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Review of  Classifier Structures in Mandarin Chinese

Reviewer: Priyanka Biswas
Book Title: Classifier Structures in Mandarin Chinese
Book Author: Niina Ning Zhang
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 25.1384

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This book, ‘Classifier Structures in Mandarin Chinese,’ presents a detailed description of Mandarin Chinese (MC henceforth) nominals from the viewpoint of a typical classifier (CL) language. Focusing on different types of structures and meanings associated with classifier noun combinations, Zhang discusses the relation between classifiers and quantifiers, and their relation to countability, measurability, plurality, etc. Syntactic constituency of numeral expressions, various syntactic positions of classifiers, and noun-classifier compounds have previously been discussed, but Zhang presents new observations. She derives new generalizations from her observations and presents novel analyses of the MC nominal structure. This book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter One provides a short introduction and Chapter Eight ends the book with a short conclusion. The remaining six chapters discuss classifiers in MC and their relation to countability, quantification, number marking, syntactic constituency, functional projections, and compound formation over the span of 276 pages.

Chapter 1. Introduction

The first chapter gives an overview of MC classifier structures. The author defines MC as a numeral classifier language based on the fact that a classifier can appear with both count and mass nouns. Contrary to the notion that typical classifier languages lack number distinction, Zhang hints at the possibility of a systematic way of number marking in MC. Classifier reduplication is claimed to be a productive way of expressing plurality in MC. After an overview of syntactic positions of numerals, classifiers and nouns, the author ends the chapter with an outline of subsequent chapters.

Chapter 2. Classifiers and countability

This chapter introduces two features: numerability and delimitability of nominals and classifiers. Numerability is the ability to combine with a numeral directly, whereas, delimitability is the ability of a noun to be modified by a delimitive (i.e., size, shape or boundary) modifier. These two features redefine the count-mass distinction in nouns. Section 2.2 presents Zhang’s main proposal. The feature numerability defines a count noun. It explains the contrast between nominals that combine with numerals and those that do not. The feature is language specific. For example, some suffixes in English make nouns numerable, such as -er, -ee, -ant (e.g., in ‘worker,’ ‘nominee,’ etc.). As numerability is a feature that defines count nouns, Zhang also suggests that there might be languages that have some markers that somehow indicate anti-numerability. For example, in Dutch, the collective affix -werk doesn’t combine with numerals at all. Delimitability covers adjectives that are size, shape or boundary denoting, and excludes adjectives that modify prototypical mass nouns (e.g., oil), abstract nouns (e.g., belief), or object-mass nouns (e.g., furniture). The contrast is between the nominals that may be modified by a delimitive modifier and nominals that are not. [+Del] entails atomicity, whereas [-Del] is independent of it. The reason that the former includes atomic elements is because they occur with measure or container phrases. Prototypical mass nouns are defined by the combination of [-numerability] and [-delimitability]. The 2x2 matrix of these two features redefines the count-mass distinction in nouns, as shown below.

Nouns [+numerable, +delimitable]: individuated count nouns (e.g., unicorn)
Nouns [+numerable, ¬-delimitable]: unindividuated count nouns (e.g., belief)
Nouns [-numerable, +delimitable]: individuated mass nouns or “non-mass” or “object-mass” (cf. Barner & Snedeker 2005) or “count mass” nouns (cf. Doetjes 1997) (e.g., furniture)
Nouns [-numerable, -delimitable]: substance mass nouns (e.g., water)

All nouns in Chinese are [-Num], as they don’t combine with numerals without a classifier; however, nouns that refer to months, days, etc., can combine without a classifier. Some nouns can have the numeral yi (‘one’) without a classifier, but this is only possible with nouns that can appear with the general classifier ge. Some constructions do not need classifiers, such as compound nouns (e.g., wu-xiang-fen ‘five-spice-powder’), multiple numeral expressions (e.g., san fang liang tin ‘three room two sitting room’), or complex numerals (e.g., liu-yi (ge) funu ‘six billion woman’). If there is a numeral that is not whole, a classifier is obligatory (e.g., liu-yi ling san *(ge) funu ‘six billion zero three *(cl) woman’.) Delimitability of nouns divides the non-count MC nouns into the mass type and non-mass type. [-Num +Del] (i.e., non-mass type) nominals are selected by individual classifiers and [-Num, -Del] (i.e., mass type) are individuating CLs (for mass nouns). [+Del] nouns can be modified by delimitive adjectives, but [-Del] cannot (e.g., chang chang de he/*you ‘long de river/*oil’). The same goes when these adjectives are in predicate positions.

