How Do Plurals Work in Chinese? The Simple 3-step Guide
What do you mean, no plurals?!
You may’ve heard that in Chinese, nouns are the same in both singular and plural forms.
You can’t just tack on an -s, like we do in English.
So how will you know how many eggs to put in your cake batter? Or make a restaurant reservation for a group? Or tell that clingy person you’re seeing that they’re actually not the only one?
Relax. Chinese isn’t as hard as you think.
It’s not that plurals don’t exist in Chinese. They just don’t manifest in a format you’d expect.
But that shouldn’t really surprise you, given how the language seems to defy numerous grammar rules that exist in English. Additionally, I’d imagine it’s much easier for English speakers to adjust to Chinese plurals than the other way around.
So, how exactly does one indicate if a noun or pronoun is in its singular or plural form?
No Plurals in Chinese?! 3 Easy Ways to Express Plurality
1. Defining a Number
One of the more concrete ways to turn something from the singular to the plural would be identifying its specific number. So, saying “six cats” as opposed to “a cat.” Grammatical numbers must be followed by the appropriate measure word (more on that below), before saying or writing the noun.
Number + Measure Word + Noun
Here’s the breakdown of that formula:
Before getting into the specifics of this plural form, let’s review our numbers.
You learned them as a beginner when you were taught how to count and how to tell time. You might even know some Chinese number slang. Whatever the case is, here’s a list of numbers to refresh your memory. We’ll skip ahead to bigger numbers, to show you how those work in case you haven’t come across them yet.
十 (shí) — 10
二十 (èr shí) — 20
五十 (wǔ shí) — 50
一百 (yī bǎi) — 100
一百零七 (yī bǎi líng qī) — 107
四百九十九 (sì bǎi jiǔ shí jiǔ) — 499
一千 (yī qiān) — 1,000
一万 (yī wàn) — 10,000
一亿 (yī yì) — 100,000,000
Chances are that you won’t be using the bigger numbers for Chinese plurals, but a little more information never hurt anyone.
One thing you need to note is when you’re using “two” as a grammatical number rather than a counting number in Chinese. When you’re indicating two of something, you’re supposed to use 两 (liǎng) instead of 二 (èr).
Also known as “classifiers,” measure words are very specific to what’s being quantified.
You might already be familiar with the most well-known classifier: 个 (ge). It’s pretty much the English equivalent of “of,” as in, “I’ll have two of everything.” Here’s how it would look in a sentence:
我有两个兄弟。(wǒ yǒu liǎng gè xiōng dì.) — I have two brothers.
As generic as 个 (ge) is, try not to rely on it so much. Rather than learning a variety of measure words, Chinese students often end up using 个 (ge) for everything. While in many instances 个 (ge) will work, it makes more sense to say “two cups of coffee” than “two of coffee.”
To get out of the habit of using 个 (ge) as your go-to measure word, below are some other classifiers you’ll need to pluralize your nouns. Please take note that this list isn’t complete. There are plenty more measure words used in Chinese, but these are the ones you’d probably use more on a regular basis.
杯 (bēi) — cup [of coffee and tea]
两杯咖啡 (liǎng bēi kā fēi) — two cups of coffee
本 (bĕn) — unit for books and magazines
四本杂志 (sì běn zá zhì) — four magazines
份 (fèn) — share, portion, order [of food], unit for newspapers
五份白饭 (wǔ fèn bái fàn) — five portions of rice
间 (jiān) — unit for any kind of room
六间卧室 (liù jiān wò shì) — six bedrooms
辆 (liàng) — unit for vehicles
三辆巴士 (sān liàng bā shì) — three buses
瓶 (píng) — bottle
九十九瓶啤酒 (jiǔ shí jiǔ píng pí jiǔ) — 99 bottles of beer
条 (tiáo) — unit for long, winding objects, like roads, rivers, snakes, fish
十二条路 (shí èr tiáo lù) — 12 roads
张 (zhāng) — sheet [of paper or bedsheets], unit for rectangular objects like beds, tables
七张纸 (qī zhāng zhǐ) — seven sheets of paper
只 (zhī) — unit for animals and one of a pair of hands, feet, ears, eyes
一只眼睛 (yī zhī yǎn jīng) — one eye
支 (zhī) — unit for long, thin objects like pencils, pens, cigarettes
八支蜡笔 (bā zhī là bǐ) — eight crayons
Some nouns are addressed as multiples, like a pair of socks, a pack of cigarettes, etc. In cases like these, we would use special measure words. Here are some of those, along with their definitions and examples:
双 (shuāng) — pair, for items that always come in pairs
三双筷子 (sān shuāng kuàizi) — three pairs of chopsticks
对 (duì) — couple, for nouns that don’t necessarily come in pairs
一对学生 (yī duì xué shēng) — a couple of students
打 (dǎ) — dozen
五打鸡蛋 (wǔ dǎ jī dàn) — five dozen eggs
包 (bāo) — pack or packet
两包口香糖 (liǎng bāo kǒu xiāng táng) — two packs of gum
群 (qún) — group of people or animals like crowds, flocks, herds, swarms
一群人 (yī qún rén) — a crowd/group of people
You might be confused with some of these measure words, since some don’t indicate specific amounts, like a pack or group. Although they’re nonspecific in terms of the total number, these special classifiers can still be “modified” by a grammatical number (e.g. one group of students, five groups of students, etc.). It’s important that you understand this now before moving on to the ambiguous plurals.
