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There’s been one area of my Chinese studying that I’ve found pretty confusing, at times quite annoying, but inevitably (once the penny dropped) rather interesting. For me Chinese measure words became an added challenge when learning an already intriguing language. But it has to be said, they are an essential part of learning Mandarin.
As always I had questions, confrontation and somewhat reluctant acceptance until I realized it was never that bad to begin with(you may have noticed a theme in my writing):
Why do I need to measure anything?
I have a/an = 一个.
No. No, it can’t be can it.
Let’s have a measure word for flat things, skinny things, small animals, big animals, and to confuse things a little more, horses have their OWN measure word…
If measure words are getting a little heavy here’s my whistle-stop guide to measure words to help you lose some worry weight and be on your merry way!
- 张 (zhāng) is the classifier for flat objects such as paper.
In the past I’ve gotten rather irritable over 张 because although it is a measure word for flat objects, if it is long and flat (oh er), apparently the ‘long’ classifier is given preference (yes, the pun continued).
- Long and narrow things are given the classifier 条 (tiáo).
Continuing with animals…
- Big animals such as elephants, cows and giraffes are measured using the character 头 (tóu).
- But small animals and birds are measured using 只 (zhī) so for example: 一只龟 (yì zhī guī) = a turtle and 一只企鹅 (yì zhī qǐ é) = a penguin.
- Horses and other horsey looking animal such as mules, randomly have their own measure word 匹 (pǐ). History suggests the measure word was meant to reflect to relationship between the horse and man.
- 只 is also used to indicate something is 1 of a pair.
- When you talk about a pair of something we use the measure word 双 (shuāng). A pair of hands are 双手 (shuāng shǒu), but unlike English you DO NOT say 双裤子 (shuāng kù zi) for a pair of trousers or pants, depending on whose side you’re on. Go back to 条 (tiáo) the measurer of all things long and narrow for 一条裤子 which, unless you enjoy wearing bell bottom-ed flairs, works well enough.
- 件 (jiàn) is the measure word for clothes that are not straight and narrow and don’t come in twos and all you’re left with is sweater 一件毛衣 (máo yī), swimsuit: 一件泳衣 (yǒng yī), and shirt: 一件衬衫 (chèn shān).
- 所 (suǒ) is used for institutions for example 一所医院 (yì suǒ yī yuàn）a hospital and 一所学校 (yì suǒ xué xiào) is a school.
- However, 家 (jiā) is the measure word used when talking about businesses and homes. For example 一家酒店 （yì jiā jiǔ diàn）for a hotel and 一家餐馆 （yì jiā cān guǎn）is a restaurant.
- When you’re in the restaurant, you can use the measure word 份 (fèn) for a ‘batch’ of something….
- An essential measure word to know is 瓶 ( píng) for when buying a bottle of wine 一瓶红葡萄酒 (yī píng hóng pú tao jiǔ) or ordering beers 五瓶啤酒 (wǔ píng pí jiǔ).
- If you’re visiting 星巴克 (xīng bā kè = Starbucks) and want a skinny vanilla latte with no cream you can use the measure word 杯 (bēi), this character is also the noun ‘cup’ – 杯子 (bēi zi).
- The last example is 次 (cì) used to indicate ‘time’. For example 下次 （xià cì）means next time, 上次 (shàng cì) is last time. You can combine 次 with many different verbs just as in english. 每次 (měi cì) – every time, 这次 (zhè cì) – this time or now.
Measure words are not the most difficult thing to learn and although there are rules, there are often exceptions that you need to be aware of. Otherwise they’re gonna stick a foot out and trip you up.
When you search for a noun in the Written Chinese Online Dictionary or WCC Dictionary Mobile App many of the examples provide a measure word for that noun. For example when searching for pencil 笔 (bǐ) the results show 2 different measure words (CL stands for classification): CL:支[zhi1], 枝[zhi1]. They are both have same first tone and have similar meanings. 支 is a measure word for rods such as guns and pens (how these two got into the same category is beyond me!) and 枝 is a classifier for sticks, branches and pencils! If you’re using the WCC Dictionary app, you can make a special flashcard list for the measure words you want to learn!
We have already created some flashcards to get you started learning measure words. You can check them out in our Library!
If you’re interested in learning Chinese, you can check out our WCC Dictionary! You can learn more about our Chinese Learning Toolkit here! You can also click on the links below to download it for your iOS and Android devices!
If you can’t access the Android market on your phone, you can just click here to download the WCC Dictionary APK file!
Post your measure word questions, queries and quandaries below!