New Phrase: Two? A Pair? A Couple? liǎng?​ 两? èr? 二?

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Monday, 7 September 2009
In English there are set ways that you can say things in pairs, that usually wouldn't necassarily come in twos. For example: two Jeans is wrong, yet a pair of Jeans is correct. Two glasses is wrong, but a pair of glasses is correct. Two shoes is ok, but a pair of shoes is better. The list could go on; headphones, shoelaces, scissors, shorts, gloves... etc.

In Mandarin I got very confused because the classifier for veichles is very similiar to the word for a pair. So when I learnt bicycle I had assumed I was hearing a pair of wheels or similiar because of our sometimes odd rules about pairs.

Pair / Two / Both

Classifier for veichles (辆自行车 liàng​ zì xíng chē)

What I was really hearing is the above sentence telling me it is a bike that you can travel on, maybe an excercise bike would have a different classifier?? (Can anyone confirm that?)

Anyway, so When I was learning the numbers in Mandarin I learnt that 2 is 二 èr.

The Chinese tend to use 两 liǎng​ in a sentence instead of 二 èr (unless counting or reciting a number). Thanks for everyones helpful replies on twitter when I got confused earlier on. But this was put best by my new friend @megoizzy who lives in China.

"We use 二 èr in numeric counting sequence, use 两 liǎng with measure words. We would never say 'èr ge'. but we would use 'èr' in telling our phone number to someone."

两 liǎng is used before classifers (measuring words) such as 天,个,辆. Otherwise 二 èr would be used.

So I think I am right in saying then a pair of bicycles in Mandarin would actually be said:

liǎng​ liàng​ zì xíng chē.

However if you are spelling out a number, like a telephone number, you would say 二 èr not 两 liǎng (Although I wonder if you might use 两 liǎng for double numbers...)
edit: To spell out numbers, you can say 两个二=two 2s

And maybe when replying to "how many sweets have you got left?"
You might reply "Two" 二 èr, so long as you weren't going on to say "I have two sweets left..."
edit: 2 (sweets) = 两颗糖

I wonder if in Chinese then a pair of scissors would mean one or two pairs of scissors when translated back into English as they don't seem to have the same problems with a pair of trousers, shorts etc.
edit: a pair of scissors=一把剪刀,it's the measure unit that changes!

So what I have learnt from this is that the Chinese doesn't have a silly pair rule about bicycles at all. In fact it is the English which makes this harder to grasp. Mandarin speakers just use 两 liǎng as their word for a couple, a pair or both items.

This was an interesting point as I was learning this morning and got a little stuck, but think now in general I am a bit clearer on the matter. Though there are some points I have highlighted that if you can clarify would be most useful.


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  1. I have put in edit marks, where answers to the questions and corrections have been put forwards.

    Thanks again to everyone who has helped me understand this better.

  2. Anonymous Says:
  3. Yes, that's right!

    二 for 1,2,3 for numbering.
    两 for 2+object for measuring.

    By the way, it's perfectly OK to write
    两辆自行车 --> 2辆自行车
    两个二 ---> 2个2
    两颗糖 ---> 2颗糖
    So long that you remember to pronounce the first 2 as 两.

    Do you remember the classifier for "people"? 个
    This is a special one: "Two persons" you can say 两个人 or 两人 or 二人. But never 二个人.

    Like English, sometimes we need counters for certain words; sometimes we can omit those words.

  4. :) thanks for your comment.

    It took me a while to understand this concept. But I can imagine anyone learning English with our silly pair rules gets unstuck too.

  5. Puerhan Says:
  6. You might also like to explore:

    双 (shuāng) which actually means "pair"

    EG a pair of hands: 一双手 (yī shuāng shǒu)

    Also it seems 一对 (yī duì) can also mean a pair as in a couple in some contexts..

    best wishes! :-D

  7. I would also like to point out that there is another example of this numbering problem in Chinese, and it has to do with the number 1.

    Normally, in speech, sentences or with measure words, we use 一 "yi"

    For example, "yī ge shū" - one book.

    We also use "yī" when counting the numeric sequence of "1, 2, 3, 4..."

    However, there is one change. When saying a phone number or address, "yī" changes to "yāo". So, to recount your phone number, you might say

    "yāo wŭ bā líng wŭ yāo yāo" 158 8511

    I hope this makes sense!

  8. @Puerhan

    - Interesting, so in Chinese there is pairs too. Is pair of gloves, pair of shoes in effect too? and is it just things that actually come in two that are 双 (shuāng) or is it also things like headphones included too?

    I have always been confused as to why those things are pairs in English to be quite honest.


  9. @ Megan

    Is there a reason for that change in "yī" to "yāo" ? Does "yī" sound like something else that precedes phone numbers, or addresses in conversation and been changed so it doesnt get easily confused?

    Seems an odd change from what seems a much more logical language.

    But is duly noted.


  10. Anonymous Says:
  11. I think we just have different concepts of different objects like we see a pair of trousers or a pair of scissors as one single thing, probably because they can't function separately.

    You see sometimes a languages can't be explained or understood by a rigid rule but you rather have to get your mind used to it by spending time in the place or with the people.

    It is just the same to me when I am learning European languages and don't really understand why they have to get everything into either masculine or feminie.


  12. Wanchi, I have to agree, I am not quite sure why the feminie or masculine, has always annoyed me and hindered my learning of French (though the real reason was I ever really wanted to learn it).

    The pairs of things in English I just think is weird, for the exact reason you state. They can't function sperately.

    You are right of course, it is a case of getting used to it. Sometimes I just like to understand why rather than it being 'it just is'...

    But that is precisly what I hope to do, by keeping on keeping on writing these posts.

    Thanks for everyones input. :D

  13. Anonymous Says:
  14. and i don't know if there's a reason for changing "yi" to "yao" when saying a phone number but for a guess, maybe yi (one) and qi (seven) sound a bit similar and so easy to confuse people when you saying a phone number fast.

    does it make more sense?


  15. Do you know what, I am happy with that answer. Even if it isn't the real reason, makes sense to me. I am happier thinking there is a reason, and will make it stick in my mind easier.

    Xie Xie.

  16. Joe Says:
  17. I liked this topic! I was fine with when to use which word for '2' (mostly) but I didn't know about the specific measure word for pairs.

    I pulled some of the info from here onto a forum I run for my Chinese class. Hopefully it can spark a conversation there too.

  18. Wow, thanks Joe.

    It is an interesting thing to have come across. And thought I would share because initially I was rather confused. :D

  19. Anonymous Says:
  20. Hi Charlie,

    People in China and Singapore prefer to read 1 as 幺 "yao" in numbering.

    In Malaysia, Taiwan and elsewhere, we prefer to pronounce 一 as "yi" in numbering.


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