Secret of Measure Words – Do I Really Need to use them Every Time?

All Chinese students are eventually introduced to a special kind of word in Chinese called a measure word. Measure words are added between numbers and nouns in order to appropriately describe something. Initially, measure words may seem daunting, however, English does this as well – “A glass of milk”, “A carton of eggs”, “A pair of shoes”. All Chinese learners understand the importance of measure words, however if you were to come to China and talk with Chinese people, you would find that in certain situations many people don’t use measure words. Here are two exceptions where you people drop the measure word:

1. When the number is one and the measure word is 个 (gè).
All foreigners learning Chinese know that 个 (gè) is the most commonly used measure word in Chinese (and almost 100% of Chinese learners use it when they forget the correct measure word). But when the number before it is one, then 个 (gè) would not be the indispensable word any more. Let’s take an example.

nà li yǒu yī gè bēizi.

那里有一个杯子。There is a cup.

nà li yǒu yī bēizi.

那里有一杯子。There is a cup.

These two sentences practically have the same meaning apart from the second one sounding more casual than the first one.

2. When you use 俩 (liǎ, two) or 仨 (sā, three).

You hear these two words all the time in China. The reason that you can drop the measure word when using them is actually quite simple; they are the combination of the number and measure word. In Chinese, 俩 (liǎ) = 两 (liǎng) + 个 (gè) = two of something, 仨 (sā) = 三 (sān) + 个(gè) = three of something. So when you use 俩 (liǎ) or 仨 (sā) before nouns, the measure word 个 (gè) is dropped. Still, only 个 (gè) can be omitted under this case. For example,

wǒ yǒu liǎ mèimei.

我有俩妹妹。I have two younger sisters.

tā yǒu sā shǒujī.

他有仨手机。He has three cell phones.

As convenient as this is, one through three are special cases.There are no such words used for four, five, six… So, everyone will have to face the fact that describing anything larger than three requires a measure word.

It is worth learning these two rules because it will make your Chinese sound more authentic even if there is no measure word in the sentence. Now you know that the number one, two and three are special in Chinese, and that you can drop the measure word 个 (gè) if you know when to do so.