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I think I have seen a scene like this several times in (Taiwanese) TV dramas:

You are talking with someone when your phone rings. You say to that person 我接個電話 and go on to answer the phone.

I might be thinking too much but this 個 sounds a bit odd to me. It sounds to me like saying “I will take a phone call” when the other person knows perfectly well what phone call you are talking about because the phone is ringing now. In contrast, 我打個電話 would sound natural to me (if said when the phone is not ringing).

I suppose it sounds totally natural to native speakers. I would like to understand why, or when, you would choose to add 個 here. Is it for suggesting it’s just one call and you won’t be long, for example? Would the sentence sound equally natural without 個?

4 Answers 4

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The occasions to say 讓我接個電話 and 讓我接電話 are quite different.

You say the former when you are in a room with others and your phone rings, 讓我接個電話 = "Allows me to take the/a phone call". Then, you say the latter when your young sibling has already jumped ahead to answer the phone, 讓我接電話 = "Give it to me, it's my call":) Hope you see the differences.

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  • Does this mean for the unqualified 電話 to be understood as referring to one specific phone call, rather than phone calls in general, the situation must be such that people’s attention is keenly focused on that phone call as in your scenario with a younger sibling, and the phone just ringing is not enough?
    – aguijonazo
    Mar 31, 2023 at 5:40
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    Yes, it is quite specific about taking/making a phone call.
    – r13
    Mar 31, 2023 at 15:31
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In the situation that you are talking with someone when your phone rings, saying that 我接個電話 = Excuse me, let me take a phone call.

Many textbooks say that 個 (个) equals the English indefinite article "a". For example, 请给我个苹果 = please give me an apple.

But in Chinese, the usage of 個 (个)does not have the same rules as "a" in English. 個 (个)is used very flexibly, especially in informal dialogues. In many cases, it just expresses a mood or tone such as "taking it easy", "just a moment", or "it is a minor thing". For example,

我们去看电影吧?= What about going to a movie theater?

我去买菜,一会儿就回来。= I go out to buy some vegetables and will be back soon.

我就是开玩笑。= It is just a joke.

In those examples, 個 (个) is not a classifier or measuring word, and it does not always mean "一个"。

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    Yes, I hear this often in phrases like 我吃個飯,我上個廁所,我睡個午覺...
    – Curiosity
    Apr 1, 2023 at 5:47
  • When studying English, I noticed how especially American speakers are very particular about some words & specific grammar in certain situations. For example, in a lot of languages you can say "she was nice" and everbody is fine. In America, if you say "she was nice" she has to be known to be dead, otherwise the police are coming for you, since you are suddenly a murder suspect.
    – Akito
    Apr 2, 2023 at 19:48
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    The reason I asked was because I thought an English speaker would say something like “I have to take this” referring to the specific phone call that is causing the phone ring. I suppose the Chinese is more like saying “(Excuse me, I have to hold our conversation here because) I am going to do the act of answering a phone call” in general terms without specifying what phone call it is. Come to think of it, it would sound completely natural in my language (Japanese). I somehow let my brain influenced by the English way of saying things.
    – aguijonazo
    Apr 3, 2023 at 10:07
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"我接個電話" (I'll take a phone call) is normal, You need the classifier 個 to indicate it is a single phone call.

"我接電話" (I'll take phone call) is weird. Sounds like you just take up the duty of answering the phone from now on)

Similarly, the difference between 我去接電話(I'll go answering phone call) and 我去接個電話 (I'll go answering a phone call) is the latter affirms it is a single call

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  • Do you mean 我去接電話 is as weird for the same reason, or does 去 make it natural enough (perhaps because it puts focus on the current specific instance) except it doesn’t specify the number of phone calls? Moreover, would 我(去)打電話 also sound like the speaker is going to take on the duty of making phone calls?
    – aguijonazo
    Mar 31, 2023 at 5:31
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    Yes, 去 make it natural enough. 我(去)打電話 can be one phone call or any number more of it; meanwhile, 我(去)打 (個) 電話 affirms it is one phone call
    – Tang Ho
    Mar 31, 2023 at 5:48
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It is actually out of courtesy.

Why most Chinese speakers will say "我接個電話", instead of "我去接電話" which syntactically is also correct?

Saying "我接個電話" actually implies that the disruptions of the current conversation by that phone call has an (expected reasonable) end (worth noting, it is not a promise or pledge to comeback to this conversation, rather it's a courtesy to imply I'm not leaving this conversation because I want to spend my time with something more fun).
The form "我去接電話" often sounds harsh in daily conversation, as it implies a "I'm abandoning you and go to talk to someone on the phone that I have no plan to end..." As a matter of fact, you might hear sometimes people will say it this way, to subtly imply that they do not enjoy the current conversation (i.e. argument between couples), and they'd rather go to talk to someone else on the phone, and not looking forward to come back to this conversation.

Think about this way, if you say "I'll answer phone calls", it sounds odd, right? "我去接電話" sounds somewhat similar to that.

more details:... First of all, we need to clarify, in Chinese language, there is no "count Nouns .vs. noncount Nounc" concept.

All nouns in Chinese language are noncount. To count anything, you will need to add the "quantity qualifier". i.e. a horse is called 壹匹馬, where the character 匹 is the "unit of measure for horse" (it can be used to measure textile too, but that's for another day).

So, back to 個. it is the most common unit of measure word. Majority of the English count nouns would be translated to using 個 as the quantity word. Which you mentioned you feel comfortable with "make a phone call" as 打個電話。 BUT, what's often missed, is actually the article "a" means "one", but if 個 is a unit of measure, that doesn't add up, right?

That's right. From a completely formal syntax perspective, "an apple" should be translated to "壹個苹果", so "an" is translated to "壹個". It's just in common daily Chinese speaking, the character 壹 are often omitted.

When you say "I ate an apple", it is translated to "我吃了個苹果”, and if you say "I ate five apples", it is translated to "我吃了五個苹果“. As you can see, the character 個 did not disappear as the article "an" in the five apples case, and it is worth noting that 個 is not really a perfect mapping to the English article "a", instead, the better mapping from "a" to Chinese is actually the character "壹" in ""壹個", which is often omitted in spoken Chinese. This omission in Chinese, combined with the vast common usage of article in English made it harder to translate from one to another language with perfect precision.

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  • My first language is Japanese and I'm familiar with measure words. In fact, 個 is the most generic measure word in Japanese, too, but it's used only when you are specifically counting things and 一 is never omitted. What you explained in the first part is new to me. I think I get the nuance now. Thanks.
    – aguijonazo
    Apr 1, 2023 at 22:26

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