Hey, it's Yangyang again!
This is the seventh in a series of posts on the most common mistakes English speakers make when speaking Chinese.
In my years of teaching Chinese, I have come to notice that English speakers tend to make similar mistakes over and over again. Today, I am going to tell you the most common mistake #4.
The goal here is to become aware of these mistakes to help you avoid making them in the first place!
Mistake #4: Ignoring Chinese Measure Words
“Measure words” or “classifiers” might be one of the most foreign concepts for English speakers.
A student of mine once tried to joke with his Chinese friend by saying, “wǒ yǒu sì tài tài (我有四太太).” He’d meant to say “I have four wives,” but since he omitted the crucial measure word “ge (个)” in the sentence, nobody could understand what he was trying to say and the joke completely fell flat. The correct way of saying “four wives” is “sì ɡe tài tài (四个太太).”
The concept of “measure words” or “classifiers” shouldn’t be too foreign to you.
In English, you have something similar: “a sheet of paper,” “a bar of soap,” “a set of furniture,” “a school of fish,” etc. Here, sheet, bar, set, and school can be considered measure words or classifiers.
What's different between English and Chinese is not so much the existence of measure words or classifiers, but rather the extent to which measure words are used. In Chinese, we use measure words all the time. Here's a summary of when measure words have to be used.
1. When quantity is involved, insert a measure word between the NUMBER of the objects and the NAME of the object.
One hamburger – yí ɡe hàn bǎo bāo (一个汉堡包 / 一個漢堡包)
Two younger sisters – liǎnɡ ɡe mèi mei (两个妹妹 / 兩個妹妹)
Three people – sān ɡe rén (三个人 / 三個人)
Four books – sì běn shū (四本书 / 四本書)
Five table – wǔ zhānɡ zhuō zi (五张桌子 / 五張桌子)
Six chairs – liù bǎ yǐ zi (六把椅子 / 六把椅子)
2. When you want to specify a noun, in other words if you have "this – zhè (这)", "that – nà (那)", and "every – měi (每)".
This chair – zhè bǎ yǐ zi (这把椅子 / 這把椅子)
That person – nà ɡe rén (那个人 / 那個人)
Every book – měi běn shū (每本书 / 每本書)
3. When the question words "which - nǎ (哪)" and "how many - jǐ (几)" are used
Which book – nǎ běn shū (哪本书 / 哪本書)
How many people (number usually < 10) – jǐ ɡe rén (几个人 / 幾個人)
How many people (number usually > 10) – duō shǎo rén (多少人)
(*** “duō shǎo” (多少)” is an exception. It doesn’t need a measure word.)
Measure words are also referred to as “classifiers” because some measure words actually have the additional function of classifying nouns along some physical dimensions, such as size, shape and so on.
Different measure words are used for different kinds of objects.
- flat objects such as tables or paper are counted with the measure word “zhāng (张)”
- long thin objects such as ropes use “tiáo (条)”
- objects with volume such as books or magazines use “běn (本)”
Don’t be overwhelmed yet! For now, just remember this: in Chinese, you must insert a measure word in between the number of the object and the name of the object.
Number + Measure Word + Object</td> </tr> </tbody> </table>
The Generic Measure Word "ge (个)"
The most widely used and the most generic measure word is "ge (个)".
You can generally get away with using "ge (个) when you're not sure what measure word to use for a particular noun, so until you learn new specific measure words or classifiers, you should use "ge (个)" to save yourself some trouble.
You can also think this way: maybe a good English word that can be used to describe measure words is "unit".
For example, "one hamburger - yī ge hànbǎobāo (一个汉堡包)" is like saying "one unit of hamburger". "Sān ge rén (三个人 )" is like saying "three units of people".
Measure words are so important. If you use the generic measure word "ge" for everything, it's okay. It just shows that you're not a native speaker, but Chinese people will still understand you.
However, if you skip measure words completely, Chinese people will NOT understand you at all. So it's better to use a less-than-perfect measure word than not to use one at all.
From now on, I suggest you seriously consider getting into the habit of adding "ge" to your daily English conversations, e.g. saying four "ge" apples, three "ge" people, and 10 "ge" hamburgers.
