Sometimes, when the English has an indefinite article ("a", "an"), the Chinese translation has a numeral ("一", yī). So, for example, "I want to buy a ticket" sounds like "I want to buy one ticket". Sometimes the article in Chinese is just dropped.

So, is there a distinction between a singular indefinite article and a unity numeral?

Is there a way to distinguish between a "vague" quantity (e.g.: "I want an ice cream", meaning that "I feel like having something fresh to heat") and an exact quantity (e.g.: "I want one ice cream", in the sense that "I want one and exactly one ice cream")?

When the article and/or the numeral should be omitted?


  • 2
    As far as I know, no. Note that there are similar problems in other languages where "a" could also be taken to mean "one" (e.g. French and German).
    – user5714
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 8:18
  • (I'm commenting since I'm on my phone, and since I've probably missed some of the nuances of your question. I'll write an answer later if I come up with something useful.)
    – user5714
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 8:20
  • As far as German is concerned, there is no separate "an ice cream" and "one ice cream", only "ein Eis" (meaning both).
    – imrek
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 9:12
  • 1
    @DrunkenMaster: yep, that was what I was thinking of: Chinese isn't the only language where something similar could happen.
    – user5714
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 16:42

3 Answers 3


I think ice cream is probably not the best example to demonstrate this, since it comes in many forms and some are counted as one ice cream (e.g. those that are attached to a stick), others as some ice cream (those that come in a huge platic box and you need to create portions and serve them to your family members). So I'll use a different example, something that is fully countable, 毛衣 (sweater or pullover).

If you want to say that you would like to buy a sweater, in Chinese you have three options.

  • 我想买毛衣。No classifier/measure word, no number, just the bare noun. In this case the number of the sweaters is fully indefinite.

  • 我想买件毛衣。No number, only the measure word + noun. Here 一 is dropped for the sake of brevity, but tacitly you always mean one item. This is the best way to use if you would like to say "a sweater".

  • 我想买一件毛衣。Number + measure word + noun. This corresponds the best to "one sweater".


There is a lot that could be said here, but the basic problem is that Chinese just doesn't have articles, either definite or indefinite. Chinese is not the only language like this. Japanese and Latin don't have articles either.

Here is the difference between English and Chinese in its simplest form:

  1. He is student. Not possible.
  2. He is a student. Possible

  3. 他是學生。 Possible

  4. 他是一個學生。 Possible

Is it possible to produce a BAD sentence like (1) in Chinese? No. So we can't really say that in Chinese sometimes the article is dropped. There is no article, so nothing has been dropped.

This is very confusing to English speakers. My solution is to give up. Don't ask why, just accept it, and don't use 一個 as a substitute for 'a'. Using your example:

  1. I want an ice-cream. (vague)
  2. I want one ice-cream (precise)

I don't think vague/precise captures all of the differences here, but let's be pragmatic:

  1. is what you say to a friend to suggest that you go into the ice-shop and buy something.
  2. is what you say to the guy at the counter.

How does this work in Chinese?

5' 我想吃冰淇淋.
6' 我要一個冰淇淋.

If you were to say 5' to the clerk, it would be a bit odd, I think. The clerk mumbles under his breath 廢話! 6' produces the desired result.

If you were to say 6' to your friend, not odd, perhaps, but on a bad day it is possible your friend would think you were trying to buy an ice cream from her (跟我要沒有用), or telling her to go get you one (自己去買吧!)

Pragmatics is thus very important in interpreting the lack or provision of a numeral in front of a noun. That's all there's room to write here.


The other answers have mostly covered the issue , but I wanted to give my take on it, particularly since I stated I would in the comments and since one of my ideas hasn't quite been covered.

Firstly, it's important to note that there isn't much of a direct, one-to-one correspondence between articles in English and "articles" in Chinese. There are a number of things that could be translated as articles, but this often depends on context. Moreover, there isn't a distinction between what could be construed as the indefinite article and the numeral use of 一. Note that this is similar to the case in some European languages. For example, Je voudrais un sandwich. in French translates to I would like a sandwich. However, since un is used (instead of, say, deux, which means two) it also indicates that the speaker wants one sandwich.

Similarly, in Chinese, if I say 我要一本书, I indicate that I need a book with the 一, probably in the sense that I'm only looking for a specific book. (I am saying "probably" because there are one or two cases I'm trying to sort out, but which I'm convinced are probably irrelevant here.) Further interpretation requires some context, so I'll move on to explain, since your second question will be addressed then anyway.

Partly to finish addressing means of distinguishing between indefinite articles and numeral use and partly to address your second question, I'll show that the implied meanings really depend on what you're trying to convey and the context. For example, let's look at the following):

  • No "article": e.g. 我想喝茶。

  • Some quantity specified / article present: e.g. 我想喝一杯茶。

We can see here that:

  • The first tends to address the general idea of drinking tea, whereas the second is more specific and suggests a specific quantity in mind (e.g. here, only one cup of tea). (See below for when this might not hold.) Thus, saying something like 我喜欢喝啤酒 would be correct, whereas 我喜欢喝一杯啤酒 would sound incorrect. This isn't as big a problem for other verbs and other scenarios, where more specification might be expected. (e.g. 我喜欢每个星期三去酒吧喝一杯啤酒 is fine, if only because there's a specific context stated.)

  • The first would be unsuitable for scenarios where a specific quantity might not be already implied. (If I say 我想买钢琴 to a seller, it might still be expected that I'm only buying one piano. However, if I said 我想买面包 to someone selling bread, it would be too vague, since it wouldn't be surprising for me to buy more than one piece/bag/loaf.) Conversely, saying that to my friend would be fine. (e.g. I can say something like 我去超级市场买面包 -- which is also a bit of a general statement -- instead of 我去超级市场买一袋面包, although the latter still works.)

  • Note: I'm not 100% sure about the grammaticality of some of my examples, but for the most part, the general idea should be fine.
    – user5714
    Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 21:01
  • 1
    @Starnutoditopo: those I am unaware of, although I might try looking into it once I'm less sleep-deprived anyway. However, I have seen 几 used where we might expect "some" or "a few" (e.g. see the examples here, in the cases where 几 isn't used in a question to mean "how much"). There are some more idiomatic expressions that might seem relevant (e.g. 我看了两三次, in the case of "I read it a couple of times"), but in these, the numerals only seem to appear in combination.
    – user5714
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 7:53
  • 1
    (Incidentally, I'm also unsure as to the exact usage of these expressions -- for instance, I've never heard them used for any numbers higher than 9, possibly because of how unwieldy it would sound -- and may ask a question later, depending on whether I have a satisfying solution by then.)
    – user5714
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 7:55
  • 1
    (Related to my previous comment) another example: "I'll be back in five minutes", where "five" means "few" Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 9:26
  • 1
    @Starnutoditopo: that's interesting to think about. I don't say "five minutes", but I often say "a minute" which well, can mean anything from less than a minute to 2-3 minutes, or "a few minutes". Some of it might be idiosyncratic, but that also reminds me of how imprecisely those more idiomatic expressions I mentioned seem to be. (Not sure if this is a result of my sketchy semi-native Chinese speaker abilities or not.)
    – user5714
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 18:56

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