Measure words can be tricky in Mandarin Chinese because of the large amount of variation depending on what object is being discussed. This should not be a surprise to English-speakers, as measure words are common as well. Similar to in English, when we say “a piece of cake”, or “a stick of gum”, Mandarin Chinese has many measure words for types of objects.
The biggest difference with measure words in English versus Mandarin Chinese is that in Chinese each noun will require a measure word. For example, in English, we can simply say “five birds.” In Chinese, we would need to say “five (measure word) birds.”
Mandarin Chinese also includes measure words that speak to the shape of the object and sometimes measure words are simply arbitrary and you must just know them.
Below are some common measure words in Mandarin Chinese that you should familiarize yourself with when you begin studying:
This is a generic measure word that you can use in place of measure words that you do not know. Examples for “个 gè” include: 三个人 sān gèrén (three people), 一个苹果 yīgè píngguǒ (one apple).
This is a measure word that is used to describe any sort of room, from bedrooms to classrooms. For example: 一间客房 yī jiàn kèfáng (one guest room), 四间教室 sì jiān jiàoshì (four classrooms).
“棵 kē” is used when when talking about plants or trees. You would say “三棵树 sān kē shù
” when talking about three trees.
When you are talking about pairs of things, the measure word “双 shuāng” is used. So four pairs of shoes would be “四双鞋 sì shuāng xié” and one pair of chopsticks is “一双筷子 yīshuāng kuàizi”.
To talk about pieces of paper, or anything flat, you will use “张”. This can be tricky because nouns such as paper, bed, and tickets all fall into this category. Examples include: 两张票 liǎng zhāng piào (two tickets), 一张床 yī zhāng chuáng (one bed), and 三张纸 sān zhāng zhǐ (three sheets of paper).
This measure word is used to refer to twig-like objects or long objects such as pens and pencils. You would say “一支铅笔 yī zhī qiānbǐ” for “one pencil”.
Another common measure word that you will see describing animals or if you are talking about one of a pair is “只 zhī”. Note that this is pronounced “zhī” and not “zhǐ” like in other contexts. Examples include: 两只鸡 liǎng zhī jī (two chickens), 一只鞋 yī zhǐ xié (one shoe).
As you can see, these can begin to get extremely complicated as there are so many different characters for various categories. Due to the fact that every Chinese noun needs a measure word, you can imagine how hard it is to learn more than a hundred Mandarin Chinese measure words.
The good thing is if you do make a mistake, people will still understand what you are talking about. The more you practice, the more each measure word will stick with the noun. Make sure when you learn a new noun to automatically connect it with its measure word.