Mandarin Grammar Lesson 7
Measure Words & Specifiers













a couple



Grammar Description


Specifiers are a class of words which modify a noun, giving details as to which particular object or objects are being referred to.  In English specifiers are a sub-class of a part of speech called "determiners."  these includes "a", "an", "the", "this", "that", "these", "those", all the number words, and possessive pronouns.  Chinese uses almost the exact same divisions as English.  In addition to those listed above, specifiers include all numbers and arguably all nouns and pronouns.

Measure Words

Measure words are a Chinese part of speech. They are also referred to as "classifiers" because they classify nouns into various groupings. Measure words are always used when counting or specifying nouns.  Each measure word refers to a particular class of objects- from such broad categories as people, animals, and flat surfaced objects to such specific things as gold fish.

English has similar words used with prepositions to measure things. "A cup of water", "two boxes of chocolates", "that flock of sheep", "every set of clothes" are examples. In Chinese, however, all nouns must have a measure word when they are being specified or counted. A good English word that can be used to describe measure words is "unit." "go" could be thought of as "a unit of people", "jek" can be "an animal unit of cats", "\jeung\" can be "a flat surface object unit of tables", etc.

Thinking of measure words this way is useful, but is not a precise description. In English the main noun of the phrase would be the unit word ("cup", "flock", "unit") and the thing being measured would describe the unit. In Cantonese, however, the thing being measured is the main noun and the measure and determiner modify the object.

Measure Words

Measure Word


General Description

Example Nouns


people/general measure


animals, body parts, misc.


objects with flat surfaces


items measurable in volumes


long, skinny objects


stick-like objects


rooms, spaces


items that come in pieces (large), matters




slices of things


pieces of things (small)


grains, pellets of things


cups of things


boxes of things


bottles of things


cans of things


a matched pair of things


{plural marker}

Measure Words in Use

The most obvious use of measure words is in counting or specifying nouns.  Where in English we only need a specifier to say "a car", "3 cars", "that car", "each car", etc., Chinese requires a specifier and a measure word.

Specifier + Measure Word            

Also note that the plural marker xie1 些 is used to specify an unknown quantity.  It generally cannot be used with a specific number or with mei3 since it specifies "each and all."  The exception of yi1 "1", which is a special case where the contrast is used no mean "one or more."

Reduplication can refer to all existing objects of a type, or to all objects in a particular context.

Notes and Additional Uses

  • There are many more measure words than those listed here.  This is not intended to be a comprehensive list.  Some measure words are only used for one or two nouns.  It is suggested that you learn the proper measure word for an object when first learning that object as a new vocabulary word.

  • If an object is already understood by speaker and hearer it can be replaced by a specifier and measure word.  The measure word acts much like a pronoun.  For example, if two people are using different colored pens one could say to the other "gei3 wo3 na4 zhi1" ("give me that") instead of "gei3 wo3 na4 zhi1 bi3" ("give me that pen") and it would be grammatically correct.

  • Some measure words act as both nouns and measure words.  In such cases they can usually be measured in turn by the general measure word "ge4", although it is not required.  For example, the command "give me that cup" can be expressed either "gei3 wo3 na4 ge4 bei1 zi".


  • Many items have more than one measure word (example: che1 車 can be measured by tai2 台 , bu4 部, or liang3 輛), and many measure words can be applied to almost any object (e.g. xie1, dui4, kuai4, and any of the container measures).

  • The "default" measure word is ge4 個.  Many words that have a more specific classifier can still use, ge4.  Often times native speakers will be casual/lazy and use ge4 instead of the correct classifier for less frequently used items, but that is not license to indiscriminately use ge4 in place of correct measure words.  A non-native may perceived to be making an error in places where a native is just using a more casual register.  One should only imitate native short-cuts if they appear to be consistent.

  • While you can generally state that a measure words has a certain description, it does not mean that all objects fitting that description can be measured by that measure word.  For example, "snake" and "dragon" are both animals, but they are not measured by the measure word for animals (zhi1 隻), instead they are measured by the measure word for "long, skinny objects" (tiao2 條).

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