Why does Chinese have measure words?

As I finished these measure word posts I had to ask myself (again), “Why does Chinese have all these darn measure words?” Is it like the tones, which seem to exist only to keep foreigners from learning Chinese? As I mention here, the “measure words ” (liàngcí 量词) don’t really serve any linguistic purpose usually.

So where did these measure words come from? I have three theories.

Theory 1

Maybe the cave men were sitting around and they had a conversation like this:

Zhang Thor: Hey look! Big animal coming!

Li Ugg: What’s it called?

Thor: Me not know.

Ugg: Is it “long thin” kind?

Thor: No it’s “big sharp” kind.

Ugg: Oh. We should kill. Eat. Good.

Thor: Dui dui dui. Give me weapon.

Ugg: Which one?

Thor: Me not care.

Ugg: You want “small round” or “long pointy?”

Thor: “Long pointy.”

Maybe that’s where they came from: “When categories ruled the language.”

Theory 2

Another idea I’ve had is that aristocrats and scholars wanted to show off their knowledge and created these measure words for their own entertainment and promotion. Then it may have become a status symbol to show off how many of these esoteric words someone knew.

Theory 3

Or perhaps homonyms are to blame (just as I blame them in my post about the “zi” 子 suffix). For example, if people disagreed on the right tone (as many dialects do), or maybe before there were tones, the measure words might have come in handy to differentiate stuff.

A: Hey I’m in the market for a new “ma.”

B: What?! What’s wrong with your current mother?

A: No not “yi ge ma,” stupid. “yi PI ma.”

B: Oh, why didn’t you say so! We’ve got these measure words, everyone’s life would be better if you’d just USE them.

A: Maybe if we add tones to our language. That would help too…

But who knows how these measure words came into being? If you do, leave a comment and tell me.

By the way,

if anyone tries to tell you “Hey! English has measure words too!” you can feel free to admit that, yes, it does indeed have one. I only know of one (maybe two).

It’s not fair to call the “partitives” (like “a cup of water,” and “a sheet of paper”) measure words because they actually tell you how much of something you are talking about. We say “a loaf of bread” because we don’t want to talk about “a slice of bread.” Chinese measure words do that sometimes too with container words (bēi = cup) and talking about paper (yì zhāng 一张 = 1 sheet, yí fèn 一份 = 1 batch/stack)

But more often then not, the Chinese measure words are saying things like “1 small-round-thing peanut” (yí lì huāshēng 一粒花生 ). Well in English we just say “1 peanut.” If it’s a peanut, it’s a peanut, and we don’t have to add that extra word before we can count them. We say “a grain of sand” because we don’t mean “a bucket of sand.”

I guess you COULD say that “piece” is a measure word in English because “give me a chalk” doesn’t sound right and “give me a piece of chalk” does (because chalk is uncountable for some reason–maybe because it was originally powder…?). But for all countable nouns, the “piece” tells how much you want and could be omitted (“a piece of candy” = “a candy”) or is just wrong (“a piece of shirt“).

So besides “piece,” the only real measure word I know of in English, that serves no purpose whatsoever, is “10 head of cattle.” Interestingly it’s the same word in Chinese. But in English there is no reason at all for that “head” to be in there. I don’t want to talk about the actual head or the beast. It would four times the work to count cattle by the “hoof.” So yes, you can admit that a “head count” is a sort of measure word in English.

English learners have to deal with countable and uncountable nouns…but that’s nowhere near the hassle of the Chinese measure words. I’m done.

PS: This is the first post using hanzi characters. I’ve added them because several people have requested hanzi be incorporated. Please let me know through either a comment or email if you had any trouble displaying the hanzi or pinyin. Thanks!

30 Replies to “Why does Chinese have measure words?”

  1. I think of the word ‘pair’ as a measure word in English for things with two parts to them. A pair of pants, a pair of scissors etc.

    I also don’t understand the origin but without the measure words the degeneracy would make understanding the language even harder. As you’ve pointed out before the word shi has so many meanings, the measure words would (if I knew them) presumably make understanding sentences with ‘shi’ nouns in easier.

    All the best,


  2. I just subscribed this week and I was going to leave you a comment asking for the characters to be included (that’s what I’m focusing on right now) but you did it before I could ask! Excellent.

