Chapter 8: Chinese Classifiers


Chinese Grammar  Updated: Sat, Oct 20, 2012 20:18 PM   By HugChina


A classifier is a word that occurs between the specifier and/or number and the noun. In Chinese, all nouns occur with classifiers when they are preceded by a specifier and/or number. And all Chinese classifiers occur between a specifier or number and a noun.

1. The structure of phrases involving classifiers

A classifier is a word that occurs between the specifier and/or number and the noun. In Chinese, a classifier always occurs between a specifier or number and a noun in this order:


Specifier and/or number + classifier + noun forms a noun phrase.


1) Classifiers are sometimes referred to as ‘measure words.’

2) In English, mass nouns such as ‘coffee’ and ‘rice’ and ‘sand’ occur with classifiers. In Chinese, all nouns occur with classifiers when they are preceded by a specifier and/or number.

Here are examples of noun phrases with specifiers, numbers, classifiers, and nouns. The classifier is emphasized in each example. The classifier is often omitted when a Mandarin noun phrase is translated into English.

Specifier+classifier+noun:这个人 this person;那个学校 that school

Number+classifier+noun:三本书 three books;三杯咖啡 three cups of coffee

Specifier+number+classifier+noun:这两碗饭 these two bowls of rice; 那三本书 those three books

2. Choosing the classifier

2.1 Nouns and associated classifiers

Most nouns are associated with a particular classifier. Classifiers are often not predict- able from the noun so they must be memorized. Some dictionaries indicate the classifier associated with a noun.

Noun Classifier Noun phrase
书 book 本 volume 三本书 three books
纸 paper 张 sheet 一张纸 one piece of paper
房子 house 栋 building 一栋房子 one house
猫 cat 只 classifer for animals 两只猫 two cats
车 car 辆classifer for cars 三辆车 three cars
椅子 chair 把classifer for things with handles 一把椅子 one chair
桌子 table 张 sheet 那张桌子 that table
照片 photograph 张 sheet 这张照片 this photograph
电影 movie 部 classifier for film 一部电影 one movie
衣服 clothing 件classifier for items 这件衣服 this article of clothing
树 tree 棵 classifier for trees 一棵树 a tree
人 person 个 classifier for people and many other nouns 一个人 one person


位wèi is a polite classifier for people. When it is used, the noun typically does not occur: 一位:one person; 两位:two people

2.2 Classifiers that indicate a property of the noun

Some classifiers indicate a property of the noun. These classifiers are often translated into English:

Shape of noun 张 a flat sheet 一张纸 a sheet of paper
The shape of the container of the noun 杯 cup 一杯茶 a cup of tea
The weight of the noun 斤 0.5 kilograms 一斤苹果 1/2 kilo of apples
The value of the noun 毛 dime 一毛钱 a dime’s worth of money

Different classifiers may be used to describe a noun in different ways.

Noun Classifier Noun phrase
饭 rice 碗 bowl 一碗饭 one bowl of rice
饭 rice 斤 1/2 kilo 两斤饭 one kilo of rice
面包 bread 条 slice/piece 一条面包 a slice of bread
水 water 瓶 bottle 一瓶水 a bottle of water
水 water 壶 pot/vase 一壶水 a pot/vase of water
花 flower 瓶 bottle 一瓶花 a vase of flowers
花 flower 束 bouquet 一束花 a bouquet of flowers

2.3 个 gè, the general classifier

The most commonly used classifier is个gè. It is used with many different nouns including people and things. It does not contribute any meaning to the noun phrase in which it occurs. It is generally pronounced with neutral tone.

一个人, yí gè rén, a person

一个问题,yí gè wèntí,a problem/a question

一个东西,yí gè dōngxi,a thing (a physical object)

In mainland China, in informal speech, 个gè can be used as the classifier for almost any noun, even those with an established classifier. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as 个化 gè huà ‘ge-ization.’

一个车(compare with 一辆车), a car

一个房子(compare with 一栋房子), a house

3. Omission of the head noun

In modern Mandarin, if a noun phrase includes a specifier and/or a number, the classifier may not be omitted. However, the head noun may be omitted from the noun phrase.

Say this Not this
三本书 [or] 三本 three books [or] three 三书
那个学校 [or] 那个 that school [or] that one 那学校

4. Classifiers that occur without a noun

The words for day and year are classifiers. They may be preceded by a number, and they are never followed by a noun.

天 day 一天 one day 两天 two days
年 year 一年 one year 两年 two years

5. Money and prices

In Chinese, money and prices are expressed as noun phrases. The units of money, dollars, dimes, and cents, are expressed by classifiers. The word for money, 钱 qián, sometimes occurs at the end of the noun phrase.

In informal and spoken contexts, the classifiers for money are as follows:

块 kuài dollar

毛 máo dime

分 fēn cent

分fēn represents 1 cent to 9 cents. Multiples of 10 cents are represented by máo.

五块三毛八分钱= $5.38


The number 2 in the phrase 2 dollars, 2 dimes (20 cents) or 2 cents may be either 二 èr or 两 liǎng.

三块四毛二分钱= 三块四毛两分钱=$3.42

The noun 钱 qián ‘money’ need not occur in a money phrase. If it is absent, the classifier that immediately precedes it may also be absent.

四十八块九毛六= $48.96

If the classifier is absent, the number 2 can only be represented as 二 èr and not as 两liǎng.

三块四毛二= $3.42

Chinese also has the following formal written classifiers for dollars and dimes.

元 yuán dollar;角 jiǎo dime

These are the classifiers used on currency and in formal financial transactions.

For the formal characters for numbers, see Chapter 6

When 元 yuán and 角 jiǎo are used, the noun 钱qián does not occur in the money phrase. 元 yuán and 角 jiǎo are often not used together in the same price. jiǎo tends to occur only when the denomination is smaller than one 元yuán.

$3.00 三元;$.60 六角

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