How to Use Measuring Words in Mandarin Chinese

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What is a Measuring Word?
A measuring word is a classifier used in between a quantity and a noun. In Chinese, a measuring word is always placed in between a quantity and a noun. Notice the word order is a quantity at first, a measuring word at second and then a noun at last.

Uncountable Nouns
Take “three sheets of paper” as an example, in Chinese it is called 三张纸 [ sān zhāng zhǐ ], [ sān ] means three, 张[ zhāng ] is the measuring word which translates to “sheet” and 纸 [zhǐ] means paper. So now you know that it’s the same in both Chinese and English, You need to use measuring words for uncountable nouns to let people know the quantity involved.

Countable Nouns
In Chinese, we also use a measuring word for countable nouns. Take “three books” as an example. When expressing this in Chinese, it becomes 三本书 [sān běn shū]. [sān] means three, [běn] is the measuring word that has a similar meaning to “volume” and [shū] means book. It’s like saying “three volumes of books” in English. While we don’t have to say that in English, but in Chinese you do. With the same structure as an uncountable noun, the measuring word [běn] is in between the quantity “three” and the noun “book”. Again, measuring words are needed for uncountable nouns.

When to Use a Measuring Word?
Whenever a noun is presented with a quantity, it requires a measuring word. Now you may think each measuring word may contribute some kind of meaning to a noun. The answer is – not really. Most measuring words don’t have a specific meaning so don’t worry too much about using the wrong measuring word and Chinese people have made certain measuring words replaceable for one another. They make the rules flexible because there are more than 60 of them for both countable and uncountable nouns.

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Measuring Words

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English Meaning Pinyin Chinese Characters
a measuring word liàng cí 量词
three pieces of paper sān zhāng zhǐ 三张纸
three volumes of book sān běn shū 三本书