#38 Learning Tip: Measure Words/量詞 (loeng6 ci4), Part 1 (English/粵)

Measure words (also referred to as "classifiers" in linguistics, or 量詞/loeng6 ci4) appear in multiple languages, but they have some special functions in Cantonese. Today we begin to discuss what to watch out for when studying or teaching them, as well as some of the ways that their usage differs between Cantonese and Mandarin. 


  1. 數量 sou3 loeng6 (N) amount, quantity

  2. 特性 dak6 sing3 (N) characteristic, feature

  3. 理解 lei5 gaai2 (N/V) comprehension; to understand

  4. 策略 caak3 loek6 (N) strategy

  5. 配搭 pui3 daap3 (N/V) match; to match

  6. caai1 (V) to guess (formal)

  7. gu2 (V) to guess (colloquial)

  8. 通用 tung1 jung6 (ADJ) common

  9. 廣泛 gwong2 faan6 (ADJ/ADV) broad; widely

  10. 自動 zi6 dung6 (ADV/ADJ) automatically; automatic

  11. 留心 lau4 sam1 (ADV/V) attentively; to pay attention

  12. 敏感 man5 gam2 (ADJ) sensitive

  13. 頻率 pan4 leot2 (N) frequency

  14. daam6 (C) mouthful

  15. 一路 jat1 lou6 (CONJ) at the same time, while

  16. 物件 mat6 gin2 (N) object

  17. 外貌 ngoi6 maau6 (N) appearance

  18. 大隻佬 daai6 zek3 lou2 (N) muscular man

  19. 器官 hei3 gun1 (N) organ

  20. 變化 bin3 faa3 (N) change

  21. 牌子 paai4 zi2 (N) brand

  22. 隨便 ceoi4 bin2 (ADJ/ADV) casual; casually

  23. 解答 gaai2 daap3 (V/N) to answer; answer

  24. 層次 cang4 ci3 (N) level

  25. 正式 zing3 sik1 (N/ADV) formal; officially

  26. 垃圾 laap6 saap3 (N) trash

  27. dam2 (V) to dispose, to throw away

ADJ - Adjective

ADV - Adverb

C - Classifier

CONJ - Conjunction

N - Noun

V - Verb


Cameron: So today, Raymond, we've got another explanation episode where we're going to tackle a topic that people have been asking us about. And I think it's one that's also very special to Cantonese, especially for people who maybe have backgrounds with Mandarin or maybe studying other Asian languages, because we're going to talk about measure words. Would you mind just quickly saying, what is a measure word in the first place?

Raymond: 噉呢個係一個好嘅問題嚟嘅。咁呀無論學生同埋老師呢都問到呢一個中文我哋叫量詞啦 measure words 直接翻譯。咁但係呢喺語言學上面呢都叫 classifiers, 噉意思即係話呢,我哋對於一啲名詞啦或者一部分嘅動詞呢,我哋要提到佢哋嘅數量1即係幾多嘅時候呢,我哋唔可以淨係話一個數字,跟住呢,講嗰個名詞或者動詞噉中間呢,我哋要加多一個字嘅。噉呀呢個我哋叫做 classifier 或者 measure words 呢,就係去描述1呢一個名詞或者動詞呢,佢本身一啲特性2噉樣個語法先啱嘅。

(Now this is a good question. No matter whether it’s students or teachers, they all ask about what we refer to as loeng6 ci4 in Chinese, which translates as “measure words.” But in linguistics, these are also referred to as “classifiers.” Its meaning refers to when we use nouns or certain verbs and also bring up the quantity, we can’t just use the number alone–between that and the noun or verb, we also need to add a word. That word is the “classifier” or “measure word,” and it is also a grammatical way to describe that noun or verb in terms of its characteristics.)

