Measure word

From Academic Kids

Measure words, in linguistics, are words (or morphemes) that are used in combination with a numeral to indicate the count of nouns. Measure words often classify the noun they modify into some semantic class and consequently measure words are considered a kind of classifier, closely akin to grammatical gender. They are also known as counters.

Measure words are part of the grammar of many Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malay and Thai.


Measure words in English

In contrast to Asian languages and others, measure words are not grammatical in the case of Indo-European languages including English. English does have a distinction between mass nouns and count nouns, and employs a small number of fixed words that can be considered semantically-oriented counters. Consider the following:

  • five head of cattle (said by ranchers)
  • ten stem of roses (said by florists)
  • three pair of pants (or pairs)

Note that the preceding measure words are singular in form. If they were plural, the first two phrases would have different meanings.

Most measure words in English are more accurately called units of measurement. They are normal count nouns, not grammatical particles. A measure word is the only way to quantify a mass noun:

  • three cups of coffee
  • four kernels of corn, three ears of corn, two bushels of corn
  • one litre of water

A water or a corn (taken in the sense of grain) do not make sense and are almost never heard.

With count nouns, however, measure words are unnecessary. A number alone can be used as an adjective to modify the noun to be counted:

  • four pencils
  • three horses

English also features some cases in which 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 also collective noun for a concept related to measure words that is found in English.

Asian Languages

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


Main article: Chinese measure words

In Mandarin, nouns are not conjugated for singular or plural numerus; a noun without a classifier can be translated as either singular or plural. Classifiers are used when enumerating a count noun:

Chinese Literal translation Grammatically correct translation

Tā yǒu sān shuāng kuaìzi.

He have three pair chopstick. He has three pairs of chopsticks.

Nǐ yǒu méi yǒu qī zhāng zhuōzi?

You have-not-have seven [flat-thing classifier] table? Do you have seven tables?
yī ge rén
one [general classifier] person one person or a person

In contrast to the above examples from English, Chinese measure words are obligatory with enumeration of all count nouns; "yī rén" in modern Chinese is grammatically incorrect. The choice of a classifier for each noun is a matter of grammar, is somewhat arbitrary, and must be memorized by learners of Chinese. The classifier assigned to a noun often has an imagistic association with that object. Thus, zhāng 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 can also be a verb meaning to grab, and is the measure word for objects that have handles.


Main article: Japanese measure words

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, and combines with the numeral, sometimes adopting several different forms. This is similar to noun classes in many African languages, except that the classifiers are used only when counting.

Japanese English, literal English
enpitsu go-hon
pencil five cylindrical-things five pencils
inu san-biki
dog three animal-things three dogs
kodomo yo-nin
child four people-things four children
niwatori san-wa
chicken three bird-things three chickens
yotto san-sou
yacht three boat-things three yachts
kuruma ichi-dai
car one mechanical-thing one car
toranpu ni-mai
playing card two flat-things two cards

See also



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