The following table is a summary of common measure words. If you want to sound like a native speaker, memorize them. If not, it's okay to simply use "ge" to replace all the following measure words and you will do just fine. ^_^
Measure words used in a similar way in English
Used with pack
Example: One pack of cigarettes – yì bāo yān (一包烟)
Used with cup of, glass of
Example: One cup of coffee – yì bēi kā fēi (一杯咖啡)
Used with box of
Example: A box of chocolate – yì hé qiǎo kè lì (一盒巧克力)
块 / 塊 kuài
Used with piece of (cake, soap, land)
Example: One piece of cake – yí kuài dàn ɡāo (一块蛋糕 / 一塊蛋糕)
Used with bottle of something
Example: One bottle of beer – yì pínɡ pí jiǔ (一瓶啤酒)
Used with crowd, group, herd, flock, pack of (cows, bees, sheep)
Example: One pack of sheep – yì qún yánɡ (一群羊)
双 / 雙 shuānɡ
Used with pair of (shoes, chopsticks, gloves)
Example: One pair of shoes – yì shuānɡ xié (一双鞋 / 一雙鞋)
Used with set of (furniture, stamps)
Example: One set of furniture – yí tào jiā jù (一套家具)
Used with type of, kind of
Example: One type of fruit – yì zhǒnɡ shuǐ ɡuǒ (一种水果 / 一種水果)
Measure words sometimes used or not required in English
Used with objects with a handle such as knife, umbrella, toothbrush, and chair
Example: One knife – yì bǎ dāo (一把刀)
Used with things with volume, such as books, magazines
Example: One book – yì běn shū (一本书 / 一本書)
Used with items joined together, e.g. by a string
Example: One bunch of grapes – yí chuàn pú táo (一串葡萄)
顶 / 頂 dǐnɡ
Used with hats
Example: One hat – yì dǐnɡ mào zi (一顶帽子 / 一頂帽子)
Used with items that can be distributed in portions, such as newspapers, dishes of food, and classroom handouts
Example: One newspaper – yí fèn bào zhǐ (一份报纸 / 一份報紙)
Used with letters, mail
Example: One letter – yì fēnɡ xìn (一封信)
个 / 個 ge
Generic measure word that can be used with anything
Example: One person – yí ɡe rén (一个人 / 一個人)
间 / 間 jiān
Used with rooms (living room, bedroom, etc.)
Example: One bedroom – yì jiān wò shì (一间卧室 / 一間臥室)
Used with Items of clothing (generally for the upper body), matters, affairs
Examples: One shirt – yí jiàn chèn shān (一件衬衫 / 一件襯衫)
One matter – yí jiàn shì (一件事)
Used with trees
Example: One tree – yì kē shù (一棵树 / 一棵樹)
辆 / 輛 liànɡ
Used with wheeled vehicles (such as cars, bicycles, trucks)
Example: One car – yí liànɡ chē (一辆车 / 一輛車)
Used with essays, articles, reports
Example: One article – yì piān wén zhānɡ (一篇文章)
Used with passages of text (such as poems, songs)
Example: One song – yì shǒu ɡē (一首歌)
Used with fairly large electrical items (such as computers, washing machines)
Example: One computer – yì tái diàn nǎo (一台电脑 / 一台電腦)
条 / 條 tiáo
Used with long and winding objects (such as towels, streets, pants, rope)
Examples: One towel – yì tiáo máo jīn (一条毛巾 / 一條毛巾),
One (pair) pants – yì tiáo kù zi (一条裤子 / 一條褲子)
Used with people (a polite measure word to replace 个–ge)
Examples: One guest – yí wèi kè rén (一位客人)
张 / 張 zhānɡ
Used with flat surfaces (tables, sheets of paper, beds, photos)
Examples: One table – yì zhānɡ zhuō zi (一张桌子 / 一張桌子)
Used with fairly long, stick-like objects such as pens, pencils, cigarettes
Examples: One pen – yì zhī bǐ (一支笔 / 一支筆)
只 / 隻 zhī
Used with animals, birds, and insects; or one of a pair
Examples: One cat – yì zhī māo (一只猫 / 一隻貓),
One hand – yì zhī shǒu (一只手 / 一隻手)
One shoe – yì zhī xié zi (一只鞋子 / 一隻鞋子)
Used with large, relatively permanent things
Example: One mountain – yí zuò shān (一座山)
Have fun with Measure words! Use the comment section below to discuss the measure words you use most commonly!
- Yangyang ^_^