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Chinese Measure Words: what are they and why are they important?



Looking for a way to spice up and professionalize your Mandarin? One great way to do that is to pay attention to details and vocabulary. In other words, keeping a mental bank of what are
called “measure words” or “classifiers” can make your language sound exact and
refined.

Measure words in the Chinese language are abstract identifiers that appear between the number character (that gives the amount of items) and the item character (that names the item).
For instance: If I wasn’t to say, “There is one girl”, then I would say “Zhe’er you yi wei nuhai” or more directly translated: “Here is one girl-child”. In this sentence the measure word is “wei (4th tone)” which is used in sentences that refer to people.

A measure word is also used when referring to “This item”, “That item” or “Which item?”. For instance, to say “This cat”, “That cat” and “Which cat?” I can say: “Zhe zhi mao”, “Na zhi mao” and “Nei zhi mao?”.

These measure words are important because they give the listener an idea of which kind of item the
subject is in a language where there are thousands of meanings and a limited
number of sounds/syllables to accompany them. If, however, you cannot remember the
specific measure word for an item, you can usually use the general measure word
“ge (no tone)” and still be grammatically correct. To say “Those cars are
driving” I would say “Na ge che zhen zai kai zhe”  where “Na” means “Those”, “ge” is the measure
word and “che” means “cars”. Or if I know the measure word for vehicles (“liang [4th tone]”) I can use that instead of “ge” to make my sentence sound more precise, practiced and educated.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that sounding too professional can make you
sound foreign and thus less natural. It has been my experience that most native
speakers of Mandarin use “ge” more often than not as their measure word even
though I’m sure they know which measure word applies to the items they are
referring to. Also, if you are travelling to a remote region of China, it’s
best to stay away from so-called “fancy talk” or “dialectical talk” that is
specific to other regions of China since very often each region has its own
dialect. As a result, they may not understand a word you are saying (and more
on this later). That all being said, measure words can be invaluable when you
become familiar with them because they aid immeasurably in listening
comprehension.
 
I have made a list of common measure words below, but there are so many more
interesting ones to discover! Best wishes and happy studies!

Until next time, zaijian.

Category                                              Measure word (tone)

People                                                  Wei (4th)

Books                                                    Ben(3rd)

Vehicles                                               Liang(4th)

Portions (i.e. of food)                           Fen(4th)

Flat objects (tables, paper, etc.)        Zhang(1st)

Long round objects (pencils)              Zhi(1st)

Letters and Mail                                  Feng(1st)

Rooms                                                  Jian(1st)

Clothing (single)                                 Jian(4th)

Clothing (sets)                                   Tao(4th)

Written sentences                               Ju(4th)

Trees                                                   Ke(1st)

Bottles                                                Ping(2nd)

Doors and windows                            Shan(4th)

Buildings                                            Dong(4th)

Heavy objects (appliances)              Tai(2nd)

Flora                                                   Duo(3rd)

Events and activities                        Xiang(4th)

Long narrow things (river)                Tiao(2nd)

Boxes of things                                 He(2nd)

Cats                                                   Zhi(1st)

Cattle                                                 Tou(2nd)

Slices of things (clouds, food)          Pian(4th)