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What Is a Counter?
To count in English, we say "one, two, three, four" and so forth. To describe the number of people there are in a room, we say "one person, two people, three people" and so forth, using the same numbers we used to count, but with the word people at the end. Japanese is different. To count, you say "ichi, ni, san, yon" and so forth. However, to say the number of pencils you have, you say "ippon enpitsu, nihon enpitsu, sanbon enpitsu" and so forth. Notice that the words for one, two, and three have changed. Instead of ichi (one), you have ippon. Instead of ni (two), you have nihon. And, instead of san (three), you have sanbon. These different number forms are called counters, and they are used to count anything and everything in Japanese.
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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.
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Most counters are not as specific—such as people—but rather broad categories such as "long, cylindrical objects" or "flat objects." Here are some of the more common ones:
- hon (long, cylindrical shapes)
- hai (bowls/cups/objects that are round and hold things)
- satsu (published items such as books or magazines)
- hiki (all animals except birds)
- nen (years)
- nin (people)
To form the counter for any number, you simply add the number before the counting word such as gonen (five years) or nanahiki (seven animals). There are some exceptions where you make minor spelling adjustments such as sanbon instead of *sanhon, but these are not many and will come naturally over time.
If you cannot remember or do not know the counter for an object, do not worry. There is, luckily, a generic set of counters that can be used in place of the specific counters. Using it instead of a commonly used counter (such as people or days) sounds odd to a Japanese speaker, but it is better than using no counter at all. Given that there are several hundreds of different counter sets, it is important to memorize the generic counters soon. Here are the forms:
- hitotsu (one)
- futatsu (two)
- mittsu (three)
- yottsu (four)
- itsutsu (five)
- muttsu (six)
- nanatsu (seven)
- yattsu (eight)
- kokonotsu (nine)
- too (ten)
After ten, you simply use the number itself,without a counter. So to say fifty-six [items] with the generic counter, it is just gojuuroku.