Could you get through a day without counting?
I’m guessing you want to know exactly how many dollars are in your bank account. Or how many minutes you have left in the workday. Or how many eggs you have in the fridge before you start cooking.
Human beings measure things a lot. We want to quantify just about everything: money, people, things, ideas and of course time. Pretty much any language you encounter will have its own system of quantification, and Mandarin Chinese is no different.
But if you’re a native English speaker, you may be put off by how it works in the Chinese language. If you’re just starting to learn Mandarin, you might find yourself totally lost.
That’s because Chinese uses a system of measure words, where there are different quantifiers for different types of words.
Fortunately, as we’ll show you below, it’s a lot less complicated than it sounds at first.
We’ll walk you through the usage of Chinese measure words, then 10 must-known measure words to quantify almost anything you can think of.
How to Use Chinese Measure Words
Chinese measure words work slightly differently than in English, but once you grasp how they work it just becomes a matter of knowing the correct one to use in different situations.
There are dozens of different measure words in Chinese, but they can all be used in the same format. The measure word always precedes the object that’s being quantified. This is how all quantifiers in Mandarin work and essentially all you need to do is find the correct quantifier for a particular object.
Here’s an example of how we measure things in English:
I have 10 sacks of apples.
In this sentence, “sacks” or “sacks of” would be considered the measure word.
Here’s the Chinese translation:
我有十袋苹果。(wǒ yǒu shí dài píng guǒ.) — I have 10 sacks of apples.
The quantifier in this sentence is 袋 (dài) — sacks of. This Mandarin sentence uses a specific word that quantifies “sacks of apples” rather than the singular “apples.” In English, we typically us “of” to connect an object to its quantifier (in this case “sacks”) but this isn’t necessary in Chinese.
How easy is that? Now you just need to build up a vocabulary of Chinese measure words for specific things that are being counted.
Of course, you’ll need to memorize Chinese numbers as well. For the sake of brevity, here’s a great interactive lesson on Chinese numbers.
Why Should You Learn Chinese Measure Words?
You’ll need to use them more than you’d think. Consider how often we use quantifiers in English. The Mandarin language has an even wider variety of measure words for various objects and concepts.
You’ll need them for almost any conversation, from ordering food to telling your boss how many tasks you’ve completed. Grasping them all will help you achieve true fluency in Mandarin Chinese.
But you’ll also build your general vocabulary while you study measure words. Because there are different measure words for different categories of Chinese words, you’ll naturally build your vocabulary while you study them.
10 Major Mandarin Measure Words for Confident Counting in Chinese
Many of these measure words (and all the measure words we couldn’t fit into this article) have almost identical meanings to each other. Practice makes perfect. Make a list of situations you commonly experience in which a particular measure word is used and get used to associating those measure words with their proper situations.
Use FluentU to encounter measure words in real Chinese contexts, the way native speakers use them.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can click any word in the interactive captions for an instant definition and pronunciation. FluentU will also show you other videos that have the word so you can hear it in different situations. It’s a fun way to build your vocabulary naturally while absorbing native Chinese.
There are dozens of measure words used to describe quantities of different things. Here are 10 common ones to make note of.
1. 包 (bāo)
Used for: packs, packets or packaged groups of physical objects
我带一包香烟。(wǒ dài yī bāo xiāng yān.) — I brought a pack of cigarettes.
她有两包树枝。(tā yǒu liǎng bāo shù zhī.) — She has two bales of branches.
他有六包裹。(tā yǒu liù bāo guǒ.) — He has six packages.
2. 对 (duì)
Used for: things that come/happen to be in pairs or objects that match each other
她有十对耳环。(tā yǒu shí duì ěr huán.) — She owns 10 pairs of earrings.
一对可爱的夫妇! (yī duì kě ài de fū fù!) — A cute couple!
她有一对双胞胎。(tā yǒu yī duì shuāng bāo tāi.) — She has a pair of twins.
3. 套 (tào)
Used for: sets in the collectible sense, including furniture, coins, clothing and figurines
In many situations, 对 (duì) and 套 (tào) can be used for the same types of things.
我有两套泳装。(wǒ yǒu liǎng tào yǒng zhuāng.) — I have two sets of swimwear.
4. 个 (gè)
Used for: people, the general measure word for everything countable
个 (gè) is a sort of catch-all when it comes to Chinese measure words. While it definitely isn’t appropriate for every situation, most Mandarin speakers will understand what you’re trying to say if you use 个 (gè) in lieu of a more appropriate measure word.
Just don’t rely on it exclusively! If you want to become fluent, you need to understand different measure words.
Outside of being a catch-all, 个 (gè) is used to quantify people or concepts of people, such as friends, bosses, coworkers, etc.
我爱我的四个朋友。(wǒ ài wǒ de sì gè péng yǒu.) — I love my four friends.
5. 根 (gēn)
Used for: long thin objects like sticks or bananas, mainly food items
我想吃一根香肠我想吃香肠。(wǒ xiǎng chī yī gēn xiāng cháng.) — I want to eat a sausage.
6. 口 (kŏu)
Used for: family members, members of a household or a classroom of peers
This measure word counts family members on a smaller scale, usually under 100.
一家十二口人。(yī jiā shí èr kǒu rén.) — A family of 12 people.
7. 轮 (lún)
Used for: bouts or rounds of something like drinks, games or debates
又一轮饮料！(yòu yī lún yǐn liào!) — Another round of drinks!
他有三轮接。(tā yǒu sān lún jiē.) — He has had three turns.
8. 群 (qún)
Used for: groups or crowds, such as groups of people or swarms of insects or herds of sheep
有一大群蜜蜂。(yǒu yī dà qún mì fēng.) — There was a swarm of bees.
9. 位 (wèi)
Used for: quantifying people politely
Politeness is a big deal when it comes to Chinese business and office language, so 位 (wèi) would be a more appropriate quantifier for management and coworkers as opposed to 个 (gè.)
我为三位经理工作。(wǒ wèi sān wèi jīng lǐ gōng zuò.) — I work for three managers.
10. 只 (zhī)
Used for: counting birds and some animals, one half of a pair of objects, human or animal body parts
我看到二十只鹅。(wǒ kàn dào èr shí zhǐ é.) — I saw 20 geese.
我有两只手。(wǒ yǒu liǎng zhī shǒu.) — I have two hands.
Measure words aren’t that difficult to grasp in Mandarin, are they? It may be a strange experience for the beginner learner to deconstruct what they know about language in favor of learning Mandarin, but we promise it’ll pay off. If these intimidating measure words in Mandarin were way easier to understand than you thought, imagine what other parts of the Mandarin language are totally easy! Chinese gets a bad rap for being hard, doesn’t it?
Good luck on your studies and don’t forget to practice your 数据 (shù jù) — numbers!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.