How to use the measure word 个 (gè)

If there is one measure word you have to learn, it is 个 (gè). 个 is by far the most useful and most used of all the Chinese measure words. 个 is the generic measure word. If a noun doesn't have a specific measure word strongly correlated with it, you will probably find yourself using 个 when counting it.

The generic measure word: 个

个 makes up 27.5% of all measure words in 3000 Hanzi's written corpus (a corpus is a collection of documents; 3000 Hanzi uses its corpus to create content and data). 27.5% is bigger than it sounds: 个 occurs nearly 6X more than the next most common measure word (次), and it appears more than the top 9 measure words combined.

And that's just for written Chinese. In spoken Chinese, where data is much harder to come by, usage of 个 is probably even more common.

In some ways, it is the magic measure word. When I was starting out learning measure words, I wished that I could use 个 for everything. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

How to use 个

If you look up 个 in a measure word dictionary, it will tell you that 个 can only be used for nouns without a particular measure word.

For instance:

  • some units of time like:
    • hours, 一 个 小时 or 一 个 钟头
    • months, 两 个 月
    • weeks, 三 个 星期
    • evenings, 一 个 晚上
  • different types of people, e.g.:
    • 一 个 人 (one person)
    • 八 个 朋友 (eight friends)
    • 一 个 姑娘 (one lady)
    • 六 个 同学 (six classmates)
    • 一 个 姐姐 (one sister), etc.
  • for places, questions, examples, and more, such as:
    • 一 个 地方 (one place)
    • 一 个 问题 (one question)
    • 一 个 例子 (one example) etc.

个 is also used for counting certain actions. It's used between the verb and its object. When the action only occurs once you don't need to add 一 (e.g. 洗 个 澡, take a shower).

verb+ number+ classifier + object translation
+ + + 电话 make a phone call
+ + + eat a meal

When not to use 个

The rules for using 个 are pretty straightforward, but in real life, 个 is used much more, even when other measure words do exist. So when shouldn't you use 个?

When a noun or object has a specific measure word that is strongly correlated with it, you should use that measure word.

For example, in some situations, using 个 sounds completely strange ( 三 个 书 should be 三本书) to native speakers. In this case 本 is so strongly correlated with 书, that using 个 sounds completely wrong.

But in other situations, the correlation between a noun and a measure word might be weak, and one could use 个 in place of its "proper measure word" (一 个 手机, is used more often than 一 部 手机 even though 部 is the measure word for small machines). Unfortunately there isn't any definitive way to know if 个 can replace a measure word for a specific noun (although I'm working on adding this data to 3000 Hanzi's Chinese Dictionary). So the best way to avoid misusing 个, is to learn the measure word for a noun at the same time you learn the noun.

Another way to check is to ask a Chinese speaker if a word can be used with 个 (or try searching google: check out 三个手机 vs. 三部手机; or you can try googlefight.com).

In spoken Chinese, there is a clear trend for using 个 more in place of other measure words, but students of Chinese shouldn't make the mistake of not studying other measure words. Different measure words come up all the time in every day.

Check out A Daily Dose of Measure Words or A Daily Dose of Measure Words 2 if you don't believe me.

If you're looking to learn more about classifiers, check out 3000 Hanzi's page on Chinese measure words

Got a story about (mis-)using 个? Leave a note in the comments.

Leave a comment.