Measure Words in Mandarin Chinese

Group of GT cars driving at speed on a wet road
我有三輛車 / 我有三辆车 translates to "I have three cars" using the measure word for car: 輛 (traditional form) / 辆 (simplified form). Martyn Goddard/Getty Images

Measure words are very important in Chinese grammar as they are needed before every noun. There are more than a hundred Mandarin Chinese measure words, and the only way to learn them is by memorizing them. Whenever you learn a new noun, you should also learn its measure word. Here is a list of the most commonly used measure words in Chinese to kick start your growing vocabulary.

What Is a Measure Word?

Measure words are familiar to English-speakers as a way to classify the type of object being discussed. For example, you would say a “loaf” of bread or a “stick” of gum. Mandarin Chinese also uses measure words for types of objects, but there are many more measure in Chinese. Measure words in Chinese can refer to the shape of the object, the type of container it comes in, or are simply arbitrary.

The main difference between English (and other Western languages) and Mandarin Chinese is that Mandarin Chinese requires a measure word for every noun. In English we can say, “three cars,” but in Mandarin Chinese, we need to say “three (measure word) cars.” For example, the measure word for car is 輛 (traditional form) / 辆 (simplified form) and the character for ​"car" is 車 / 车. Thus, you would say 我有三輛車 / 我有三辆车, which translates to "I have three cars."

Generic Measure Word

There is one “generic” measure word which can be used when the actual measure word is not known. The measure word 個 / 个 (gè) is a measure word for people, but it is frequently used for many types of things. The "generic" measure word can be used when referring to items like apples, bread, and light bulbs even when there are other, more appropriate measure words for these objects.

Common Measure Words

Here are some of the most common measure words encountered by students of Mandarin Chinese.

Class Measure Word (pinyin) Measure word (traditional Chinese Characters) Measure word (simplified Chinese Characters)
People gè or wèi 個 or 位 个 or 位
Books běn
Vehicles liàng
Portions fèn
flat objects (tables, paper) zhāng
Long round objects (pens, pencils) zhī
Letters and Mail fēng
Rooms jiān
Clothing Jiàn or tào 件 or 套 件 or 套
Written Sentences
Trees
Bottles píng
periodicals
Doors and windows shàn
Buildings dòng
Heavy objects (machines and appliances) tái