Japanese/Grammar/Counters

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Most Japanese nouns do not have plural forms. Instead, when indicating a specific number or amount of a noun, the noun is followed by a counter (助数詞, じょすうし). There is a large number of these counters, each referring to a particular kind of thing to count.

For example when referring to four books:

(よん) (さつ) (ほん)
Four volumes genitive marker book

Counters can also be used in adverbial or nominal manner. "There are four books there" can be either of the following:

Adverbial あそこに本が四冊あります。
Nominal あそこに四冊の本があります。
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For the most part, two numbering systems are used: the numbers derived from Chinese (いち, に, さん, etc.) and the native Japanese counting words (ひとつ, ふたつ, みっつ, etc.).

Common counters[edit]

Some of the most common & basic counters:

人 (にん)
For counting people. One person, "一人", is "ひとり" and two, "二人", is "ふたり", using the native Japanese (kunyomi) words for counting. From there on, the Chinese derived (onyomi) numbers are used, so "三人" is read "さんにん", "四人" is read "よにん" and so on.
There is a related counter, 名 (めい).
枚 (まい)
For counting flat objects (e.g. sheets of paper, plates, clothes).
Examples: いちまい、にまい、さんまい、よんまい、...
本 (ほん)
For counting long slender objects, such as bottles or pencils.
This counter, like most, uses the Chinese derived numbers straight through. But the 'h' sound (as in hon mutates into a 'b' or 'p' depending on what is put in front of it.
Examples: いっぽん、にほん、さんぼん、よんほん、ごほん、ろっぽん、ななほん、はっぽん、きゅうほん、じゅっぽん etc.
分 (ふん)
For counting minutes.
This counter uses Chinese derrived numbers, and with quite a few irregularities a bit similar to "本".
Examples: いっぷん、にふん、さんぷん、よんふん、ごふん、ろっぷん、ななふん、はっぷん、きゅうふん、じゅっぷん
For counting generic things (basically anything that doesn't have a counter).
This generic counter uses the Japanese native counters, up until ten, where the tsu is dropped, and Chinese derived numbers alone are used.
Examples:ひとつ、ふたつ、みっつ、よっつ、いつつ、むっつ、ななつ、やっつ、ここのつ、とお.

Abstract counting[edit]

Counter Japanese Reading Examples for 1, 2, ..., 10,
Times (occurrences) かい いっかい、にかい、...、じゅっかい、
Numbers in a series ばん いちばん、にばん、...、じゅうばん、
Multiples ("X times as much") ばい いちばい、にばい、...、じゅうばい、

Living beings[edit]

Counter Japanese Reading Examples for 1, 2, ..., 10,
People にん ひとり、ふたり、さんにん(3)、...、じゅうにん、
(Small) Animals ひき いっぴき、にひき、...、じゅっぴき、
Large animals とう いっとう、にとう、...、じゅっとう、
Birds, rabbits いちわ、にわ、...、じゅうわ、
(Small) fish and shrimp いちび、にび、...、じゅうび、

匹 is often used for animals generally, but in more careful use it is restricted to small animals, such as cats and dogs.

Large animals notably include horses, cattle, elephants, also whales, dolphins.

Some kinds of animals have two or more counters. For example, "3 butteflies" can be translated into 3羽 or 3匹.

Objects[edit]

Counter Japanese Reading Examples for 1, 2, ..., 10,
Objects いっこ、にこ、...、じゅっこ、
Sheets (flat things) まい いちまい、にまい、...、じゅうまい、
Long objects ほん いっぽん、にほん、...、じゅっぽん、
Cup-, glass-, bowl-, spoon-fuls はい いっぱい、にはい、...、じゅっぱい、
Boxes, boxfuls はこ ひとはこ、ふたはこ、...、じゅっぱこ、
Dishes さら ひとさら、ふたさら、...、じゅっさら、
Suits of clothing ちゃく いっちゃく、にちゃく、...、じゅっちゃく、

Transportation[edit]

Counter Japanese Reading Examples for 1, 2, ..., 10,
Machines, cars だい いちだい、にだい、...、じゅうだい、
Boats そう いっそう、にそう、...、じゅっそう
Ships せき いっせき、にせき、...、じゅっせき、
Aircraft いっき、にき、...、じゅっき、

Groups or portions[edit]

Counter Japanese Reading Examples for 1, 2, ..., 10,
Parts (components) いちぶ、にぶ、...、じゅうぶ、
Parts (partitions) [1] にぶん、さんぶん、...、
Bundles たば ひとたば、ふたたば、...、じゅったば、
Sets, pairs くみ ひとくみ、ふたくみ、...、じゅっくみ、
Pairs つい いっつい、につい、...、じゅっつい、
Pairs of footwear そく いっそく、にそく、...、じゅっそく、
Tenths (1/10) わり いちわり、にわり、...、じゅうわり
Discount (tenths discounted) 割引 わりびき いちわりびき、にわりびき、...、じゅうわりびき

See also[edit]

Resources[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. Note that this conincides with 分 in 1分, 2分, etc in written its forms. See also Japanese/Vocabulary/Time.