噉喺中文啦,無論係普通話啦、廣東話啦,我哋係需要噉樣去做。噉英文呢,就唔需要不必要,但係都有少量嘅例子。即係好簡單我哋呢喺廣東話嘅口語呢,我哋譬如要講一樣嘢喇,我哋唔可以話一人、一紙、三飯噉樣,前面呢嗰個名字仲要加多個字嘅,即係話一個人啦、一張紙啦、三碗飯啦、噉樣嗰個語法先至啱,我哋個理解3先至啱。噉呢個就同英文都幾唔同嘅。或者問返阿 Cameron 你學中文學廣東話又好,普通話又好,呢個對你嚟講係咪都係一個好大嘅困難嚟㗎? 

(In Chinese, whether it's Mandarin or Cantonese, we need to use measure words. This isn’t necessarily the case in English, though it does have some measure words. Simply put, in colloquial Cantonese, if we’re talking about one sort of thing, we can’t just say jat1 jan4 [one person], jat1 zi2 [one paper], saam1 faan6 [three meals/rice], we need to add a word in front of the noun, like jat1 go3 jan4, jat1 zoeng1 zi2, saam1 wun2 faan6, and then it is grammatical and we’ll understand it. This is a little different from English. But I’ll ask you, Cameron, you’ve studied Cantonese and Mandarin, is this something that is hard for you?

Cameron: So was it challenging for me studying measure words? I think in the very beginning, because it's not something that comes naturally as an English speaker. I think it's probably something that's most natural for Korean or Japanese speakers, because they also have something similar in their languages. So they're able to make the leap pretty well. But I think for English speakers, we do have some measure words, but it's not quite a habit for us.I remember in the beginning, I just think everything was 個, 個, 一個咩咩 [go3, go3, jat1 go3 me1 me1], because that's the first measure word we're taught. And it took a lot of time to sort of transition. But one thing I also did notice is I think people were very generous with me, and they still understood me if I used the incorrect measure word. But sometimes what I found really helpful speaking with native speakers is when they spoke back to me, they would use the correct measure word. 

The thing that helped me the most was just listening. And at the times when I knew I didn't know the right measure word, I would make a mistake or I'd use the default, but then I would learn from whatever the person I was speaking with used in return. So I think that was my biggest learning moment. It's still my biggest learning moment because there's always new measure words. And also I think there's sometimes small differences between Mandarin and Cantonese measure words. And as someone who learned Mandarin first, I tend to default to Mandarin. And I'll use Mandarin measure words sometimes, but I'll speak the Cantonese pronunciation, but then, you know, they're not always the same.

Raymond: 噉你啱啱都提到其實都係一個好好嘅策略4嚟嘅。因為呢啱啱都有提到呢啲量詞呢,嗰個難度就係差唔多每一個名詞,或者呢嗰啲動詞佢都有自己嘅量詞。噉所以呢嗰個配搭5呀你有時要諗呀、要6呀、要7呀。噉你啱啱提到一個策略喇,噉我哋有一個比較常用嘅、或者比較通用8、比較廣泛9嘅量詞就係「個」啦,無論係普通話定廣東話。總之你唔知嘅時候用個「個」字呢,噉我都會聽得明嘅,噉所以唔緊要。噉呀同埋你聽返對方如果佢係講廣東話嘅你聽吓佢可能會自動10改返個啱嘅量詞。噉呀所以呢大家都應該要留心11聽吓,如果講廣東話嘅人士、講粵語嘅人士佢哋用咩量詞呢,即係可能我哋都要敏感12啲,如果學粵語嘅時候我哋改返個啱就得喇。

(You brought up a very good strategy just now. As you just said regarding measure words, pretty much every single noun or verb has its own measure word, so when you try to think up what matches with it, there are times when you need to guess at it. You just brought up one strategy, which is that we have one measure word that is more commonplace or widespread in its usage–go3 [ge in Mandarin]–used in both Mandarin and Cantonese. If there is an instance where you don’t know the measure word and you use go3, I’ll still understand, so it’s not a big deal. And if the other party is speaking Cantonese, you can hear them automatically change the measure word–so everyone should pay attention to listening if they’re speaking to a Cantonese speaker, as they might be more sensitive to which measure word should be used. Then when we’re studying Cantonese, we can switch to the correct measure word.)

