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Top 10 Most Common Chinese mistakes made by English Speakers: #4


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 (一汉堡包 / 一漢堡包) 

Two younger sisters – liǎnɡ ɡe mèi mei (两妹妹 / 兩妹妹) 

Three people – sān ɡe rén (三人 / 三人) 

Four books – sì běn shū (四书 / 四書) 

Five table – wǔ zhānɡ zhuō zi (五桌子 / 五桌子) 

Six chairs – liù yǐ zi (六椅子 / 六椅子) 

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 yǐ zi (这椅子 / 這椅子) 

That person – nà ɡe rén (那人 / 那人) 

Every book – měi běn shū (每书 / 每書) 

3. When the question words "which - nǎ (哪)" and "how many - jǐ (几)" are used


Which book – nǎ běn shū (哪书 / 哪書) 

How many people (number usually < 10) – jǐ ɡe rén (几人 / 幾人) 

How many people (number usually > 10) – duō shǎo rén (多人)

(*** “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.

<table border="1" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0"> <tbody> <tr> <td>

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

For example:

Used with pack
Example: One pack of cigarettes – yì bāo yān (一烟) 

Used with cup of, glass of
Example: One cup of coffee – yì bēi kā fēi (一咖啡) 

Used with box of
Example: A box of chocolate – yì qiǎo kè lì (一巧克力) 

/ kuài 
Used with piece of (cake, soap, land)
Example: One piece of cake – yí kuài dàn ɡāo (一蛋糕 / 一蛋糕) 

Used with bottle of something
Example: One bottle of beer – yì pínɡ pí jiǔ (一啤酒) 

Used with crowd, group, herd, flock, pack of (cows, bees, sheep)
Example: One pack of sheep – yì qún yánɡ (一羊) 

/ shuānɡ 
Used with pair of (shoes, chopsticks, gloves)
Example: One pair of shoes – yì shuānɡ xié (一鞋 / 一鞋) 

Used with set of (furniture, stamps)
Example: One set of furniture – yí tào jiā jù (一家具) 


Used with type of, kind of
Example: One type of fruit – yì zhǒnɡ shuǐ ɡuǒ (一水果 / 一水果) 

Measure words sometimes used or not required in English

For example:

Used with objects with a handle such as knife, umbrella, toothbrush, and chair
Example: One knife – yì dāo (一把刀) 

Used with things with volume, such as books, magazines
Example: One book – yì běn shū (一书 / 一書) 

Used with items joined together, e.g. by a string
Example: One bunch of grapes – yí chuàn pú táo (一葡萄) 

/ dǐnɡ
Used with hats
Example: One hat – yì dǐnɡ mào zi (一帽子 / 一帽子) 

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 (一报纸 / 一報紙) 

Used with letters, mail
Example: One letter – yì fēnɡ xìn (一信) 

/ ge
Generic measure word that can be used with anything
Example: One person – yí ɡe rén (一人 / 一人)  

/ jiān
Used with rooms (living room, bedroom, etc.)
Example: One bedroom – yì jiān wò shì (一卧室 / 一臥室) 

Used with Items of clothing (generally for the upper body), matters, affairs
Examples: One shirt – yí jiàn chèn shān (一衬衫 / 一襯衫) 
One matter – yí jiàn shì (一事) 

Used with trees
Example: One tree – yì shù (一树 / 一樹) 

/ liànɡ
Used with wheeled vehicles (such as cars, bicycles, trucks)
Example: One car – yí liànɡ chē (一车 / 一車) 

Used with essays, articles, reports
Example: One article – yì piān wén zhānɡ (一文章) 

Used with passages of text (such as poems, songs)
Example: One song – yì shǒu ɡē (一歌) 

Used with fairly large electrical items (such as computers, washing machines)
Example: One computer – yì tái diàn nǎo (一电脑 / 一電腦) 

/ tiáo
Used with long and winding objects (such as towels, streets, pants, rope)
Examples: One towel – yì tiáo máo jīn (一毛巾 / 一毛巾), 
One (pair) pants – yì tiáo kù zi (一裤子 / 一褲子) 

Used with people (a polite measure word to replace 个–ge)
Examples: One guest – yí wèi kè rén (一客人) 

/ zhānɡ 
Used with flat surfaces (tables, sheets of paper, beds, photos)
Examples: One table – yì zhānɡ zhuō zi (一桌子 / 一桌子) 

Used with fairly long, stick-like objects such as pens, pencils, cigarettes
Examples: One pen – yì zhī bǐ (一笔 / 一筆) 

/ zhī
Used with animals, birds, and insects; or one of a pair
Examples: One cat – yì zhī māo (一猫 / 一貓), 
One hand – yì zhī shǒu (一手 / 一手) 
One shoe – yì zhī xié zi (一鞋子 / 一鞋子) 

Used with large, relatively permanent things
Example: One mountain – yí zuò shān (一山) 

Have fun with Measure words! Use the comment section below to discuss the measure words you use most commonly!

To learn more about measure words, check out the lessons in Unit 20 of our Beginner Conversational Course:

- Yangyang ^_^