Counters in Japanese

2014 August 21
by Dani A

One of the most difficult grammar points of Japanese is counters. As opposed to English, in Japanese there are only a few plural nouns, like 私たち, so you have to add number words, or counters, for the different things you want to pluralize; you can’t just attach a number to a thing (well, you can but you’ll be grammatically incorrect).

Basically, the rule is that the thing you’re pluralizing goes before its corresponding counter. For example, if you want to say ‘2 apples,’ you do not say 「二りんご」. You use the counter for small (round) things, 個 「こ」, attach it to the number, then put the thing before the number. Here’s an example sentence:

オバマ大統領はりんごを二個食べました。 President Obama ate 2 apples.

The ‘apples’ are before the ‘2’ and ‘thing’.

Not so bad right? Wrong. Depending on the counter and the number you’re using, the pronunciation of the word changes. Here are some examples, with the sound changing counters are in bold:

人 「にん」, the counter for people: ひとり (1), ふたり (2), さんにん (3), よにん (4), ごにん (5), ろくにん (6), しちにん (7), はちにん(8), きゅうにん (9), じゅうにん (10)

つ, the generic counter: ひとつ (1), ふたつ (2), みっつ (3), よっつ (4), いつつ (5), むっつ (6), ななつ (7), やっつ (8), ここのつ (9), とお (10)

I know, I know! It doesn’t look like so bad. But there are literally over dozens of counters and you have to know them (or risk sounding like a 3 year old). Writing them down is easy enough because you only need to know the kanji for the counters, but saying the actual counter and its corresponding number can be an absolute pain! Aside from the time counters (minute, hour, day, week, month, year, age), the following are just a few counters that I used (and learned) in Japan:

本 – ほん for long, thin objects, like pencils, bottles, guitars, etc. (this is the kanji for books, however).

枚 – まい for thin, flat objects, like paper, shirts, photos, etc.

冊 – さつ for books

段 – だん for ranks, levels, steps (of stairs)

段落 – だんらく for paragraphs

行 – ぎょう lines of text

課 – か for lessons

回 – かい for number of times

区 – く for city districts

箱 – はこ for boxes

坪 – つぼ for unit of area

In Japan, you regularly use counters, especially in restaurants and conbini (convenience stores).

例: 札幌を三本で下さい。さっぽろをさんぼんでください。 3 bottles of Sapporo (beer), please.

Remember, if you want to use plurals, you have to use counters. If you went to kaitenzushi, how many plates did you devour? If you went to a bookstore to just browse, how many books did you accidentally buy? And if you can’t remember them all, by all means resort to the language of a child, I know I do:

アイスクリームを十で下さい。あいすくりーむをとおでください。10 ice creams, please.

Counters are challenging, but they certainly add to the Japanese language experience.

I hope you enjoyed this article! 頑張ってください!

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