Cameron: I do have one question, though. You mentioned that they're mostly used with nouns, but they're sometimes used with verbs. Can you give an example of a verb that might use a measure word or a time we would use a measure word next to a verb?

Raymond: 嗰個動詞係少啲,噉呀都係一般係名詞啦。譬如我而家諗到嘅就係譬如你做一啲事情嘅次數,或者嗰個頻率13,例如話我做幾次呀、我食幾14呀。噉當然啦嗰個量詞呢個係擺咗喺個動詞後面嘅,噉但係佢哋都係有關係嘅。

(They are used less with verbs, most of the time they are used with nouns. But one example I can think of right now is frequency or rate, like when saying how many times I do something, how many mouthfuls I eat. But of course, there the measure word comes after the verb, but they are still interrelated.)

Cameron: Okay, so thinking about when we're talking about frequency or amount,

we put it on the other side of a verb. But when we're thinking about measure words related to nouns, as you said earlier, we would put it in front of the noun.

Raymond: 係喇。


Cameron: When students are learning measure words, what's the way you tackle that in the very beginning? What's the sort of, beyond just saying, "Okay, the default is 個 [go3]." What's the next thing you do in trying to broaden students' approach and learn more measure words?

Raymond: 我諗到兩點嘅,噉同埋呢我覺得量詞呢,無論係學生啦,其實老師都要注意。即係呢我哋學或者教呢個特別係粵語啦,廣東話中文呢,你學... 因為呢啲名詞好有關係啦,噉當你學呢個名詞嘅時候呢,我會建議啦你哋唔好淨係學嗰個名詞嗰樣嘢點樣講,而係學埋嗰個量詞係一齊學嘅。噉我舉個例喇好簡單,你啱啱學譬如我而家面前有杯,一杯水係咪?噉嗰個杯啦,英文係 “cup” 今日廣東話係杯。噉杯個量詞係咩呢?就唔係一個杯啦。噉不如我哋一路15傾吖我哋又一路考吓你啦。杯呢係一「咩」杯呀? 

(There are two points that I think of. And I think that with measure words, no matter whether you’re a student or a teacher, you need to pay attention to them. Particularly when we are teaching Cantonese, Cantonese Chinese, when you study… Because they’re closely related with nouns, when you study nouns, I suggest that you not just study the nouns but also study the measure words along with them. Let me give a simple example: let’s say you just studied what’s in front of you, a cup of water, right? In English, we call it a “cup,” and today in Cantonese we say it’s bui1. What’s the measure word? It’s not jat1 go3 bui1. How about we chat and test you at the same time. What is the word that goes between “one” and bui1?)

Cameron: This is a great question. What's the measure word for "杯" (bui1)? So when “杯" becomes the noun, but it's not being the measure word. And if it's not "個," (go3), "罐" (gun3)?

Raymond: 罐呀?噉呀罐唔係,罐係 "can"。嗰個係另外一個 container。我哋啱啱講中文啦,無論廣東話普通話一個最常用嘅量詞係「個」啦,但係呢我教廣東話嘅時候我先發現呢,原來廣東話仲有另外一個嘅量詞係用得好多嘅,甚至係比普通話多嘅,一個不規則形狀 irregular shape 嘅嘢或者物件16,你用咩量詞呀?你有冇學過呀? 

(Gun3? Not gun3, that means “can.” That is another container. We just said that in Chinese, no matter whether it’s Cantonese or Mandarin, the most common measure word is go3. But it was only when I taught Cantonese that I discovered that Cantonese has another measure word that is used a lot, even more so than in Mandarin, one for irregular shapes or things, do you know what it is? Have you studied it?)

Cameron: 唔係「隻」?

(It wouldn’t be zek3, would it?)

Raymond: 係喇,就係個「隻」字喇。一隻杯。嗰個隻字啦,喺廣東話係好好用嘅。噉我呢所以另外一個建議呢就係,如果你唔用「個」呢,你嘅第二選擇呢 second choice 用個隻字。點解呢?嗱我哋譬如講到啲容器啱啱嗰啲 containers 啦,一 隻杯啦、一隻碗啦、一隻... 仲有啲咩呢?即係嗰啲容器呢,一隻容器噉樣都可以。但係隻仲有好多用法喎,你有冇學過呀?例如仲可以一隻咩或者幾隻咩? 

