What are Chinese measure words?

October 01, 2022

Let’s say you have guests over. To make them more comfortable, you may offer them a piece of cake or a cup of coffee. In doing so, you may not even realize that you have used measure words, a particularly sneaky Chinese grammar feature and the guest star of our article.

Of course, measure words in English aren’t nearly as important as measure words in Chinese. What’s more, measure words aren’t nearly as prolific in English as they are Chinese.

So let’s check out the essential Chinese measure words and how they work.

What are Chinese measure words?

As a grammar point, “measure words” are also sometimes called “classifiers” or “count words”. In Chinese, they are referred to as 量词 liàngcí.

In any language, measure words are what help you specify how many of a noun you are talking about. (In our example above, the words “piece” and “cup” are measure words.) Measure words can also highlight different qualities about the noun. They may refer to the shape of a noun, or the type of container the noun comes in, etc.

In Chinese, this is especially true. Chinese measure words may refer to the shape, the features, the category, or the type of container of a noun. They also might be arbitrary. In Chinese, you may also be able to use different measure words for a particular noun, depending on what feature you hope to emphasize.

Here are some different ways measure words help us clarify our meaning:

  • Describing types of things:
    Ex: 位 wèi, for people, animals, vehicles, etc.
    Ex: 只 zhī, for birds and other certain animals
    Ex: 辆 liàng, for vehicles like buses and cars
  • Describing a noun’s features, like prominent attributes or aspects about the noun):
    Ex: 把 , for things with a handle, or that can be held in your hand
  • Describing shapes:
    See 支 zhī as an example
  • Describing containers:
    Ex: 杯 bēi, for cups or glasses
  • Describing units of a noun:
    Ex: 元 yuán / 块 kuài, for money

In all cases, though, measure words help you distinguish which noun (and how many of that noun) you are speaking about.

Why does Chinese have measure words?

Chinese measure words have a few important jobs.

The first is one we have already discussed: they help to quantify nouns. Do you have a piece of chocolate, or a box of chocolates? Is there a drop of water or a cup of it?

The next is to help clarify which noun you are talking about. Think of it this way: In Chinese, a language where there are so many homophones, measure words are your way of clearing things up! This may be particularly helpful for Chinese learners. While your tones may not always be precise, by pairing the noun with the Chinese measure word, it will be clearer what you are talking about.

The third is one most of us wouldn’t think much about: Chinese measure words are a linguistic way of organizing and categorizing nouns. Let’s say you see that the measure word for a pencil (笔 ) is 支 zhī. You then see that 支 zhī is the measure word for long, thin, inflexible objects. Great! So when you come across an arrow (箭 jiàn), you could (correctly) assume that 支 zhī was the right measure word to use. The categories that Chinese measure words create are a useful yet often ignored aspect of Chinese learning that can really come in handy.

Does English have measure words?

Of course! As we explored before, English has measure words that come naturally to native English speakers.

Take a look at these examples:

We have three loaves of bread in the cupboard.

In this sentence, “loaves” helps to clarify how much bread we have. Rather than saying “slices” or “pieces” of bread, we are saying we have entire “loaves” of bread available. This is important information, especially if someone is asking whether they should buy more!

I would love a bottle of juice.

Here again, “bottle” is a measure word that helps clarify the quantity. We don’t want a “cup” of juice, nor do we want a “sip” or “glass”. We want a bottle, which helps the person you are speaking to understand what you want.

However, in each of these examples, we needn’t be so specific. In English, measure words aren’t always necessary. We could easily say “We have bread,” or we can swap the measure word out for a demonstrative pronoun to say “I want that juice.”

Sometimes, though, a noun does need its measure word. “He bought three pants,” doesn’t sound correct, but “He bought three pairs of pants” does.

So indeed, English has measure words, but they aren’t always essential.

This isn’t the case in Chinese, though. The 量词 liàngcí are always required. You don’t get to skip the measure word - if you do, or if you use the wrong one, your grammar is wrong. And while native Chinese speakers may still understand you, it won’t be as clear or as easily understood.

So it’s worth taking some time to learn Chinese measure words alongside each new noun you learn.

This is easier said than done, though, when you realize just how many Chinese measure words there are.

How many Chinese measure words are there?

There are close to 200 Chinese measure words in total.

