Measure words denote a unit or measurement and are used with mass nouns (uncountable nouns), and in some cases also with count nouns. For instance, in English, mud is a mass noun and thus one cannot say "three muds", but one can say "three drops of mud", "three pails of mud", etc. In these examples, drops and pails function as measure words. One can also say "three pails of shells"; in this case the measure word pails accompanies a count noun (shells).
The term measure word is also sometimes used to refer to numeral classifiers, which are used with count nouns in some languages. For instance, in English no extra word is needed when saying "three people", but in many East Asian languages a numeral classifier is added, just as a measure word is added for uncountable nouns in English. While many linguists maintain a distinction between measure words and numeral classifiers, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. For instance, materials for teaching Chinese as a second language generally refer to Chinese classifiers as "measure words". The corresponding Chinese term is liàngcí (simplified 量词, traditional 量詞), which can be directly translated as "measure word".
- one quart of water
- three cups of coffee
- four kernels of corn, three ears of corn, two bushels of corn
In many languages, including the East Asian languages referred to above, the analogous constructions do not include any equivalent of the English of. In German, for example, ein Glas Bier means "a glass of beer".
- Tai, James H.-Y. (1994). "Chinese classifier systems and human categorization". In Willian S.-Y. Wang, M. Y. Chen, and Ovid J.L. Tzeng. In honor of William S.-Y. Wang: Interdisciplinary studies on language and language change. Taipei: Pyramid Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-957-9268-55-4.
- Cheng, Lisa L.-S.; Sybesma, Rint (1998). "yi-wan tang and yi-ge Tang: Classifiers and mass-classifiers". Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies 28 (3).