(Yup, it’s zek3. Jat1 zek3 bui1. Cantonese uses zek3 a lot. So my other suggestion is that if you aren’t using go3, the second choice is to use zek3. Why? I just brought up containers, so jat1 zek3 bui1, jat1 zek3 wun2 [a bowl], jat1 zek3… what else? With containers, you can just use zek3. But zek3 has many uses, have you studied them? What else can you have jat1 zek3 of?

Cameron: 我覺得我自己經常諗到嘅就係動物。 

(I think what I usually imagine is animals.)

Raymond: 係啦,係啦。我諗小朋友好早就已經開始學一隻狗、一隻貓、一隻豬、一隻動物啦。因為動物都有好多唔同嘅形狀啦,或者唔同嘅外貌17啦。咁除咗動物之外,仲有好多嘢都可以用個隻字㗎喎。甚至係同普通話唔一樣,普通話係用得相對少啲嘅。 

(Yes, yes. Most kids learn early on about jat1 zek3 gau2 [one dog], jat1 zek3 maau1 [one cat], jat1 zek3 zyu1 [one pig], jat1 zek3 dung6 mat6 [one animal]. It’s because animals have all sorts of different shapes and outward appearances. So besides animals, there are many other things that go with zek3. It’s even different from Mandarin, as Mandarin uses it less.)

Cameron: So in Mandarin, "隻" is equivalent to "zhī." And that I use mostly with animals, when I'm thinking of Mandarin. But okay, what else in Cantonese besides containers and objects? We've got animals. I also think of it inside of compound nouns, like "大隻佬18." (daai6 zek3 lou2)

Raymond: 呀,係喎。

(Ah, yes.)

Cameron: I mean, it's a noun in its own right, but it's an adjective added to a measure word to a noun. And it creates "大隻佬."

Raymond: 差唔多喇,你已經有少少關係喇。同我哋人身體有關啦。 

(Basically, you’ve already found a connection of sorts. It has to do with human bodies.)

Cameron: Oh, like, oh, the "eye."Oh, nose. Oh, body parts. But so when we're not talking about, oh, that's, oh, so when it's not in the pair form, because I always think of thinking in terms of pairs of eyes. But if I want to talk about one eye, would I use "隻?" Ah…

Raymond: 係呀身體嘅部位啦,甚至你嘅器官19啦都係呀,隻眼呀、鼻呀、耳仔呀、一隻耳仔、兩隻耳仔呀、手呀、腳呀、等等啦。噉呀所以呢個都係「隻」啦。噉所以呢其實好多都有啲關係嘅,噉呀動物去到人,噉呢我哋人嘅部份都係啦。噉但係呢而家口語仲係有好多㗎喎,噉呀除咗呢啲即係你甚至好簡單,我唔知嗰個係咩嚟㗎,噉你話「呀嗰隻係咩嚟㗎?」噉樣。噉再引伸喇 extension of meaning,咁呢有啲係你睇唔到嘅,或者呢,你係唔係好知嗰啲係咩嚟㗎呢, 噉都可以用隻嘅。你有冇除咗我哋講動物啦,頭先講嘅嗰容器器皿containers 啦,噉同埋人嗰啲部位器官呀 body parts 之外,你呀仲有冇聽過「隻」嘅用法呀?噉我發覺呢係廣東話用得越嚟越多添嘅,我都留意到有少少變化20嘅。而家「隻」係好多地方都可以用到「隻」嘅,知唔知呀?

