measure words

cover of Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and OrthographyToday’s selection from the rules on how to write Pinyin deals with measure words (800 KB PDF).

Measure words are a pet peeve of many beginning Mandarin students. (“But teacher, why can’t we just use ge for everything?”) Many more advanced students, however, get a sort of perverse pleasure out of memorizing them. If you fall into the latter group, be sure to go through the PDF linked to above, as it supplies more than 100 measure words, along with sample usages.

Fortunately, although measure words themselves can be a real pain for non-native speakers to memorize, the rules for writing them are simple: in almost all cases they’re separate.

  • y? b?i chá (a cup of tea)
  • y? b?n sh? (a book)
  • y? ji?n fángzi (a house)
  • y? kuài qián (one yuan / one NT dollar)
  • y? liàng zìxíngch? (a bicycle)
  • y? piàn miànb?o (a slice of bread)
  • y? píng ji? (a bottle of wine)
  • y? tóu shu?niú (a water buffalo)
  • y? zh?ng zh? (a sheet of paper)
  • y? zh? g?nb? (a fountain pen)

I have some friends who are good at Pinyin who say that yi ge (but not liang ge, san ge, etc.) is an exception, that it should be written solid: yige. But I have yet to see this stated in the rules; and from what I’ve seen Yin Binyong writes them separate just like everything else. Of course, it’s possible I’ve overlooked something.

Slightly trickier are indefinite measure words.

There are only two indefinite measure words in Putonghua: xi? ? (some; a few) and di?nr ?? [or just plain ol’ di?n ?] (a little, a bit).

xi? ? indicates a fairly large number or amount. It can follow the numeral y? ? (one), a demonstrative pronoun zhè ? (this) or ? (that), or certain other modifiers. It is written as one unit with the component it follows:

  • y?xi? ?? (some);
  • zhèxi? ?? (these);
  • nàxi? ?? (those);
  • h?oxi? ?? (a lot of).

di?nr ?? indicates a small number or amount. It can follow the numeral y? ? (one), a demonstrative pronoun zhè ? (this) or ? (that), or certain other modifiers. It is written as one unit with the component it follows:

  • y?di?nr ??? (a bit, a little);
  • zhèdi?nr ??? (this bit, these few);
  • nàdi?nr ??? (that bit, those few).

When xi? or di?nr are preceded by a verb, however, they are written separately from it:

  • ch? xi? d?ngxi ???? (eat something);
  • xi? xi? wénzh?ng ???? (do some writing);
  • ch? di?nr d?ngxi ????? (eat a little something);
  • xi? di?nr wénzh?ng ????? (do a little writing).

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