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The Practical Uses of Chinese Numerals

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You’ve probably already learned the basic numbers in Chinese, but there are ways in which Chinese numerals are used in specific ways that are different to in English. You’ll learn some of these differences, as well as some practical ways to use Chinese numerals for discounts, fractions and to make approximations.

1. 基数词 (jī shù cí) Cardinal numerals and 序数词 (xù shù cí) Ordinal numbers

基数词 (jī shù cí) (Cardinal numerals) are used to express numbers, whereas 序数词 (xù shù cí) (Ordinal numbers) are used to express a position in a series.

a. 基数词 Cardinal numbers include the following:

  • 系数词 (xì shù cí) constant numbers: 零 (líng), 半 (bàn), 一 (yī), 二 (èr) 两 (liǎng, 三 (sān), 四 (sì), 五 (wǔ) 六 (liù), 七 (qī), 八 (bā), 九 (jiǔ), 十 (shí)。
  • 位数词 (wèi shù cí) digit numbers: 十 (shí), 百 (bǎi) 千 (qiān), 万 (wàn), 亿 (yì)。
  • 复合数词 (fù hé shù cí) compound numerals: 十五 (shí wǔ), 八十 (bā shí), 九千 (jiǔ qiān), 十亿 (shí yì)。

 

When ‘zero’ 零 (líng) is used between constant or digital numbers it is only added once, for example:

30050 = 三万零五十

50006 = 五万零六

(bàn) can be put both before and after the measure word.

For example:

半个西瓜 (bàn ge xī guā) half a watermelon

一个半苹果 (yī gè bàn píng guǒ) one and a half apple

半 (bàn) can not be used with a numeral, for example, 半千 (bàn qiān) ‘half a thousand’ and 半万 (bàn wàn) ‘half of ten thousand’.

There is one exception when 半 (bàn) is found next to a numeral, in the chengyu 年过半百 (nián guò bàn bǎi. In this situation, 半百 (bàn bǎi) means ‘50 years old’.

In Chinese, numbers can be divided into “个 (gè), 十 (shí), 百 (bǎi), 千 (qiān) and 万 (wàn)” (a/an, 10, 100, 1000, 10000). Digits are grouped into 4’s and all numbers over “万” 10000, use 万 as the unit; numbers over 亿 1000000000, use 亿 as a unit.

For example:

5726,4832,9803 = 五千七百二十六亿,四千八百三十二,九千八百零三

  1. b. 序数词 (xù shù cí) Ordinal numbers

 

序数词 (xù shù cí)is always found with “第” (dì) prefix indicating the ordinal number (first, second etc) or “初” (chū) at first.

For example:

第一 (dì yī) the first

第八 (dì bā) the eighth

初六 (chū liù) the sixth (lunar calendar date)

(èr) and (liǎng) both mean number ‘2’, but the usages are different:

  • 二 (èr) can be used as “the second” without 第 (dì), whereas 两 (liǎng) can not be used as an ordinal number.

For example:

二楼 (èr lóu) the 2nd floor

两层楼 (liǎng céng lóu) two floors

One exception is that 两 (liǎng) used to say 2 o’clock: 两点钟 (liǎng diǎn zhōng).

Generally, when used before measure words, we will use 两 (liǎng), not 二 (èr).

For example:

两个人 (liǎng gè rén) two people √

二个人 (èr gè rén) two people ×

An exception is before Chinese traditional meteorological measure words, when both 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) can be used.

For example:

二斤 (èr jīn) / 两斤 (liǎng jīn) 1 kg.

  • 两 (liǎng) can be used as an ‘approximate’ number, which is similar to (jǐ).

For example:

过两天再说 (guò liǎng tiān zài shuō) talk to you later

喝两杯 (hē liǎng bēi) to have a drink

2. 倍数 (bèi shù) Multipliers, 分数 (fēn shù) Fractions and 概数 (gài shù) Approximate numbers

a. 倍数 (bèi shù) Multipliers

Common use: 倍数 (bèi shù) = # + (bèi) / (fān).

For example:

三倍 (sān bèi) triple

翻了一番 doubled (fān le yí fān)

倍数 (bèi shù) can also be used to express an increase.

For example, you can say 增加了三倍 (zēng jiā le sān bèi) ‘to increase 3 times’, but you can not say 减少了三倍 (jiǎn shǎo le sān bèi) ‘to reduce 3 times’ ×.

  1. b. 分数 (fēn shù) Fractions

Common use: 分数 (fēn shù)= # 分之 #

三分之二 (sān fēn zhī èr) ⅔ (two-thirds)

百分之三十 (bǎi fēn zhī sān shí) 30%

In spoken Chinese, (chéng) or (fēn) can be used as #/10, for example:

七成 (qī chéng) 7/10

七分饱 (qī chéng bǎo) 7/10 full

In addition, when talking about discounts, we will use # + (zhé), for example:

三折 (sān zhé) 70% off

  1. c. 概数 (gài shù) Approximate numbers

 

Common use: 概数 (gài shù) = # + 多 (duō) / 来 (lái) / 左右 (zuǒ yòu) / 上下 (shàng xià)

五十多块钱 (wǔ shí duō kuài qián) over ¥50

十来岁 (shí lái suì) teenager

两万左右人 (liǎng wàn zuǒ yòu rén) about 20,000 people

一百上下 (yī bǎi shàng xià) about 100

We can also use two consecutive numbers as 概数 (gài shù) an approximate number.

For example:

教室里只有两三个人。(jiào shì lǐ zhǐ yǒu liǎng sān gè rén) There is only two or three people in the classroom.

我下周有三四天在出差。(wǒ xià zhōu yǒu sān sì tiān zài chū chāi) I will be on business trip for 3 or 4 days next week.

Generally, the smaller number should be put before the bigger. However, there is an exception with 三两 (个) (sān liǎng (gè)) , which emphasises the number is “few”.

There are two exceptions that don’t use consecutive numbers to indicate an approximation:

三五天 (sān wǔ tiān) three or five days

百八十人 (bǎi bā shí rén) hundreds people

In addition, some commonly used words can be used as 概数 (gài shù) approximate numbers. For example, 若干 (ruò gān) ‘how many’ and 好些 (hǎo xiē) ‘quite a lot’.

若干年后,这个地方建起了一座学校。(ruò gān nián hòu, zhè ge dì fang jiàn qǐ le yī zuò xué xiào) After several years, they built a school here.

喝醉了之后,她还说了好些话,但我都忘了。(hē zuì le zhī hòu, tā hái shuō le hǎo xiē huà, dàn wǒ dōu wàng le) After getting drunk, she still spoke a lot, but I don’t remember any of them.

  1. 3. Some Further examples

Numerals are always used with measure words with a noun, or to emphasise a specific number.

For example:

一条裙子 (yī tiáo qún zi) a dress

看了一遍 (kàn le yī biàn) read through (one time)

Generally, in spoken Chinese, numerals must be used with a measure word before a noun. But in written Chinese, you can use a numeral with a noun.

For example:

一草一木 (yī cǎo yī mù) every bush and tree

三言两语 (sān yán liǎng yǔ) in a few words

千言万语 (qiān yán wàn yǔ) thousands of words

Examples here are not meant to be an exact number, but are abstract to mean “many” or “few”.

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