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When is a Glass a Glass? How To Tell if a Container is a Noun or a Measure Word in Chinese

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One of the trickier parts of learning Chinese is that there are many more measure words, or 量词 (liàng cí), than in English.

Intro to Measure Words

While we do use measure words in English, like ‘cup’, ‘piece’, and ‘slice’ in phrases like  ‘one cup of coffee’, ‘one piece of paper’, or ‘one slice of cake’; for most nouns in English, we don’t actually need any. For instance, we would just say ‘one computer’, ‘two beds’, ‘three dogs’, ‘four people’, and so on.

In Chinese, however, all nouns require a measure word to connect the number and the noun. 

So in Chinese, ‘one computer’ would be 一台电脑 (yì tái diàn nǎo), ‘two beds’ would be 两张床 (liǎng zhāng chuáng), ‘three dogs’ would be 三只狗 (sān zhī gǒu), and ‘four people’ would be 四个人 (sì ge rén)

That said, a common question we see from students is, "How can I tell when a container (like a cup, bottle, etc.) is being used a measure word or a noun in Chinese?"

* FREE EBOOK ON MEASURE WORDS: If you haven't already, be sure to download our FREE ebook on Chinese measure words from our Download Center! (NOTE: You must first log into your free Yoyo Chinese account to access these materials.) 

Containers as Measure Words vs. Nouns

The biggest sign that a ‘container’ character is being used as a noun is that you’ll see a different measure word used right before the character in question, indicating that the character is being treated as a noun. In addition, some nouns will also include a “子 (zi)” character, which helps identify that it’s definitely a noun. 

By the way, if you haven’t learned about the most generic and common measure word in Chinese - 个 (ge) yet, be sure to check out this lesson from our Beginner Conversational Course! It'll give you an in-depth explanation and more examples using 个 (ge),  which is the main measure word you’ll see used with these containers as nouns.

Let’s see some common examples of containers as both nouns and measure words!

Containers as Nouns

The structure for containers as a noun is:

Number + 个 (ge) + Noun (Container)

Common Container Nouns: 
  • 杯子 (bēi zi) - cup
  • 瓶子 (píng zi) - bottle
  • 碗 (wǎn) - bowl
  • 盘子 (pán zi) - plate

Example Sentences:
  • 你有两个杯子吗?(nǐ yǒu liǎng ge bēi zi ma) - Do you have two cups?
  • 我需要五个瓶子。(wǒ xū yào wǔ ge píng zi) - I need five bottles.
  • 你能再给我一个碗吗?(nǐ néng zài gěi wǒ yí ge wǎn ma) - Could you give me another bowl?
  • 我给你一个盘子吧。(wǒ gěi nǐ yí ge pán zi ba) - I’ll give you a plate.    

As you can see in the example sentences above, each time the container appears as a noun, it’s used with the measure word 个 (ge), so for 两个杯子 (liǎng ge bēi zi) for instance, we have: 两 (liǎng) “two” + 个 (ge) (a measure word) + 杯子 (bēi zi) “cup” -- “two cups”. 

Containers as Measure Words

Now, let’s see a few examples of containers used as measure words! The structure for containers as measure words is:

Number + Measure Word (Container) + Noun (Substance)

Common Container Measure Words:
  • 杯 (bēi) - cup
  • 瓶 (píng) - bottle
  • 碗 (wǎn) - bowl
  • 盘 (pán) - plate

Example Sentences:
  • 我来一杯咖啡吧。(wǒ lái yì bēi kā fēi ba) - I’ll have a cup of coffee.
  • 我要一瓶啤酒。(wǒ yào yì píng pí jiǔ) - I’d like a bottle of beer.
  • 我午饭喝了一碗汤。(wǒ wǔ fàn hē le yì wǎn tāng) - I had a bowl of soup for lunch.
  • 我们点了三盘菜。(wǒ men diǎn le sān pán cài) - We ordered three plates of food.

As shown in the above examples, the number is followed by the container as a measure word, and then the noun (what the substance is). So 一杯咖啡 (yì bēi kā fēi) is 一 (yī) “one” + 杯 (bēi) “cup (the measure word)” + 咖啡 (kā fēi) “coffee” -- “one cup of coffee”.

Want to Learn More?

We hope this post helps you distinguish between containers acting as nouns and those acting as measure words!

If you’d like to learn even more useful vocabulary related to containers and types of food and drinks and how to use them, be sure to check out this lesson from our Beginner Conversational Course!

If you’re just starting out learning Chinese, you’ve GOT to check out Level 1 of our Beginner course! Level 1 is completely FREE (that’s over 40 lesson videos!), along with all the study tools like flashcards, quizzes and more! In Level 1, you’ll master Chinese pinyin and tones, and learn a bunch of practical vocabulary words and sentences!

Start here with the first lesson of the course now:

Have a question?? Let us know in the comments below!