This chapter brings about new perspectives on the definition of the count-mass distinction in nouns. The two features numerability and delimitability refine the distinction between different types of count and mass nouns. The features also categorize the classifier system in MC according to its compatibility with different types of count and mass nouns. In sum, the introduction of these two features contributes to a better understanding of the count-mass distinction in classifier languages.

Chapter 3. Classifiers and quantifiers

The relationship between classifiers and quantifiers in MC is discussed in this chapter. Given the assumption that the general function of a classifier is counting units and not individuating mass, Zhang discusses several types of quantifiers in MC and their variable compatibility with classifiers. Different types of quantifiers have different types of restrictions. For example, some quantifiers require the co-occurrence of classifiers, while some others may not be followed by classifiers. The questions discussed in this chapter involve the function of the classifier that obligatorily occurs with some non-numeral quantifiers, and why some other quantifiers do not require any classifiers. Quantifiers such as ji (‘how many’ or ‘a few, several’, haoji ‘several’, ruogan ‘several’) and paucal numeral liang-san (‘two-three => a few’) must also be followed by a unit word (i.e., classifiers or measure words). For example, with the classifiers dui (‘pile’) or zhong (‘kind’), ji (‘how many’) has two different interpretations. However, if the classifier is an individual classifier, it shows selectional restriction with the noun. For example, the classifiers duo (‘classifier for flower’) or zhong (‘classifier for table’) cannot substitute for one another. In quantifiers that mandatorily have a classifier, the classifiers encode a unit in the function of quantification. These classifiers do not contrast with a classifier of a different type. Therefore, Zhang argues that these non-contrastive classifiers have the same syntactic position as the classifiers in numeral expressions, but are simply placeholders. Some quantifiers may be followed by classifiers which are contrastive with other types of classifiers and perform the same function as classifiers in numeral expressions (i.e., facilitate counting units). This chapter is more of a description of (in)compatibility of classifiers and quantifiers than an explanation of the reasons for such (in)compatibility. No discussion is provided on the newly introduced features of numerability and delimitability with regard to quantifiers and the classifiers.

Chapter 4. Classifiers and plurality

This chapter argues for the presence of number markers in MC. Zhang argues that the cross-linguistically attested claim that classifier languages do not have a productive number marking system, can be falsified by the system of number marking in MC. Plural marking can be productive in MC, by means of a recurring morpho-syntactic pattern (e.g., reduplicative unit words or RUW). Zhang argues that RUWs (e.g., reduplicated classifiers) in MC nominals have the property of number. Identified number markers might have a dependency on certain quantificational elements. Generally, number marking follows the Animacy Hierarchy. For example, dual number marking with –lia is found in pronouns and kinship terms, but not in inanimate objects like *ri-yue-lia (‘sun-moon-dual’). Personal pronouns without the marker -men or dual marker -lia obligatorily refer to a single person. However, these are not number markers, as they are restricted to a certain set of nominals. Zhang doesn’t consider xie as a number marker either, as it occurs with mass nouns and is non-contrastive when occurring with demonstratives. The morpheme -men is also not considered a number marker, as it is restricted to common nouns that are both definite and human-denoting. Unlike pronouns, nominals in MC do not have obligatory number marking. Bare nouns in MC (and in most CL languages) are number neutral (General Number in terms of Corbett, 2000). Zhang argues that RUWs are actual plural markers in MC.

This chapter falsifies the claim that plural markers and classifiers do not occur in the same language (Chierchia 1998, Doetjes 1997) or in the same noun phrase (Borer, 2005). With examples and illustrations from unrelated languages, Zhang argues that if in a language bare nouns show general number, then plural marking cannot be obligatory; however, it is possible that in these languages singularity and plurality could be systematically expressed in morpho-syntactic ways. This may further imply that articleless languages may have general number (Boskovic, 2012), and MC provides support for that generalization.