(Yes, for parts of the body, even organs use it, like zek3 ngaan5 [one eye], bei6 [nose], ji5 zai2 [ear], one ear, two ears, sau2 [hand], goek3 [foot], and so forth. So these all go with zek3. They all have some sort of connection, from animals to people, as well as parts of people. But now there are even more [usages] in colloquial Cantonese, so besides these it’s even very simple, if I don’t know what something is, I can ask, “aa3 go2 zek3 hai6 me1 lai4 gaa3?” So it has an extension of meaning, even things you can’t see, or if you really don’t know what that thing is, you can use zek3 [to refer to it]. So besides animals, the containers which we just discussed, and people’s body parts and organs, have you heard of any other usages of zek3? I’ve noticed that it is used more and more in Cantonese, and I’ve even noticed a small change of sorts. There are many places now where you can use zek3, did you know?)

Cameron: Other places that people are using "隻." [zek3]

Raymond: 我甚至覺得而家甚至講得比「個」仲多啲添。 

(I think it’s used even more than go3 now.)

Cameron: And so you think it's increased with contemporary usage.

Raymond: 係呀。


Cameron: I think I’m stumped… Where else are you hearing it?

Raymond: 一隻歌啦,你唱一隻歌啦。

(jat1 zek3 go1 [one song], you sing one song.)

Cameron: Oh! So instead of 一首歌 [jat1 sau2 go1] people say 一隻歌 [jat1 zek3 go1].

Raymond: 一隻歌,係呀。同埋聽起上嚟冇咁正式嘅,即係如果普通話講得嗰啲呢,好多我哋都會講嘅。我哋講一首歌係咪?但係而家我哋就講一隻歌喇。噉呢,呢個係比較口語嘅。噉如果有一隻歌啦,仲有呢,你... 你著緊... 你著嘅衫係邊隻牌子21呀?你,你嗰隻手袋幾靚喎!你用... 你用開邊隻洗頭水呀?噉呢個「隻」呢,佢變成好多嘅物品佢嗰個牌子,或者呢佢有啲好特別嘅,噉呀... 你想... 你想比較隨便22啲咁樣講呢,你用開邊隻呀?你習慣用邊隻呀?噉而家「隻」係用得好多嘅。 

[jat1 zek3 go1, yes. And it doesn’t sound very “proper”. We also speak of many of the same ones as those in Mandarin. In that case we’d say jat1 sau2 go1 [yì shóu gē in Mandarin,] right? But now we say jat1 zek3 go1. It’s more colloquial. And if there is jat1 zek3 go1, there’s also… “What brand is your shirt that you’re wearing?” [with zek3 as the measure word for brand] “Your purse is very beautiful!” [with zek3 as the measure word for purse] “What shampoo do you generally use?” [with zek3 as the measure word for shampoo]. So zek3 has become something to use with lots of things, like brands or very special… You want to… If you want to compare more casually, what is the thing you use most often? Which do you have a habit of using? Now zek3 is used a lot.)

Cameron: Well, I think that also gets that sort of opening you up to another… A whole other round of having to think about when is it colloquial Cantonese versus when you are speaking formally, which I think is something you worry about more as you get more advanced, but I think knowing on a colloquial level

that you can use "隻" more and more, it's a helpful thing for a lot of learners. So it's always encouraging when we know there's something that we have even more use cases for, because then it's less likely that we make mistakes.

Raymond: 同埋呢個都一個好好解答23咗個問題呢,即係有啲人話點解我喺書本上面、喺學校課室我明明係學咗「個」㗎喎,但係點解我出到街又唔係好聽到「個」,點解啲人成日講「隻」呀噉樣?噉呢個都解釋啦,語言一嚟有變化啦,二呢就係以前我哋都有講過嘅,即係粵語都有好多嘅層次24嘅,噉喺語言學我哋叫 register,即係話你講得有幾正式25、或者幾唔正式、幾隨便、幾口語噉樣。噉所以呢,我覺得呢個其實無論係學緊粵語或者教粵語嘅老師其實都應該要注意。即係啲學生會話,你教我嘅同你自己講嘅又唔一樣。我自己都係因為教書先意識到,原來真係嗰啲講嘅講法甚至一路我哋會創造一啲新嘅量詞都有嘅。

(This is also a very good answer for the question people ask, which is, ”Why is it that in books and at school, I learn to use go3, but when I go out on the streets I don’t hear go3 very much and everyone is always saying zek3?” The explanation is that languages are always changing, and another explanation is that as we said before, Cantonese has many layers, what linguists call “registers.” That is to say, if you are speaking very formally, not so formally, more casually, or more colloquially. I think this is something we need to pay attention to regardless of whether we are students or teachers. Students will say, “What you teach and what you say aren’t the same.” I only noticed it from teaching, we’re even always creating new measure words.)

