Chinese has measure (or count) words like “个” (一个人), “部” (三部车), etc.

These always get me confused, and there way too many of them. Are there any general rules that can help me memorize them?

Also, I've been told it's generally acceptable to use the general count word "个" for everything, although it makes it more clear that you don't know Chinese. Is that true?

  • I heard that many younger people in China are using in place of the formal measure words nowadays – Cocowalla Dec 14 '11 at 8:12
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    Isn't it 一辆车 for cars? – dr Hannibal Lecter Dec 17 '11 at 17:28
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    @drHannibalLecter, is a more formal and old-style count word for – NS.X. Jun 24 '12 at 19:06
  • @stumpy-joe-pete did a great job in summarizing the list of measure words in chinese. But this is a language sense as ns-x said, native children learn this by trial and error. – leesei Sep 5 '13 at 4:51
  • 台 can also be used as a measure word for 車. – leesei Sep 5 '13 at 4:52
up vote 9 down vote accepted

There is no strict rule, it's more like a convention. English uses similar measure words, too. For example, you say “A bowl of rice” = 一 饭, or “A pair of glasses” = 一 眼镜.

Here is a very useful Wikipedia article that outlines the measure words in Chinese.

You can use 个 in most cases, but it would be a bit weird in some cases. For example, you would say 一 水 (a glass of water) instead of 一

  • “個”通常用在可數名詞,“水”不可數,所以必需用容器做單位。 – user-487 Nov 28 '16 at 20:36

Here has been my (I think successful) strategy:

  • Use measure words for mass nouns accurately. This is exactly like English:

    一杯水 = a cup of water

    一瓶可乐 = a bottle of cola

    一斤青菜 = a half-kilo of cabbage

    You really have to use these in all languages, because you can refer to really different quantities depending on the measure word (a tank of water vs a drop of water).

  • Learn the measure words that are based on shape. This is really different from English, but in spite of being challenging, they're rather important. Chinese people use them relatively consistently and might have trouble understanding you if you don't use them properly (or at least will find it annoying if you don't). Also, they're not that hard to learn, and you quickly develop an intuition for what kind of objects take what kind of measure words:

    条 -- long, thin, windy things

    一条路 = a road

    一条裤子 = a pair of pants

    一条蛇 = a snake

    支 and 根 -- stick-like things, generally stubbier than 条 things, and not flexible

    一支笔 = a pen

    一根香烟 = a cigarette

    一根灯管 = a fluorescent tube (lightbulb)

    张 -- flat, broad, thin things

    一张桌子 = a table

    一张纸 = a sheet of paper

    一张光盘 = a DVD (or CD)

    颗 -- pebbly, kernely, small-and-round things

    一颗牙齿 = a tooth

    一颗星 = a star

    一颗心 = a heart

  • Use for everything else until you've been corrected a few times. There are a lot of weird measure words that are only ever used with one or two nouns. Even a lot of Chinese people use in those circumstances. There's no point learning these if you don't have to, so let experience be your guide for which other measure words to learn.

EDIT: Just to be clear, I'm not advocating only learning 4 measure words. I just think that the less common ones should be learned through real life experience rather than memorizing word lists. Also, I should point out that sometimes different measure words can be used on the same noun, but they mean different things. When confusion arises, learn the distinction:

一门课

A subject or course (as in "I have 3 classes this semester")

一次课

A meeting-time or occurrence of class (as in "When's the next class? Next Monday.")

一节课/一堂课

Classes often have a 10 minute break in the middle. The first and second halves can be referred to this way. ("When does the next section start? In 15 minutes.") I think that 节 and 堂 sometimes overlap with the meaning of 次 when they're not being used contrastively. Correct me if I'm wrong.

  • 2
    For the long fluorescent kind of light, "灯管" would be used instead of "灯泡" – fefe Jun 26 '12 at 1:42
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    @fefe Fixed. Also, you can just edit posts directly when you see errors. – Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 26 '12 at 10:55

Measure words is a feature in modern chinese. I think you have to learn and use repeatedly to memorize them. Pratice makes perfect, right? Actually, there are many cases. "个“ is very common, but it doesn't cover all the cases. Below are some examples: 一幅画(a picture) 一张纸(a piece of paper) 一眼泉(a spring) 一棵树(a tree) 一条鱼(a fish) 一匹马(a horse) 一只猫(a cat)

Notice the last three phrase, even the nouns are animals, different measure word should be used.

As far as I know there is no exact rule, it will depend on the object itself.

From the top of my head you will say 一根筷子,一根头发, with 根, which here is used for a long and thin object (like for a chopstick or hair).

You can find other similarities like this, but I am afraid there isn't "one ring to rule them all", you will have to learn them little by little.

About the usage of 个, it is mostly OK to use it in spoken Chinese — more and more Chinese tend to use it in speech.

Learning measure/count words in Chinese is like learning prepositions in English. There are only some basic rules then you're on your "language sense".

I recommend memorizing the measure words by incorporating them into your study of vocabulary from the get-go.

As an analogy: When studying English, one should not memorize "reflect" but instead "to reflect on sth."

A good start are the measure words on this page: http://blogs.transparent.com/chinese/10-must-know-chinese-measure-words/

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