Chapter 5. The syntactic constituency of numeral expressions

This chapter discusses the syntactic constituency of numeral expressions with nominals. Zhang argues that the division of left branching and the right branching structure of numeral expressions correlate with differences between two types of unit words (i.e., classifiers or measure words). The contrast is not that of count versus mass nouns. The individuating and individual classifiers have an identical constituency of mass and non-mass nouns. Zhang argues that the left-branching structure and the right-branching structure in the numeral CL nominal constructions could have different types of constituency. The scope of a left-peripheral modifier, the effect of modifier association, the semantic selection of a unit word on a noun, and the order of size and shape modifiers have different effects in these two types of constituency. A numeral expression with a standard measure, container measure, a collective CL, and a partitive CL have a left-branching structure in which the numeral and the unit word form a constituent, excluding the nouns. In this structure, the unit word does not c-command the noun. On the other hand, the individual, individuating and kind CLs pattern together in right-branching structures. The container and standard measures pattern with collective and partitive CLs in that a delimitive modifier (e.g, long, big, small, etc.) brings in different interpretations, unlike individual CLs, which don’t change the interpretation. It is possible to have multiple modifiers, for example, size and shape modifiers. In such a case, the shape adjective is closer to the modifiee than the size adjective. This order is observed without the functional particle de. However, the order of the adjectives is irrelevant for collective, standard and container measures. The contrast in adjective order distinguishes the two structures. In a numeral expression, an individual CL, as well as its modifier, c-command the modifier of the associate NP, and therefore, they are all in the same domain in which the two types of adjectives follow the Vendler order. In the left-branching structure, the unit word does not c-command the NP, whereas in the right-branching structure, the unit word does c-command the NP. Zhang also falsifies arguments based on adjacency of a numeral and a unit word. Finally, she argues against measure-count semantic mappings with different syntactic structures.

Chapter 6. The syntactic positions of classifiers

Relevant functional projections and categories are discussed in this chapter. Zhang proposes that classifiers in numeral expressions perform the same function as that of verbal auxiliaries of a clause. Neither of the two performs as an argument or predicate. They don’t bear any thematic relation to the nominal or the main verb. Both select substantive categories, and can be either absent or have full forms cross-linguistically. Furthermore, cross-linguistically, the classifier function emerges only when the so-called classifier or measure units appear between numerals and nouns. Zhang adopts the idea of a hierarchical nominal structure, and introduces a new projection between DP and NP, the UnitP, which is introduced in addition to the NumP and QuantP. The features unique to this account (i.e., numerability and delimitability) have been re-introduced in this chapter. The UnitP projection represents numerability, the feature associated with countability of nominals. In the proposed analysis, countability is represented by functional structure, rather than substantive properties of nouns or numerals. Numerals are argued to be base-generated at Spec of the UnitP. Unit words such as a CL, measure words, etc., head the UnitP. Since the UnitP is associated with countability, it projects when a numeral occurs, regardless of whether there is any overt form for the head of this projection. The quantifiers formed with yi (‘one’) are hosted by the Spec of QuantP. And the obligatory CL following these quantifiers is at the head of the QuantP. Plural markers, including RUWs in MC, are hosted in NumP, which is different from UnitP. Thus, the occurrence of a plural marker does not correlate with the projection of UnitP, which represents the occurrence of a classifier or measure word within the DP. With the new apparatus, Zhang also presents derivations of other nominal constructions involving measures, etc. The left and right branching structures of MC numeral expressions are also represented in terms of their syntactic structures. By the use of unique features (i.e., numerability and delimitability), Zhang attempts to explain the cross-linguistic variation in the nominal. The variability depends on the overt and covert realization of the UnitP. In this analysis, cross-linguistic variation is represented by a fine gradation of properties of overt and covert elements.

