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Measure word

Measure words are used in combination with a number to indicate the count of mass nouns. For example:

  • five head of cattle
  • three cups of coffee
  • four kernels of corn, three ears of corn, two bushels of corn

Measure words often classify the noun they are used with and so are known as classifiers. Measure words are in contrast to the case of using the number as an adjective to modify the noun which is to be counted:

  • four pencils

Some languages such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai use measure words as the standard way of indicating the count of the number of items, rather than, as in English, allowing numbers to count a noun directly.

In Mandarin Chinese, classifiers are used when enumerating a count noun:

Chinese pinyin Word-by-word translation Precise translation
他有三双筷子。 Ta1 you3 san1 shuang1 kuai4 zi. He have three pair chopsticks. He has three pairs of chopsticks.
你有没有七张桌子? Ni3 you3 mei you3 qi1 zhang1 zhuo1 zi? You have-not-have seven [classifier] table? Do you have seven tables?

In contrast to the above examples from English, Chinese classifiers are obligatory with all count nouns. The classifier assigned to a noun often has an imagistic association with that object. Thus, 'zhang1' has 'table' as one of its meanings, and is used for large and thin objects. (Though uncommon, it is even possible to omit the noun if the choice of classifier makes the intended noun obvious.) Not all classifier words derive from nouns. For example, the word ba3 means "to grab", and is used for objects that have handles.

In Japanese grammar, most nouns are effectively mass nouns, and measure words must be used with a number when counting them. The appropriate measure word is chosen based on the kind and shape of the noun

  • Enpitsu go hon (literally, "pencils five cylindical-things") : five pencils
  • Inu san biki ( "dogs three animal-things") : three dogs
  • Kodomo yo nin ( "children four people-things") : four children
  • Niwatori san wa ( "chickens three bird-things") : three chickens
  • yotto san sou ( "yachts three boat-things") : three yachts
  • kuruma ichi dai ( "car one mechanical-thing") : one car
  • torampu ni mai ( "playing cards two flat-things") : two cards

English also features some cases where the number and the measure word are combined as a single word: for example, when counting

  • golfers: twosome, threesome, foursome...
  • musicians: solo, duet, trio, quartet...
  • wombmates: twins, triplets, quadruplets...

See Grammar



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