Top 10 measure words to know

One of the most máfan 麻烦 things about learning Chinese is all the “measure words” (“liàng cí 量词”). As one of my students said once, “But they tell the shape of the thing you’re talking about.” I said, “I don’t need an extra word to do that when I’m about to say the THING itself!” But they’re in the language so we have to learn ‘em if we want to speak good Chinese. You especially need to know the right measure word if you’re asking a “how much/many?” question using “jǐ .” For example,

  • jīntiān nǐ yǒu jié ? 今天你有几节课?= How many {measure word for one hour class periods} classes do you have today?

NOTE: jǐ + {measure word} can also mean “several.” For example, “jǐ jié kè 几节课” can mean “several classes” depending on context.

The back of Chubby lists about 90 different measure words for things as diverse as “terms of office” and “garlic bulbs.” So the real question is:

Which measure words are worth learning if you’re not majoring in Chinese history and literature?

The answer has two parts:

  1. For speaking, I’ve compiled a list (in order of frequency) of the top 10 measure words I use on a daily basis. These are measure words that are important to be fluent with because if I just used the default “gè ,” people would either look at me like I’d said “he” when I meant “she” OR (as has happened) they might actually correct my measure word.
  2. For listening, because I get stumped pretty easily when listening, I’ve found it’s best to know as many as possible.
    See: Which measure words do they really use?

The default

  • > when it doubt, use this one. Except for the following cases (and when talking about animals–all the animals have their own measure words) using is usually fine, even if it’s not technically correct.

Top 10 measure words to know

Besides “,” there are the ones I use most frequently in my daily life (I’m a teacher):

  1. jié > for 1 hour class periods
  2. běn > for bound stuff (books, magazines)
  3. zhāng > flat stuff (pieces of paper, tables, CDs)
  4. fèn > for bundles/batches (servings of food, multi-page documents)
  5. wèi > for people (polite)
  6. zhī > 1 of a pair (1 chopstick, 1 shoe, 1 eye)
    zhī > stick-like things (pen)
  7. shuāng > pairs (2 chopsticks, 2 shoes, 2 eyes)
  8. liàng > vehicles with wheels (but not trains)
  9. shǒu > songs, poems
  10. tiáo > for roads, long pieces of clothing (pants)

Some good news

Even though you’re supposed to swap out the “ge ” in “zhè̀ge 这个” and “nàge 那个” when saying “this” and “that,” respectively, they often seem to just keep the old “ge ” in there. I’ve heard “zhè̀ge chē 这个车” (instead of “zhè̀liàng chē 这辆车“) and “zhè̀ge CD 这个CD” (instead of zhè̀zhāng CD 这张CD). But, unfortunately, when counting real stuff, and especially those “jǐ ” questions they absolutely use the measure words…so we gotta know ‘em.

Money

I guess I lied. These two are probably the most common ones in my life. But, even though these are the first words everyone in China learns, I thought I’d list them hear to show that they really are measure words.

  1. kuài > for “big” money (Chinese yuán , US dollars, British pounds)
  2. máo > for 1/10 of the “big” money (Chinese jiǎo , US dimes)

NOTE: “1 kuài qián 一块钱is oral Chinese. It would be expressed as “1 yuán qián 一元钱 in formal or written Chinese.

Number Markers

These aren’t necessarily measure words because you don’t have to count these things, but you add them after numbers just the same, and they follow “jǐ ” in questions that require a number for an answer. So I think of them in the same category. These are also super frequent words in my daily vocabulary, so I thought I’d list them with the context I most often hear them in.

  1. dòng > building
  2. dānyuán 单元 > staircase, unit
  3. lóu > floor
  4. hào > number, date of the year
  5. lù > bus route

Times

Ok, so I fudged a little on the title of this post. There is also this special category of measure words for “times” which have slightly different nuances. These are the only ones I’ve heard used in daily life:

  1. > times (generic)

    • zhè shì wǒ dì èr cì lái zhōngguó 这是我第二次来中国
      = this is my second time to come to China [this is my 2nd time come China]
      *often “wǒ ” = “wǒ de 我的” = “my”
  2. biàn > times (start to finish)

    • qǐng zài shuō yí biàn 请再说一遍
      = please say that again (one time) [please again say one time]
      *meaning the whole sentence
  3. xià > short periods of time (a moment, a sec)

    • děng xià 等一下
      = just a second [wait one time]
  4. huìr 会儿 > short periods of time (a while, longer than xià )

    • děng huìr 等一会儿
      = just a minute [wait one time]

Words that ARE their own measure words

Since I’m on a roll here, I just thought I’d mention there are some words that don’t need a measure word because they are, in a sense, their own measure word.

