Chapter 8: Chinese Classifiers
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.
The number 2 in the phrase 2 dollars, 2 dimes (20 cents) or 2 cents may be either 二 èr or 两 liǎng.
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.
If the classiﬁer is absent, the number 2 can only be represented as 二 èr and not as 两liǎng.
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