How to Use Counters
As you have seen, Japanese has a different word order than English. Counters are no exception to this. To see how to use counters, here are a few examples:
- futari (two people)
- sanbai (three bowls/cups)
The first example we have is "mainichi ocha wo sanbai wo nomimasu." The sentence means "Every day I drink three cups of tea." If you look at the word order, we have mainichi (every day) first and nomimasu (drink), the verb, at the end, as is with most Japanese sentences. However, the "ocha wo sanbai" part is different. Our word for tea, "ocha," comes before the particle "wo," indicating it is the direct object of the verb. The counter word, on the other hand, comes after the particle, which is different from most descriptive words (such as blue or expensive). The reason is because sanbai is not a determiner like its English counterpart (three), because it does not mean just three. It means "three cups" in this case, and so it comes after the object particle and is treated like a noun.
Another example is "kyoo tomodachi to futari hanashimashita." It means "Today I spoke with two of my friends." We see the same word pattern here, "tomodachi to" being the word for friends (tomodachi) followed by the particle to (with) and then the counter afterward.
Note: While we do not have them for everything, we do have counters in English. The first example, "three cups of tea," has the counter cups, used to indicate the amount or size of the tea we had. Though it might make sense in English to say "three teas," that does not tell us as much information about the tea, so we say "cups of tea" to be more specific. In Japanese, however, it is not optional, and you must used counters with everything. The second example, more literally translated, comes out as "Today I spoke with two [people who are my] friends. In English, there is no need to specify people, because it is assumed from the word friends. In Japanese, though, you must use the counter.