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I recall in Mandarin class, my teacher would often discuss an idea about countable nouns. I never really understood how one would easily determine when one is faced with a countable vs uncountable noun. So I did a bit of research and found this site. I am now trying to verify that the situation works in a similar fashion in Mandarin and more importantly I am interested in one or two Chinese examples:

uncountable-vs-countable

Finally and most importantly, is this idea of countable nouns intertwined with measure words? If so, how?

UPDATE:

So I did a bit more research and ran across an italki discussion where chinese speakers said this does not exist because everything is countable in Chinese. However a search revealed these samples. At this point I don't know who is correct but more insight would be helpful. Did the wiki have it wrong or is the concept mentioned something other than what I've indicated in the title.

wiki-uncountable-nouns

UPDATE 2:

So, in order to reconcile the apparent differences I did some more research and found the following information. The presence of quantifiers, seem to me, to relate closely to the idea of measure-words, which, I believe is the point my teacher was trying to convey.

theory

UPDATE 3:

Just to clarify. I accept the solution offered however this site still indicates some exception to the rule.

(countable) time; a measurement of a quantity of time; a numerical indication of a length of time

exception

Chinese Grammar Info reports on the relationship between measure-words and nouns:

measure-words

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Contrary to what you believe about the site you linked, 时间 has a measure word. It is 段, though 时间 usually occurs without measure word. Basically any noun can occur without a measure word. You can say "我怕蛇/I fear snakes." But 蛇/snake still has a measure word (条). –  Colin McLarty Aug 26 at 17:55
    
That site is entirely veracious. But it does not offer a counterexample to what 倪阔乐 and sotondolphin say in their answers. The site notes you can think of time as passing, or as extended, or as counted by units. It is not about any claimed distinction of count nouns from others in Chinese. Glad to be of service. –  Colin McLarty Aug 26 at 20:49
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You may find this answer to this other question helpful as well: chinese.stackexchange.com/a/3664/166 –  Claw Aug 27 at 16:51
    
@Claw - That was helpful. Added to my notebook. –  Tommie C. Aug 27 at 16:57

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I think it is a terribly bad idea learning Mandarin by trying to map grammar from Western languages onto it.

There is no such thing as countable nouns in Chinese, precisely because nouns do not have plurals.

Conversely, you can make any noun ”countable” by adding a classifier to it: 你要一杯咖啡吗?

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Chinese doesn't distinguish countable or uncountable. We have unit word in front of almost every noun.

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Because you used the word "almost", I guess there may be some exceptions to the rule. If you know of any that would be helpful please feel free to share in your answer. –  Tommie C. Aug 26 at 16:52
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Some nouns are their own measure words, such as 年. From here: "It took the old artists an entire year to finish the series of sculptures." → "老艺术家们花了整整 一年 时间完成了组雕。" –  WChargin Aug 26 at 18:08

The other answers are absolutely correct – it’s not smart to talk about countable and uncountable nouns in Chinese. However, like many languages, Chinese does have words that express abstract concepts or that are somehow inherently plural. How are these dealt with in a system where everything must be counted/measured? Here’s how one grammar explains it.

Yip and Rimmington’s grammar makes a distinction between classifiers and measure words. The former are used with common nouns like


學生
電影 →

一把刀
一個學生
三部電影

The English equivalents of common nouns don’t need any measure – we just say ‘a knife’, ‘three movies’ etc. So the classifier seems arbitrary from the point of view of an English native speaker.

The latter (measure words) are used with several other types of noun, which in English would likely be uncountable. Like in English, to count them they need to be measured, so a measure word of some sort (grouping, dividing, packaging etc) is used. First with material nouns:


空氣 →

三瓶水
一口空氣

Chinese also has collective nouns, of which there are two types:

a. combinations of related words like 父母 ‘parents’

b. combinations of noun plus measure, like 車輛 ‘vehicles’

Those in (a) are not counted as individual items, but can taking grouping or other measure words: 一對父母 ‘one set of parents’

Those in (b) are counted by moving the measure word in the second position to the front: 一輛車 ‘one vehicle/car’

Finally, there are abstract nouns like 影響 ‘influence’ or 真理 ‘truth’. These are countable only using the generic 個 or with a ‘type’ measure word like 種 .

那個真理 ‘that truth’

這種影響 ‘this type of influence’

Just to recap, common nouns are like English countable nouns, and (unlike English) they take classifiers. Material, collective and abstract nouns often correspond to English uncountable nouns. They can take counting words too, but some grammarians refer to these as measure words to distinguish them from classifiers.

Another distinction is that material and abstract nouns can be used with 一點 ‘a little’, but common nouns can’t, taking 幾個 or 一些 ‘a few/some’ instead. Notice that there is a parallel here with English countable/uncountable nouns.

I don’t think it would be a good idea to teach Chinese noun usage to beginners this way – it’s much easier to understand when you lump classifiers and measure words together. But if you want to analyze the grammar and see how Chinese handles concepts that aren’t easily counted, you can look at things this way.

Source: Yip and Rimmington, Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar, pp. 1-6.

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Maybe not good for bare beginners. But this could be helpful pretty early on. It clarifies the common question about whether English has some classifiers, like "a glass" of water. On this analysis English obviously has measure words but does not have classifiers. –  Colin McLarty Aug 27 at 13:10

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