Lucky for us, only around 100 are frequently used in everyday conversation. This sounds like a daunting amount, especially if you intend to sit and memorize each one.

However, there are better ways to learn Chinese measure words:

  1. Connect nouns to their measure words right away. When you pick up a new word in your textbook, or in a conversation with a friend, look up the measure word along with the definition. Let them come as a set right from the start.
  2. Take some time to learn what the measure word itself means. If you do, the categories we discussed earlier will help you bundle nouns together under the “measure word” umbrella.
  3. Use them in the context of your daily life to help them sink in. The more you use measure words with their nouns, the more natural the pairing will sound to you. Soon, you won’t even have to think about it.

Before we can implement these tips, though, we need to know how to use Chinese measure words. Let’s dive in.

How to use Chinese measure words

At its most simple, this is how you use Chinese measure words in a sentence:

Number + Measure Word + Noun

Ex: 三瓶水
sān píng shuǐ
three bottles of water

Simple, right?

However, let’s look at a more complex sentence structure that will allow us to tackle more complex statements:

Demonstrative + Number + Measure Word + Adjective + Noun

Ex: 那四辆蓝色汽车
nà sì liàng lánsè qìchē
those four blue cars

Remember: When you are using the number 2 in these sentences, you won’t say 二 èr, you will say 两 liǎng.

Most of the time, it really is this simple. What’s tricky is remembering which measure words go with which nouns. It is also important to remember that some nouns have multiple measure words. In those cases, the measure word is often determined by which quality in the noun the speaker wishes to emphasize. For example, 花 huā (flower), could be paired with 支 zhī, as it has a long, thin, possibly inflexible stem. It could also be paired with 束 shù, if you were talking about a bundle or bouquet of flowers.

The reduplication of Chinese measure words

Sometimes, you will see Chinese measure words duplicated in a sentence.

For example, there are sentences in which the measure word is repeated twice.

AA + Noun

In these cases, we are emphasizing “each and every one” of the noun.

Tāmen chǎng chǎng bǐsài dōu shū le.
They lost every game.

In this sentence, it’s not just that they lost the games, it’s that they lost every single game.

Sometimes, this duplication also includes 一 .

一 AA + Noun

Tā páshān le yí zuò zuò shān.
She hiked through mountain after mountain.

In this case, we still want to emphasize every mountain, but this time it’s each mountain that came in a sequence. First, she hiked one mountain, and then she hiked the next, and the next… This grammar structure is really useful for items that can be thought of as coming one after another.

This final example is also used for sequential examples.

一 A 一 A + Noun

However, here we are emphasizing the idea of “one by one”.

Xuéshēngmen yígè yígè de jìn le jiàoshì.
The students entered the classroom one by one.

Now that we know how to use Chinese measure words, we’re ready to start learning them.

50 of the Most Common Chinese Measure Words

To jumpstart your Chinese measure word vocabulary, we have 50 of the most common listed below. But before we get too far into the list, we need to discuss the single most common Chinese measure word there is:

This Chinese measure word is most commonly used for people or for abstract objects. However, this generic measure word can technically be used for almost any noun. And for a lot of Chinese learners, this means 个 becomes the go-to for when they forget the correct measure word.

While that works well enough and most native speakers will understand what you mean, it’s not a habit you want to get into. Once you start relying too heavily on 个 as a measure word for everything in Chinese, it’s hard to replace it with the proper measure word in your mind.

Anyway, on with the list!

1. 个 people; abstract items
yī gè háizi
a child

2. 位 wèi people
yī wèi nánshì
a gentleman

3. 只 zhī certain animals (birds and cats, etc) and one of a pair
liǎng zhī māo
two cats

4. 头 tóu for certain domestic animals (cattle and pigs, etc.)
liǎng tóu luózi
two mules

5. 条 tiáo long thin things (road, ribbon, trousers, etc)
liǎng tiáo tuǐ
two legs

6. 双 shuāng things that are in pairs (shoes, socks, chopsticks, etc)
yī shuāng kuàizi
a pair of chopsticks

7. 张 zhāng sheets, flat objects, and certain body parts
sì zhāng zhàopiàn
four photos

