Countless counters conundrum: The confusing grammar behind Japanese counters

Japanese Counters

Memorizing all the different Japanese counters is hard enough, but what about actually using them? Learning how to utilize them in conversation may seem overwhelming, but JCMU Language Instructor Minoru Aizawa encourages you to keep on trying! Read below for details and examples from Aizawa-sensei of some of the various uses and structures of those pesky counters.


りんごを三つ? 三つのりんごを?
Ringo o mittsu? Mittsu no ringo o?

Japanese “counters” (words used along with numbers to indicate the type and quantity of objects) are simultaneously interesting but complicated for beginners because they need to use a different counter depending on what is being counted.  For instance, “~mai” is used for counting thin, flat objects, while “~hon/~bon/~pon” is for long, cylindrical ones.

Memorizing these various counters in itself is challenging, but you also have to learn how to use them in a sentence. As you may already know, for instance, you could say the following:

  • 私は今朝りんごを食べた。
    Watashi wa kesa ringo o tabeta.
    I ate an apple this morning.

How would you specify the number of apples that you ate, then? There are two possibilities.

  1. 私は今朝りんごを三つ食べた。
    Watashi wa kesa ringo o mittsu tabeta.
    I ate three apples this morning.
    ~
  2. 私は今朝三つのりんごを食べた。
    Watashi wa kesa mittsu no ringo o tabeta.
    I ate three apples this morning.

What if you wanted to describe how many apples were on your table?

  1. テーブルの上にりんごが三つある。
    Teeburu no ue ni ringo ga mittsu aru.
    There are three apples on the table.
    ~
  2. テーブルの上に三つのりんごがある。
    Teeburu no ue ni mittsu no ringo ga aru.
    There are three apples on the table.

The sentences above are all grammatically correct even though the second example in each pair isn’t worded the same as the first. There are subtle differences between the two, though: the first examples would be the answers to the questions of “How many?”, while the second examples would be the answers to “What?”.

The counters in the former function as so-called “extent expression,” which generally means that they do not take a particle. This pattern does not apply when the things to be counted are not followed by “o” or “ga“. In such a case, the counter comes BETWEEN the thing to be counted and the particle that follows it. Pay attention to where the counters come in the following examples:

  • 私は、友だち二人と、京都に行った。
    Watashi wa, tomodachi futari to, kyoto ni itta.
    I went to Kyoto with two friends of mine.
    ~
  • 私は、キャンパスで友だち3人に、会った。
    Watashi wa, kyanpasu de tomodachi sannin ni, atta.
    I met with three friends of mine on campus.
    ~
  • 彼は、カメラ2台で、短い映画を作った。
    Kare wa, kamera nidai de, mijikai eiga o tsukutta.
    He made a short movie using two cameras.

Learning Japanese is generally interesting and fun, but the unique grammar practices associated with counters can be frustrating. However, I encourage you to keep trying your best! These challenges also apply to my pursuit of teaching Japanese both effectively and efficiently, so let’s keep improving together.  がんばりましょう (Ganbarimashou)!

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