    I see what you mean about sheet and scice and things like that not exactly being measure words in English, but I must say they helped me get my head around measure words existing in Chinese. I think pair and piece can both be replaced in English with “some” as in “give me some chalk” or “give me some scissors.” I’m not sure what category “some” falls under.

    What do you think of group measure words in English, like “pack” (a pack of dogs) or “murder” (a murder of crows) or “flock” (a flock of geese)? I suppose that would be under what you called “partitives.”

    Oh, and my hotmail account doesn’t display either the pinyin or the characters correctly, but that’s probably a problem with hotmail, not so much with you. I see them fine when I come directly to your website.

    Thanks for doing this!


  3. what about ‘a blade of grass’? I always use that as an example because it also incorporates the ‘shape’ idea – a blade of grass is the same shape as a sword blade…

  4. Max,

    I like your example. That does seem to be in the spirit of Chinese measure words. For English non-countable nouns we seem to try to want to give information on “how much,” but your example goes the extra mile and tells the shape as well.

    Saying “a piece of grass” in English isn’t frowned upon, but perhaps “yi ge cao” would be in Chinese…I really don’t know.

  5. Would one blade of grass in chinese use “gen”?

    You often need to have some kind of measure word for uncountable things in English, as things like “give me a peanut butter” doesn’t really work (unless you’re buying one from a shop/restaurant that only sells one kind).

  6. Thanks for the tip, Albert. I tried that on my hotmail page, but it simply reloaded and went back to “western european (ISO)” I tried putting it on auto select, and it put it in “Chinese Simplified GB2312” which caused Chinese characters to appear all over the place where they weren’t supposed to be. Anything else I should try?

  7. Hi,

    I am a English learner (from Spanish) and I had no idea that chal is an uncontable noun. I had delt kith furniture as a non countable noun, which both cases really do not make sense at all in my spanish head.

    I still do not understand why english speakers use “up” or “out” after some verbs . . . it just does not make sense to me at all.

    Like this: What is the difference between – start – start out – start off – ??????

    Liked you blog a lot !!

  8. I’m no linguist, but there’s a concept of a phrasal verb — when two words make a verb which might not have to do much with the two words.

    “shut up” (be quiet)
    “shut down” (turn off)
    “shut in” (close in)
    “shutout” (baseball)

  9. As for English measure words and the example of “head” of cattle…you are missing dozens of them!

    You cannot say “head” of geese, for example, it is “gaggle” of geese; likewise for “pack” of dogs, “pride” of lions, and many, many others.

    Animal group meaures are about the closest thing English has to Chinese measure words, and they are even MORE obscure…and useless!

  10. (I mistakenly posted this on the wrong thread…)

    Okay…just to illustrate how far off the “head of cattle” thing really is, here is a list of the correct terms to use for various groups of animals in English. You will meet few who know more than 2 or 3 of these, but is actually incorrect to use any other term for the following… So, in addition to the well known gaggle of geese, pack of dogs and pride of lions, you can try to remember…

    An army of frogs (note: not toads, see below)
    A bale of turtles.
    A business of ferrets.
    A Cete of badgers.
    A charm of hummingbirds. Also goldfinches.
    An exaltation of larks.
    A covey of quail. Also partridge.
    A convocation of eagles.
    A gam of whales.
    A hover of trout.
    A knot of toads.
    A grist of bees.
    A husk of hares.
    A span of mules.
    A wedge of swans.
    A siege of hawks.
    A kindle of kittens.
    A sleuth of bears.
    A murder of crows.
    A dray of squirrels.

    ..and that is NOT all of them!! Unlike Chinese, the terms obviously have no relationship to the shape of the thing measured, they are apparently just terms that someone, ages ago, decided were correct. But they are indeed the only correct terms to use if anyone was to bother (and they don’t!).

  11. One more thing!

    A “piece of grass” would indeed be frowned upon in English. It’s “blade” of grass. (Unless you are buying it in small bags, which is another thing entirely…)

  12. I’ve heard measure words didn’t exist in classical chinese, they only cropped up sometime in the Ming/Ching, so theory 1 may have a small hole in it.

  13. RHUBARB.
    You have missed what I find the most useful example.
    We never have “a rhubarb”. We have a stick of rhubarb (or a head of rhubarb for a whole plant).