Cameron: Another thing that can also be helpful, because as you just mentioned, sometimes there's a discrepancy between teaching materials, and especially for users of Pleco, you might notice that even among Cantonese dictionaries that you can use, they'll give you different measure words. And one thing I've found is if you're looking to figure out which is the more formal measure word and which is the more colloquial, if it tends to overlap with the Mandarin measure word for the same entry, it's probably the more formal one, similar to what Raymond was just saying. And if it's unique to Cantonese, then it's probably the more colloquial one.

Raymond: 係呀,你講得好啱㗎。即係呀,即係例如我哋課本可能會教你一個... 有一樣,有一個物件啦,即係除咗「隻」之外我哋話不規則形狀嗰啲,即係你覺得好難去睇佢形狀用咩字呢,噉可能普通話或者課本呢,要用個正式啲嘅字可能話一團呀,一堆呀咁樣啦。呢啲嘅量詞呢但係我哋其實廣東話口語我又唔係好唔會噉樣講㗎喎。我又借呢個機會考下你喇。例如你見到有垃圾26,你要27垃圾係咪?垃圾就咩形狀都有㗎啦。一「咩」垃圾吖?

(Yes, you put it well. For example, if our textbook teaches us maybe that a… that there’s a thing, and besides zek3 there’s a thing with irregular shape, and you find it very hard based on the shape to say what the measure word is, perhaps in Mandarin or a textbook they would say the formal measure word is tyun4 [túan in Mandarin] or deoi1 [dūi in Mandarin]. In colloquial Cantonese, we don’t use these very much. I’ll use this opportunity to give you a little quiz: If you see some trash, you throw out trash, right? And there are all sorts of shapes of trash. What is the measure word?)

Cameron: 堆。

(deoi1 [pile].)

Raymond: 一「堆」垃圾係咪?噉因為普通話都會噉樣講係咪? 

(One deoi1 of trash, right? Because you’d say that in Mandarin, right?)

Cameron: 係。


Raymond: 噉呢,噉廣東話我就唔會噉樣講「堆」嘅。我會講一「嚿」垃圾。 

(In Cantonese you wouldn’t say deoi1. We would say jat1 gau6 laap6 saap3.)

Cameron: 咩,咩字?

(What word?)

Raymond: 係啦,呢個就係廣東話口語字,一個「口」字,一個新舊嘅「舊」。呢個係創出嚟嘅口語字。噉呢同埋而家流行,都流行講話「你講嘢呢,好唔清楚呀。」即係我話「甩甩咳咳」會 stutter 係咪?噉我會話你講嘢「一嚿一嚿」,即係 “a lump a lump” 「一嚿嚿」。

(Yeah, this is a colloquial Cantonese word. It’s got a “mouth” radical attached to the character for “old” [gau6]. It’s a created character. It’s very popular now, it’s even popular when someone says, “You’re not speaking very clearly,” we might say, “lak1 lak1 kak1 kak1” for “stutter,” right? Well I can say, “jat1 gau6 jat1 gau6,” which means “a lump a lump,” or jat1 gau6 gau6.)

Cameron: 哦!


Raymond: 所以呢,而家有人發明咗呢,寫數字 “1999” 就係 “one nine nine nine” 即係佢其實笑緊你講嘢「一嚿嚿嚿」,「一嚿一嚿」呢個係一個半開玩笑。 

(So now people have invented writing the number 1999 in a funny way as jat1 gau6 gau6 gau6 [which differs from usual pronunciation of 9 as gau2], so jat1 gau6 jat1 gau6 is a half joke.)