Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Measure Words Part One: Introduction

The Chinese have a far more complex system of measure words than we do in English.  In English we use universal terms like "a", "an" and "the" most of the time.  We do occasionally use more specific measure words like "flock" (a flock of geese) and "set" (a set of dishes), but we don't use them often and they are usually only used in reference to groups of things rather than singular objects.

In the Chinese language, unlike English, there are measure words for almost everything.  While the Chinese do have a general measure word "ge" (个), which is useful if you don't know the correct measure word to use in a given situation, almost every type of object or creature has its own specific measure word, and if you want to speak Chinese fluently, you'll need to learn these words.

Typically, a measure word comes after the numeral or other quantifier (one, two, this, that, etc.), so a noun with its measure word looks like this:

a puppy  yìzhī xiǎogǒu    一只小狗

In the phrase above, "yìzhī" could be translated "a".  "yìzhī" is composed of "yì" which is the word for "one" and "zhī", which is a measure word used for certain animals including puppies.

In this series of posts, we'll learn measure words that correspond with vocabulary for upcoming posts.  Future vocabulary words in other posts will now also include measure words which will be linked to the appropriate post from this series which explains the usage of those measure words.  The easiest way to learn measure words is to simply learn them as part of vocabulary words rather than treating them like separate words.

What follows is our first set of measure words with explanations as to their usage:

1.  ge - a general measure word to use if the correct measure word is unknown; this measure word is also used for people

2.  kuài - for things shaped like sheets; things that come in chunks or solid pieces; slices, sections, divisions, etc. of things (i.e. a slice of cake, etc.)

3.  zhǎn - for lamps

4.  tái  - for stage performances, machines, equipment, etc.

5.  zhāng - for flat things like paper, paintings, tables, maps, etc.

6.  bǎ - for objects with a handle or with something a person can hold; for things that can be grouped in bunches or bundles.

Feel free to leave questions or comments below. 

Don't forget to check out this week's interactive vocabulary list.

For more help pronouncing Mandarin words, click here.

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