Saturday, September 29, 2012

Measure words are totally not that bad

We now come to reason #471 that Mandarin is impossible to learn: measure words.

What are measure words?

You can think of measure words as putting units on the nouns you're talking about. English uses them sometimes too- for example, you have a bowl of soup, a pair of pants, a slab of concrete, a cup of coffee, a piece of paper, a bouquet of flowers.

But the difference is that in Chinese, every noun has a measure word that's supposed to go with it.

Here are the common ones I can think of offhand:

个 (gè) - The most common measure word (absolutely no question about this). I would guess that 70% of the time you use a measure word, you use 个.
本 (běn) - for books
只 (zhǐ) - for many kinds of animals- dogs, cats, lions, monkeys, etc etc.
张 (zhāng) - for large, flat things- a piece of paper, a photo, a table, a bed
条 (tiáo) - for long things- pants, fish, roads

All of these things are measured in 条. Images from: here, here, and here.

But actually, you don't need measure words as much as you might think.

Chinese grammar is incredibly different than English grammar. The best way I can describe it is this: In Chinese you need way less words than you'd think.

Chinese doesn't have a direct translation for "the" and "a". A lot of times you don't need to put a "the" or "a" in front of a noun- you just say the noun. It's simple.

I learned the word 书 (shū), which means book, pretty early in my Chinese 101 class. We did not learn the measure word for books, 本 (běn), until maybe a year later. Why? Because you can totally talk about books in a way that's grammatically correct without ever needing the measure word.

Seriously. Chinese is easy. Or incredibly confusing. Take your pick.

Okay, when DO I use measure words then?

You definitely need them if you're counting. You can ask someone how many 本 (běn) of books they have, and they would answer 1 本 (běn), 2 本 (běn), etc. (Which just means 1 book, 2 books, etc.)

Or if you point at something and say "this one" and "that one", the word "one" gets translated as the measure word for that object. Again, with the books example and the most literal translation possible, someone could say "Bring me my Chinese book" (no 本 (běn) required in this sentence) and the other person could ask "Is it this 本 (běn)?" (Meaning, "Is it this one?")

(I'm sorry if this is incredibly convoluted and confusing. Please ask for clarification! I feel like I have a really unique perspective on this, since my first language is English, and I hope it means I can explain Chinese grammar to English-speaking people effectively. But sometimes I don't remember what it's like to not know any Chinese.)

Sometimes it's very very important to get the measure word right.

Now you might be thinking, "Okay, if 1 本 (běn) of books just means 1 book... basically every measure word just means you have 1 of those things, whatever the thing may be, so what does it matter? They all mean the same thing."

Yes, this is true. Most of them don't have a super-special meaning which requires you to pick out the correct measure word. That's why you can always use 个 (gè), if you don't know the "right" measure word, and it'll be fine. It's not grammatically right, but everyone knows what you're saying. See, the measure words are not such a huge obstacle.

However, sometimes the measure word does have a certain meaning, or a certain subtle "feel" to it.

For example, you'd normally use 个 (gè) when talking about people. There are 3 个 (gè) of people in my lab. (Meaning, there are 3 people in my lab.)

But if you are being a little bit more formal/polite, you use 位 (wèi). When you arrive at a restaurant, the waiter might ask you how many 位 (wèi) of people are in your group. (Meaning, how many people are in your group?)

And if you're asking someone about their family, you often ask how many 口 (kǒu) of people are in their family. 口 (kǒu) literally means mouth. (Yes, it is a box. It looks like a mouth. Chinese characters really do make a lot of sense.) In other words, how many mouths to feed?

And sometimes, using different measure words gives a slightly different meaning. For example, 课 (kè) means class. There are 2 different measure words associated with 课 (kè), and they have different meanings. One 节课 (jié kè) is one class session. One 门课 (mén kè) is the course itself, which lasts for the whole semester. So you might ask someone how many 节课 (jié kè) they have on a particular day, and how many 门课 (mén kè) they have in a particular semester. Your question will be interpreted slightly differently depending on which measure word you use.

And sometimes the measure word has a very specific, concrete meaning- it literally is the units on the noun. For example, a 分钟 (fēn zhōng) is a minute, and a 秒钟 (miǎo zhōng) is a second. 分 (fēn) and 秒 (miǎo) are both measure words (钟 (zhōng) means... uh... clock? Something related to time? It's hard to translate...), and they both translate perfectly into the English words "minute" and "second".

(Though I need to throw in the caveat that 分 (fēn) has some other meanings too... Translation is hard, guys.)


Measure words are nothing to be scared of. You actually don't need them as much as one might imagine, because Chinese grammar is simpler than English. Also, when in doubt, just use 个 (gè) and everyone understands what you mean, no problem.

But when you start to learn the nuances of the different measure words, the slight (or big) differences in meaning, it's fascinating. Measure words are not a barrier towards speaking and understanding Chinese- they are just one of many eye-opening ways that Chinese is different than English. As a beginner, you can use 个 (gè) and there's no barrier in understanding, but as you learn more and more, it will feel more natural to use the correct measure words.

I love how different languages have wildly different structures, different ways of thinking, different feelings. It's awesome and mind-blowing that Chinese grammar can be so completely different from English. The differences do not make foreign languages impossible- they make them irresistible.

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  1. Nice article! I think it should also be mentioned that measure words make it easier to distinguish homonyms or near-homonyms. Some monosyllabic words are easier to pick out if the measure word is right. For instance, if you say 一個床 and 一個船, it might be slightly unclear, but if you say 一張床 and 一艘船, there is no room at all for misinterpretation.

  2. Thanks! And that's a good point I hadn't realized- measure words give some context so you can distinguish between homonyms. Thanks for mentioning that. ^_^