Chapter 7. Noun-classifier compounds

This chapter involves noun classifier compound cases (e.g., Num CL N-CL). It shows that, at least in MC, a unit word is required regardless of the presence of an internal element in a noun that denotes a unit. This indicates that the presence of a CL with a numeral and a nominal in MC is a syntactic rather than a semantic requirement. Zhang discusses the similarities and differences between bare nouns and N-CL compounds, and the implications of a lower CL appearing with a noun in the presence of a unit word (or a higher CL) in Num CL N-CL constructions. The presence of a lower CL decides the delimitability of the compound on the one hand, and the presence of a unit word does not make a non-count nominal a count one. These two facts have shown that a lower CL is a realization of a functional head, Del(imitability), rather than a Unit. Therefore, in addition to Unit, Quant, and Num, there is a fourth functional position for CLs: Del. Zhang also shows that if the higher CL is ge or a copy of the lower CL, it is a place-holder of Unit, but without semantic contexts. In this case, the structure of the construction may be different from that of the corresponding construction in which the same CL is not a place-holder. N-CL constructions thus tell us more about the syntactic nature of CLs, the syntactic positions of various types of CLs, and the cross-categorical availability of place-holders for functional heads.

Chapter 8 concludes the book by summarizing its main arguments.


This book gives a thorough description of nominal architecture in MC. It discusses in detail various types of classifiers, measure (unit words) constructions, (in)compatibility with various quantifier constructions and associated interpretations in these nominal structures. Zhang follows a very structured approach in this book, where she systematically expresses new proposals, and evaluates them with respect to several possible combinations. Several constructions of unit words along with numerals, quantifiers, and nominals are discussed in this book. This book is very useful for researchers working in classifier languages, as it gives a comprehensive description of different types of combinations possible in MC. The unique proposals of the two features numerability and delimitability provide a new perspective on the distinction between count and mass nouns, and relate it to their combination with various types of unit words and adjectives in MC. Zhang also presents cross-linguistic examples, and validates the proposals with explanations of data outside of MC. The cross-linguistic orientation of the book, along with specific focus on a prototypical classifier language like MC, I believe, will prove to be very useful for further research on the nominal domain. Furthermore, the book fits well with other literature on classifier languages and opens up a lot of theoretical as well as language specific questions for research on MC as well as other, less studied classifier languages.

The chapter that appeals to me the most is the one on classifiers and plurality. There has been a long-standing debate among researchers regarding the complementary distribution of classifiers and plural markers in classifier languages. The common view regarding number marking in classifier languages is that these languages lack a number marking system. However, contemporary research brings up new instances that challenge this view. Zhang’s work in this area is particularly compelling because she brings into light new observations and a systematic representation of a system that resembles a number marking system in a prototypical classifier language like MC. She provides excellent argumentation to show that there is a productive number marking system in MC by means of syntactic occurrences of the numeral-less unit word or reduplicated unit words, which are not restricted to only animate nouns (e.g., associative plural), as is commonly found in classifier languages. She also alludes to the optionality of plural marking in classifier languages due to the presence of number-neutral bare nouns or the general number system. This chapter serves as a strong counter-argument to the common understanding of number marking in classifier languages.

Since the book aims to give a comprehensive picture of the nominal structure of a proto-typical classifier language, i.e., Mandarin Chinese, it misses out on descriptions of prior research on classifier languages. This is probably difficult, given the details already provided in the book; however, at some points, this book seems too focused on only details of MC. This minor shortcoming does not detract from the overall usefulness of the book or from its invaluable contribution to the study of nominal structure in Mandarin Chinese.


Barner, David, & Jesse Snedeker. (2005). Quantity judgments and individuation: Evidence that mass nouns count. Cognition, 97(1), 41-66.

Borer, Hagit. 2005. Structuring Sense: In Name Only, Vol. I, Oxford University Press.

Chierchia, Gennaro. 1998. Reference to kinds across languages. Natural Language Semantics 6, 339-405.

Doetjes, Jenny. 1997. Quantifiers and Selection: On the Distribution of Quantifying Expressions in French, Dutch and English. Dissertation Leiden University, HAG, The Hague.
Priyanka Biswas is a graduate student in Linguistics at the University of Southern California. Her research interest lies in the area of nominal structure of classifier languages. Specifically, she works on the issues of plurality and number marking of South Asian classifier languages.

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