8. 本 běn books and book-like texts that are bound
yī běn rìjì
a diary

9. 把 things with handles or bunches of things
yī bǎ jiǎndāo
a pair of scissors

10. 件 jiàn clothes, events and things
yī jiàn bāo yóu
one piece of free shipping

11. 辆 liàng vehicles
yī liàng chūzū chē
a taxi

12. 家 jiā businesses and families
yī jiā fàndiàn
a restaurant

13. 杯 bēi certain containers that hold liquids 一杯咖啡
yī bēi kāfēi
a cup of coffee

14. 瓶 píng larger containers that hold liquids
yī píng hóngjiǔ
a bottle of red wine

15. 份 fèn copies (of documents, newspapers, etc) or a portion of something
yī fèn kānwù
a publication

16. 棵 plants
sān kē shù
three trees

17. 扇 shàn windows and doors
liǎng shàn chuānghù
two windows

18. 台 tái computers and machines
yī tái bīngxiāng
a refrigerator

19. 碗 wǎn bowl of food or drink
yī wǎn chǎo mǐfàn
a bowl of fried rice

20. 种 zhǒng kinds, types, and sorts of things
zhè zhǒng wùpǐn
this type of item

21. 包 bāo things in bags, packages, bundles
yī bāo bǐnggān
a pack of cookies

22. 对 duì pairs of things
yī duì ěrhuán
a pair of earrings

23. 套 tào sets; collections
yī tào yóupiào
a set of stamps

24. 口 kǒu things with mouths (ie: wells, domestic animals, people, cannons)
yī kǒu jǐng
a well

25. 轮 lún recurring events (rounds, turns, matches); large, round objects (ie: sun, moon) 两轮谈判
liǎng lún tánpàn
two rounds of negotiations

26. 匹 rolls of cloth; horses, mules
sān pǐ chóuzi
three rolls of silk

27. 项 xiàng items, projects, tasks, proposals (itemized things)
yī xiàng hétóng
a contract

28. 名 míng people
wǔ míng huàjiā
five painters

29. 句 written sentences (poems, lyrics, etc.)
shí jù shī
ten lines (of poetry)

30. 段 duàn sections of something long (ie: a story, time, thread, roads)
yī duàn xiàn
a line

31. 片 piàn pieces of things (ie: slices, tablets); areas of land and water
yī piàn cǎodì
a meadow

32. 座 zuò large, immoveable objects (ie: mountains, buildings)
liǎng zuò huǒshān
two volcanoes

33. 部 films; literature; machines
yī bù cídiǎn
a dictionary

34. 层 céng layers, tiers, floors
sì céng tǔ
four layers of soil

35. 样 yàng kind; type; pattern
wǔ yàng cài
five types of dishes

36. 群 qún groups, herds, flocks, or packs of people or animals
yīqún láng
a pack of wolves

37. 间 jiān rooms; sections of rooms or houses
yī jiàn kètīng
a living room

38. 所 suǒ small buildings; houses; institutions
yī suǒ bówùguǎn
a museum

39. 盒 things that come in a small box or case
yī hé qiǎokèlì
a box of chocolates

40. 栋 dòng buildings
yī dòng píngfáng
a bungalow

41. 束 shù bundles; bunches; beams of light
yī shù xiānhuā
a bouquet/bundle of fresh flowers

42. 朵 duǒ flowers; clouds
liù duǒ yún
six clouds

43. 排 pái things that can be lined up or put in a row
sì pái shù
four rows of trees

44. 卷 juàn small things that can be rolled up
yī juàn jiāojuǎn
a roll of film

45. 堂 táng lectures, classes
liǎng táng kè
two classes

46. 串 chuàn items that come in clusters or bunches; a string of things
yī chuàn zhēnzhū
a string of pearls

47. 滴 drops
一滴汗 yī dī hàn
a drop of sweat

48. 箱 xiāng for cases of things; large boxes; trunks
bā xiāng shū
eight boxes of books

49. 粒 small, round things (ie: pills, grains, peas) 一粒葡萄
yī lì pútáo
a grape

50. 场 cháng recreational activities (ie: films, events, shows, sports)
yī chǎng diànyǐng
a movie

Phew! Now you know 50 of the most common Chinese measure words! With that, you’re well on your way to mastering all the Chinese measure words. Soon enough, they’ll flow as fluently as they do in your native language.

About the Author

Alexandra Sieh became fascinated by the Chinese language (and especially its written characters) during her 6+ years living and traveling in China.

Alexandra Sieh cultureyard author