    Does Chinese have an equivalent of our group-nouns, such as herd, flock, pack, gaggle? I haven’t got that far yet.

  14. 在汉语里有许多简单的物品,在英语里则需要成双成对的表达:
      a pair of glasses (scissors, spectacles, trousers, pants, pliers)(一副眼镜,一把剪刀,一副眼镜,一条裤子,一条裤子,一把剪钳)等。
      英语的 … of … 结构既可以修饰可数名词,也可以修饰不可数名词,如:a piece of paper, a piece of information, an article of clothes(一张纸,一条消息,一件衣物)
      汉语里的表示度量衡的量词在英语里可以找到相应的表达结构,即 … of …
      比如:a cup of water, a packet of cigarettes, a basket of vegetables(一杯水,一盒香烟,一篮子蔬菜)
      an army of elephants(一群大象); a pack / throng of wolves(一群狼); a batch of dogs(一群狗);
      a brood of chicks(一群小鸡); a hive of bees(一群蜜蜂); a host of monkeys(一群猴子);
      a school of fish(一群鱼); a swarm of locusts(一群蝗虫);
      a team / field of horses(一群马); a gang of elks(一群驼鹿)等等。
      a head of garlic(一头蒜); a drop of water(一滴水); a flood of moonlight(一片月光);
      a wisp of smoke(一缕烟); a pane of glass(一块玻璃); a layer of rock(一层岩石);
      a cloud of smoke(一团烟雾); a beam of light(一束光线); a blade of grass(一片草叶);
      a block of wood(一块木头); a cube of sugar(一块方糖); a roll of newspaper(一卷报纸);
      a cone of icecream(一个蛋卷冰淇淋); a bar of chocolate(一块巧克力); a stack of hay(一堆乾草);
      a loaf of bread(一个面包); a grain of rice(一粒米); a cake of soap(一块肥皂);
      a dash of salt(一撮盐); a coil of wire(一卷电线); a ball of wool(一个毛线球)
      a glimmer of hope(一线希望); a burst of laughter(一阵笑声); a gust of wind(一股风);
      a web of railroad(铁路网), a train of thoughts(一连串的想法)等等。
      汉语说一杯好茶,在英语里则是一好杯茶:a nice cup of tea
      类似的例子还有:a thin coat of ice(一层薄冰), a stagnant pool of water(一潭死水), a beautiful stretch of field(一片美丽的原野)等等。

  15. one of the many reasons for the variety of measure words is that it adds variety to the life. Language is not peerly a tool for communication, at least for native speakers. It is more a carrier for a culture. It’s really difficult for a non-native speaker to feel the majesty from the measure word “ zun“ or the greatness from “ zuo”, or the elegance from “si”.

  16. Thanks for the post! This would be particulary useful for someone just starting with measure words.

    However, I find your argument that “partitives don’t count” to be quite odd. They often describe shape as well as amount. Take paper as an example:

    a sheet – you’d expect it to be light, flat, and thin
    a pack – you’d expect it to be paper in some kind of paper or plastic enclosure, small enough to carry easily
    a box – you’d expect it to be pretty large, possibly too heavy to carry

    Even loaf vs. slice describe shape as well as quantity.

    > We say “a grain of sand” because we don’t mean “a bucket of sand.”

    But Chinese language does that too. To go back to the paper example, you say “一相纸”, not “5000张纸”.

    And actually, you said “a cup of water” doesn’t count in English, but you listed it as an example in Chinese here: http://laowaichinese.net/top-10-measure-words-to-know.htm. Why?

    That post also lists as a measure word, so wouldn’t “pair” in English be one too?

    The only salient point I got from that section of the post is “In Chinese, you have measure words on countable things which, although not necessary and usually not present in English, also describe the shape/apperarance of the thing.” That’s true, and it’s kind of cool. But to say that English doesn’t have measure words is, in my humble opinion, a bit off the mark.

