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个(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 + 个 + Noun”
- 三个月 – Sān gè yuè – Three Months ,
- 六个星期 – Liù gè xīngqí – Six Weeks,
- 两个男人 – 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.
- 他是个好学生 – 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.)
- 这只狗 – zhè zhī gǒu – This dog
- 两只手 – liǎng zhī shǒu – Two hands
- 五只猫 – 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.
- 两支铅笔 – Liǎng zhī qiānbǐ – Two Pencils
- 两支步枪 – Liǎng zhī bùqiāng – Two Rifles
- 一支筷子 – 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
- 一头驴 – yì tóu lǘ – a donkey
- 两头牛 – liǎng tóu niú – two head of cattle
- 一头头发 – 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!