Why Chinese say "Kuaizi" in Singular with Referring to Chopsticks?

(Last Modified: 2019-05-29 09:52:15    Author: jinyu)

For people who are learning Chinese, there is a confusing phenomenon: Most of the Chinese nouns are in singular forms, such as:

Singular forms of Chinese nouns
# Chinese (singular) English (plural)
1 筷子 chopsticks
2 剪刀 scissors
3 裤子 pants

Some just do not have plural forms, such as:

Invariant Chinese nouns
# Chinese English
1 1个朋友
1 friend
2 friends
2 1个苹果
1 apple
2 apples


In English, we add "s" or "es" to the end of nouns to indicate their plural forms. This is called inflection. Frequent and systematic use of inflected forms of words is among major characteristics of synthetic language. English, as a typical synthetical language, needs inflection or conjugation to imply word number, tense, or part of speech and so on. Here is what inflection can do:

Inflection of Number

Using affix like "s" or "es" to show word number.

Inflection of tense

Using affix to change tense. Example:

You do this job (present tense).

You did this job (past tense).

Inflection of part of Speech

Using affix to change part of speech. Example:

move (verb) -> movement (noun)

rapid (adjective) -> rapidly (adverb) -> rapidity (noun)

afford (verb) -> affordable (adjective) -> affordability (noun)

Meanwhile, inflection can be used for expressing different grammatically categories such as gender, case, aspect, voice, mood, person and so on. According to morphology, inflection constitutes one of the most important word formation approaches.

However, inflection plays little or even no influence on Chinese. Except for changing word form, there is another way to convey words' roles in sentences: Using helper words and words order adjustment. As a representative of analytic language, Chinese is a kind of language largely employing functional helper words and greatly relying on word orders.

plural words cover

Therefore, we can hardly find a Chinese noun changes itself to convey different meanings, but depending on a series of helper words. Basically they are:

  • Numeral helper words. One obvious example is "". The word "我" means "I" or "me", while it refers to "we" or "us" when it is changed to "我们".
  • Tense helper words. We use words like "", "", "" in Chinese to indicate the tense without changing the verbs. Such as: "我吃了 (I have finished my meal)", "我在吃 (I am eating my meal)".
  • Structural helper words. Three common words are used for the purpose of changing of part of speech. They are "", "", "". When these helper words are combined with target words in certain order, their parts of speech change accordingly. Example: "漂亮的 (beautiful)", "漂亮地 (nicely)".
  • Quantifiers. In Chinese, there are many more determiners than that of English. We use them to describe things or actions, such as: "一本书 (a book)", "一只杯子 (a cup)".

Problems for Chinese Learners

The first problem for Chinese learners is to understand sentences by knowing word components well. More attention shall be paid on words order and helper words, rather than the root word itself (as it does not change in form).

component words

Meanwhile, learners have to memorize a large quantity of measure words. Some of them are special, or even exclusively match their target nouns. For example:

  • 鞋 (a pair of shoes)
  • 牛 (a head of cattle)
  • 人 (a person)
  • 马 (a horse)
  • 花 (a flower)
  • 伞 (an umbrella)
  • 鸟 (a bird)
  • 鱼 (a fish)
  • 水 (a glass of water)
  • 米 (a grain of rice)
  • 山 (a mountain)

We can find from the above that some measure words in Chinese have the corresponding English expressions, but most of them are special and changeable. Some of those determiner words are making sense from their literal or pictographic meanings, while the rest have no strong connections with each other which we should memorize by heart.