2. Using Ambiguous Plurals
Now that you know that “groups” and “packs” don’t count as ambiguous plurals, what does? An ambiguous plural is anything that cannot be modified by a grammatical number, like “some” or “many.” Thus, the formula goes:
Ambiguous Plural + Noun
Let’s take a look at those ambiguous plurals and their usages:
几 (jǐ) — some, several
几道菜 (jǐ dào cài) — some dishes
一些 (yī xiē) —a few, some
一些错误 (yī xiē cuò wù) — a few mistakes
Despite there being a number in 一些 (yī xiē), meaning “a few,” it doesn’t function as a grammatical number. Besides, no one would ever say, “two fews.”
数 (shù) — several
数星期 (shù xīng qí) — several weeks
不少 (bù shǎo) — quite a few
不少高校 (bù shǎo gāo xiào) — quite a few universities
This measure word literally means “not a few.”
很多 (hěn duō) — a lot, very many
很多猫 (hěn duō māo) — a lot of cats
3. Adding 们 (Men)
When it comes to nouns and pronouns specifically pertaining to people, you can simply attach 们 (men) to them, so they would look like this:
我 (wǒ) — I/me → 我们 (wǒ men) — we/us
他 (tā) — he/him → 他们 (tā men) — they/them [male and mixed gender]
她 (tā) — she/her → 她们 (tā men) — they [female]
它 (tā) — it → 它们 (tā men) — they [animals]
In turn, adding 们 (men) “conjugates” the verb when used in a sentence. And I use quotations because the verb itself doesn’t actually change in Chinese—it’s just the meaning that’s altered to the verb’s plural version. Ah, the nuances of the Chinese language.
You can also add 们 (men) to nouns like “teacher,” “student,” “police officer,” etc. However, when a noun is the object of a sentence, 们 (men) isn’t completely necessary to make it plural. Some think it sounds strange to add it, so it’s normally omitted in everyday speech. It’s a personal preference, really, as the rest of the sentence usually provides enough contextual evidence to indicate a plural noun.
Check out these two sentences:
他给学生们作业。 (tā gěi xué shēng men zuò yè.) — He gives the students homework.
他给学生作业。 (tā gěi xué shēng zuò yè.) — He gives the students homework.
Because of context, 们 (men) doesn’t do much to contribute to the overall meaning, so why include it if you don’t really need it?
When Not to Use 们 (Men)
When there’s a grammatical number:
Like the ambiguous plurals in the previous section, 们 (men) doesn’t precisely define how many of the associated noun or pronoun are involved. If the sentence specifies the number, adding to the human noun or pronoun would be redundant.
When the noun or pronoun is non-human:
As previously stated, 们 (men) is only applicable to human nouns and pronouns. The only time you would see 们 (men) used with animals is when they’re being personified in stories.
When you’re using 您 (nín):
There’s a bit of debate about using 们 (men) with 您 (nín), the polite way of addressing “you.” If you think about it, there’s not really a formal way of saying “you all” or “you guys,” is there?
Instead, native Chinese speakers use 各位 (gè wèi) for “everybody” and 女士们先生们 (nǚ shì men xiān shēng men) for “ladies and gentlemen,” so you can use those as the plural for 您 (nín).
大家 (dà jiā) wouldn’t be considered a plural for 您 (nín) since it’s an informal way of addressing “everyone.”
各位 (gè wèi) and 女士们先生们 (nǚ shì men xiān shēng men) are saved for formal settings and tend to address large groups of people. You’d normally hear them as a greeting during opening remarks at an event or in a speech, or read them in an email.
女士们先生们晚上好。(nǚ shì men xiān shēng men wǎn shàng hǎo.) — Good evening, ladies and gentleman.
各位家长、同学们好。 (gè wèi jiā zhǎng, tóng xué men hǎo.) — Hello, parents and teachers.
Note that 各位 (gè wèi) needs to be followed by a human noun.
When you’re using 谁 (shéi):
The reason behind this one is unknown, but it might have to do with the fact that 谁 (shéi) means “who,” which refers to an individual rather than a group. Though, that’s just my guess.
When you’re using 这 (zhè) and 那 (nà):
这 (zhè) and 那 (nà) mean “this” and “that” respectively, and because there’s no uncertainty in the amount, both are followed by a measure word and a noun.
This/That + Any Measure Word + Noun
But the plural is where it gets a little weird. To say “these” and “those,” you’d say 这些 (zhè xiē) and 那些 (nà xiē) and then the noun, with no measure word in between. “These” and “those” are actually “this” or “that” combined with 一些 (yī xiē), which you may recall means “a few.”
So what we’re really seeing are the shortened versions of 这一些 (zhè yī xiē) and 那一些 (nà yī xiē), with the rough translation being “a few of this” and “a few of that.” It makes sense that an ambiguous plural would be needed to describe a vague quantity.
This/That + 些 (xiē) + Noun
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples to compare “this” and “these,” or 这 (zhè) and 这些 (zhè xiē):
你在哪里买这本书？(nǐ zài nǎ lǐ mǎi zhè běn shū?) — Where did you buy this book?
你在哪里买这些书？ (nǐ zài nǎ lǐ mǎi zhè xiē shū?) — Where did you buy these books?
Now for “that” and “those,” or 那 (nà) and 那些 (nàxiē):
她要买那辆车。 (tā yāo mǎi nà liàng chē.) — She wants to buy that car.
她要买那些车。 (tā yāo mǎi nà xiē chē.) — She wants to buy those cars.
It took a while to get through the grammatical constructions of plurals, but we made it! It helps to go in-depth with these little rules. And knowing which measure word goes with which noun totally shows how much of a language pro you are, compared to your peers who are still is using 个 (ge) for everything.