Coffee

Two Pairs of Shoes


The use of measure words in Chinese has a few key differences, though. First, Chinese has many more words that act as or require measure words. Second, there is no additional linking particle word like there is in English (“of”). What I’ve experienced is that, early on, it was really hard to remember all of the measure words and the proper times to use them. So, instead of taking the time to sit down and learn them all, I fell into the bad habit of using 个(gè) every time I needed a measure word.


I don’t recommend that you use(gè) as a universal measure word for two big reasons:  1) It makes you sound like a baby, and people will think you sound uneducated or unnecessarily cutesy.  2) If you take the time to learn the measure words,it will exercise your memory muscles and help you mentally organize your vocabulary into measure word categories. In the long run, this will allow you to retain a larger vocabulary.


To prevent you from making the same mistake I did, let’s start with a rundown of some of the most common measure words:


个 – Gè


As mentioned earlier, 个(gè) can be used as a universal measure word.  This means that you can use it as a substitute if you cannot remember the proper measure word for the noun you are trying to quantify. Additionally, there are some words for which个(gè) is the only correct measure word, for instance, 个(gè) is always used when counting people.


The typical structure to use with个(gè), and most measure words,  is “Number + + Noun


月 – Sān gè yuè – Three Months  ,

星期  –  Liù gè xīngqí  – Six Weeks,

男人 – Liǎng gè nánrén – Two Men


个(gè) can also be used with:

person 人(rén), elder brother 哥哥(Gēge), student 学生(Xuéshēng), relative 亲戚 (Qīnqi), way of thinking 想法(Xiǎngfǎ), suggestion 建议(Jiànyì), question 问题(Wèntí), nation 国家(Guójiā)


If the noun you are referring to is singular, you can omit the number .  This would be the same as “a” or “an” in English.


他是好学生Tā shìgè hào xuéshēng – He is a Good Student


只 – Zhī


Just like个(gè) is a universal measure word for people, 只(zhī) is a universal measure word for animals.  It can also refers to items the normally come in a pair (hands, or eyes for example.)


狗 – zhè zhī gǒu – This dog

手 – liǎng zhī shǒu – Two hands

猫 – wǔ zhī māo – Five cats

只(zhī) can also be used with:

hand 手(shǒu) , finger  手指(shǒuzhǐ) , foot 脚(jiǎo), shoe 鞋(xié), chicken 鸡(jī), cat 猫(māo), dog 狗(gǒu), bug虫(chóng)


支 – zhī


This measure word is normally is used with long, stick-like objects: things like rifles, roses, pencils, or branches.  In fact, the word “支 (zhī)” literally means branch.


铅笔 – Liǎng zhī qiānbǐ – Two Pencils

步枪 – Liǎng zhī bùqiāng – Two Rifles

筷子 – Yì zhī kuàizi– One chopstick


支 (zhī) can also be used with:

pencil 铅笔(qiānbǐ), chopstick 筷子(kuàizi), drinking straw 吸管(xīguǎn), bamboo 竹子(zhúzi)


头 – tóu


This measure word refers to a head of something, typically referring to cattle or livestock, as well as some types of vegetables.  In English, we sometimes use this similarly: Ex. 1 Head of lettuce, 9 Heads of Cattle


驴 – yì tóu lǘ – a donkey

牛 – liǎng tóu niú – two head of cattle

头发 – Yītóu tóufǎ – a head of hair


头(tóu) can also be used with:

Pig – 猪(zhū), cow – 牛(niú), sheep – 羊(yáng), donkey-驴(lǘ), mule – 骡子(luòzi), leopard – 豹子(bàozi)


Of course, one article won’t give you ALL of the measure words in the language. But, I hope this stimulates your appetite to learn more measure words and continue your effort to speak a more “native” Mandarin.


One pro-tip that I would recommend is: when you are speaking with language partners or teachers, instead of asking if something is “correct,” instead ask them if you sound ‘natural’ when using measure words – people will feel more comfortable to help correct your speech when you phrase the question in this way!


Do you have a measure word that you would like to see an article about? Comment below!

Sam Bleakly

Sam learned Mandarin when he was living and working in Shanghai. He now lives in Tokyo with his wife Natalie where he works for Innovative Language, producers of ChineseClass101. Sam is a polyglot and is currently learning Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese. He is the co-author of LanguageLearningCouple.

  • Joe Varadi

    this is a great article, I like the introduction & parallel to English … but, only 4 examples??? Chinese has over 100 measure words, and at least 2 dozen that are common enough for every student to want to be familiar with. 把, 條, 張 …to name a few. perhaps a follow-up article.