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I've noticed that many Chinese people would use 个(個)instead of the proper classifier for many situations in daily conversations (e.g. 一个歌, rather than 一首歌).

Based on my current knowledge, 个(個)may be used in daily conversations occasionally for simplicity. However, are there any contexts where using 个(個)would be odd/improper? In business meetings, academic conferences, or when speaking to academics/professors, or even in certain situations in daily life, for example.

Thank you! Please feel free to include any literature on this or a similar topic, if available.

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  • The example you gave is ungrammatical and very odd in mandarin. Where did you hear it?
    – lilysirius
    Feb 2 at 11:24
  • @lilysirius I heard it from my Guangzhou and Inner Mongolia Chinese friends
    – user31137
    Feb 2 at 11:37
  • That's very weird. I've never heard of it except for 歌x, e.g. 一个歌手/歌名 etc. Or with the same sound 一个哥 as in 我有一个哥. There's indeed a song named 唱一个歌儿也不会. But it's an old ballad. The choice of 个 may be for melodic reasons, and the 儿 also makes it less awkward. No idea how Cantonese differs, though.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 2 at 11:51
  • @lilysirius Cantonese don't say 一个歌. we say 一枝歌 or 一首歌. In summary-- just don't say 一个歌
    – Tang Ho
    Feb 2 at 22:42

3 Answers 3

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Much of Chinese grammar is for emphasis. If you emphasize that the number of songs is 1 instead of 2 or 3, you cannot use “个” - you must use fixed collocation quantifiers such as “首” or “支”. But if the emphasis is on other content, you can use “个”.

For example:

"I want to sing a song" In this case you emphasize that you WANT TO SING. You can say “我想唱一个歌”

"I want to sing only one song, not more" In this case you emphasize the number of songs you want to sing is ONLY ONE. You must say “我想唱一首歌”. Using “个” here is odd.

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  • I have also heard that 个 can be appropriate when you are casually listing or naming a bunch of random items, in shopping basket, for instance. In that case, I suppose the 个 is a special classifier for "random item." Feb 3 at 16:00
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Yes, informally 一个歌 could be used instead of the formal 一首歌. For instance, a friend asks another "唱個歌來助興吧", and a customer asks the waitperson "放個音樂來聽聽吧". Though the scholars may correct the sentences to "唱首(支/隻)歌來助興吧" and "放首(支/隻)音樂來聽聽吧".

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    "唱個歌來助興吧" is a usage derived from 物量词 (noun classifier) 个 but becomes something different. Here is a particle used between verb and noun for a light-hearted mood. Note that 一 is not used here. Other times it can be viewed as a 动量词 (verb classifier), meaning do the action (verb) one time; 一 is optionally omitted. For example, 我跟她见了个面. On the other hand, in "唱首(支/隻)歌來助興吧", 首(支/隻) is a 物量词, 一 is optionally omitted. Thus in the strict 物量+歌 sense, 一个歌 is not accepted.
    – lilysirius
    Feb 2 at 16:25
  • @lilysirius It is not rare to hear "她點了一個歌助興" in conservation. It may not be acceptable by the language purist, but understandable and acceptable in casual conversation.
    – r13
    Feb 2 at 17:00
  • I also think it's acceptable in this sentence, but this is not because 一個歌 is a strict 物量+名 structure, it's because the V+个+N usage. Using 一 here is ok though not standard. A test to avoid confusion with this usage is to come up with a sentence with 一個歌 at the subject position to see whether it's correct. For example, what do you think of the sentence ”一个歌就足够了。“ ?
    – lilysirius
    Feb 2 at 17:06
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Just like the words flock, group or herd in English, they sometime only apply to certain type of objects or animals. 个(個) indeed is not appropriate to certain objects but in general is an "okay" classifier to everything. And unfortunately you have to memorize all the exceptions and better yet to know the right classifier to all objects. Let me try to give you some examples. (Actually I tried to go through every Chinese classifier and replace it with 个(個) to see whether it becomes awkward.)

  • Never heard of it (You collect frowns from audiences.)
    Firstly 个(個) is not used on uncountable objects like water, air, fire, time, etc... And then very weird if using...
    十個頭髮 => 十根頭髮
    兩個山 => 兩座山 (Landscapes like river, mountain has dedicated classifier.)
    六個水 => 六滴水 (in this case water is illustrated as droplets.)
    三個飯 => 三碗飯, 三次飯, 三頓飯 (three bowls of rice, three times of eating or three meals. Depending on your context.)

  • Relative safe but better with proper classifiers
    兩個魚 => 兩條魚 (Sea animals prefer 条(條))
    三個貓 => 三隻貓 (Land animals prefer 只(隻), large ones even use 头(頭). But never use 三頭貓、三頭老鼠)
    四個歌、四個詩 => 四首歌、四首詩
    一個光芒 => 一道光芒
    Frankly young Chinese also start to forget dedicated classifiers and just use 个(個). Learning every usage of them definitely makes you more blend-in.

To encourage you to feel the beauty of Chinese words. Some classifiers below would bring people images or feeling when they are seen.
把: 一把槍,一把傘,一把米。Something you can grasp by hand and even to demonstrate the meaning of "handful."
片: 一片麵包、餅乾,一片大海。Brings images of flat objects, or broad and spreading circumstances.
顆: 一顆糖果,一顆水果,一顆球,一顆心。Discrete and usually round objects.
朵: 一朵花,一朵雲,朵朵浪花。Almost only used on flowers, clouds in oral conversation.

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