  1. bēi = cup*

  2. tiān = day

  3. nián = year

    • wǒ dāi le sān nián 我待了三年
      = I’ve stayed/been (here) for 3 years

Strangely enough, “yuè ” (month) is the exception to the rule. Look:

*NOTE: the same rules apply to any of the container words like “tǒng ” (barrel/bucket), “wǎn ” (bowl), “pán ” (plate/tray), etc.


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  1. 15 Responses to “Top 10 measure words to know”

  2. Ingo GERMANY said:

    Hey Albert, thanks for your blog, great articles, xiexie ni!

    Comment date: Dec 13, 2006

  3. John B CHINA said:

    Good article. I’ve found that, with exception of ‘ge,’ the measure word I use the most is ‘jia1′ , for companies, restaurants, etc.

    Comment date: Dec 13, 2006

  4. captainbundington CHINA said:

    你有没有想过用汉字呢?

    Comment date: Dec 13, 2006

  5. Wesley Tanaka CHINA said:

    I agree with captainbundington.. if it’s not too much work..

    Comment date: Dec 13, 2006

  6. Wesley Tanaka CHINA said:

    I used to use and hear “zhuo1″ a lot when people asked how many (tables of) customers were in the bar.

    Comment date: Dec 19, 2006

  7. Gaz NETHERLANDS said:

    Xie xie ni de bang zhu,
    you really gave me enough to start decoding those measure words Dilimma…but still miles to go

    Comment date: Feb 9, 2007

  8. Tom ITALY said:

    Thanks a lot for your site.
    I’m an Italian Ph.D. student, i’ll go to Beijing in december for three months just for studying Chinese.

    See you,
    Tom

    Comment date: Sep 10, 2007

  9. Jim Mahler UNITED STATES said:

    I probably use ping2 (, bottle) more than any other measure word (except ) because speaking Chinese seems so much easier after a couple of them.

    Comment date: Oct 6, 2007

  10. Sharon ZY SINGAPORE said:

    Excellent post!

    Comment date: Mar 9, 2008

  11. andrea HUNGARY said:

    thanks for the explanations to the measure words! i need more!!!:)
    i am hungarian, learning chineese for one year now.. and i LOVE IT!!!!
    by the way.. have you noticed, guys, the chineese version of this motto on the mcdonalds cups?
    wo jiu xihuang (maybe a subject as well.. dont remeber exactly:))
    so thanks

    Comment date: Aug 29, 2008

  12. Chris Gongsun 公孙海 UNITED KINGDOM said:

    “All the animals have their own measure words” is a touch misleading. I’ve recently written a Mandarin version of ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’ and so have had to check measure words for animals. I already knew it was PI for horses, and ZHI for chickens. I assumed it would be ZHI for ducks as well, but what about cows, pigs, sheep and dogs? ZHI. I’m not sure of the rule, but I’d hazard a guess that if it’s a bird, or an mammal that habitually walks about on four legs but isn’t used as a means of personal transport, you’re unlikely to go wrong with ZHI.

    Comment date: Nov 9, 2008

  13. Monk UNITED STATES said:

    liàng > vehicles with wheels (but not trains)

    The individual cars of the train are still called . On train tickets, your and are written (unless it’s a “no-seat” ticket).

    Comment date: Aug 20, 2009

  14. stella CHINA said:

    really great! I have a chinese exam tomorrow…this has really helped me a lot. thanks albert!

    Comment date: May 30, 2011

  15. Ruti UNITED STATES said:

    What would be the different measure words for ”class” when you’re registering for classes, versus ”class” like ”see you next class”?

    Comment date: Sep 11, 2012

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