    • Hi Monk,
      You’re right. English does have measure words, i.e. words that measure stuff. I guess I should have said “English doesn’t (usually) have useless measure words for things that don’t need to be measured beyond just counting how many of them there are.” For example, with 一本书, the isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know. It’s “1 book” we don’t ask “1 what book?” or “how much book?” That’s what I’m talking about here, but you’re right, could have stated it more clearly. That’s the great thing about blogging: everyone gets to hold me accountable 😉

  17. I think you could make a case for all languages having a measure word slot in the sentence structure, and it is just silent or null in a lot of languages a lot of the time. Looking at the examples, it’s like measure words crop up in English where it’s necessary to make a distinction between ambiguous options, or where the noun doesn’t include quantity. I.e., the meaning of count nouns already includes a measure word, so you don’t say one out loud. Then you could just view all Chinese nouns as mass nouns, hence the constant need for measure words.

  18. If it serves a general function, it maybe has to do with chinese nouns making no distinction between singular and plural forms, nouns dont refer to an actual object but just to categories, and to make that jump and refer to an actually existent object the measure word is required (that is a word that contains information about the object shape, and thus refers to n=1 of such objects). In english, nouns like salt, water, sunlight, etc. (notice they dont have plural form) are the ones to require classifiers. Thus, number is constructed in chinese through using the numeral and the measure word (not by adding something to the end of the noun). Yes, technically it would be more practical to just 1 one classifier, but even english doesnt. Different classifiers, though, could be also useful for diminishing the degree of ambiguity in a sentence.

  19. Thinking deeper about it, even the “s” at the end of most english nouns could be seen as a standardized special classifier that refers to the object by it’s continuity in space instead of by describing its shape and that is placed at after the noun instead of before it.That explains why the exceptions in english are those in which the spatial continuity of the object is hard to determine.

  20. Thought I’d add my two cents ? I am very interested both studying linguistics and having studied in China in the question of how language interacts with and shapes how we cataloguing and slice up reality in a fluid way.

    One very interesting thing that I’ve been working on is cutting off my language – period. As in ‘going dark’. Granted, I’ve had lots of training in various linguistic categories but what I’m talking about is learning the ‘reality’ out there and then finding what in your language matches up to that. Sapir for example worked on a Native American languages with much the same structure as these quantifiers / measure words.

    What I think is different between a ‘sleuth of bears’ for example and the Chinese is that is it an inherent and fluid part of native speaker’s conceptualization of reality. For example these last days I have been training myself as I move through space to work with the Chinese directionals:

    走过来, 走过去
    放进去, 拿出来, 等等。。。
    One thing I think is VERY difficult but extremely rewarding is stepping back into a ‘non-language’ space of what is out there and working with the idea that we all actually have the ability to innately conceptualize any number of distinctions in language, it’s jut our mother language that has gotten us thinking down these lines. So rather than fighting this I just ‘turn off’ which I find makes for slower going in some ways but I feel extremely clear-headed as I learn and I often find that people tell me I learn like a child.

    In that sense by immersing yourself and your sensory perceptions in the actual physical space and sensory characteristics of things you ARE learning what you need to move this into ANY language, and learning how to carve this up.

    I am now really happy actually to have expanded my conceptualizations to include such interesting distinctions – just one ingredient list for cooking will have 5 or so different actual conceptualizations of how matter can be moved in shapes.

    Remember this isn’t just something you’re ‘learning’ to ‘say it right’ in Chinese this REALLY is a valid and very nice way of describing a reality for a group of people who have learned to engage with their reality in these ways.

  21. Measure words combined with determiners (this/that/etc.) or numerals can be used independently, therefore the related nouns can be omitted when the context is clear. In this case, the measure words can be seen as the “gender ending” attached to the numeral or determiner, as in german “dieser” words, for example. In my opinion, measure words are just another way of classifying nouns, like grammatical gender does in many EU languages.

    In addition, use mismatched measure words on purpose can produce humorous or other eye-catching effect, or emphasizing a certain characteristics, e.g. use “zhi1” when referring to a person to express the person’s cuteness and it sounds funny (not funny if you are really making a mistake!). It works like an embedded metaphor system, where the measure words carry the underlying characteristics of their corresponding objects.

  22. Pingback: Learn Chinese Measure Words | How can I learn Chinese

  23. I am a beginner in Mandarin and came across yet another measure word. The one for cigarette, which also applies to snakes and dogs. I was so upset that I googled “what is it with measure words in Chinese”. I found your post and it just made me laugh, and now I’m not stressed anymore. Explanation No 1 is hilarious. Thank you.

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