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I guess we could use the native Japanese numbers, 一つ, 二つ, 三つ...but we'd run into a problem at or after ten (not sure how とお works — same for はたち).

Is there a general counter word that we can fallback on? For example, if something is mechanical I'd probably fallback on 台 (だい), if it's flat 枚 (まい). For more general objects like 11 motorcycle helmets, or 15 packs of cigarettes, or 24 clothes hangers, could I fallback on something?

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Usage is not so correct, but you may use 一個、二個 十個 二十個 百個 ... –  YOU Jun 3 '11 at 16:00
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+1, just don't use しっこ (四個) ;) –  repecmps Jun 3 '11 at 16:06
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you missed the pun –  repecmps Jun 3 '11 at 16:10
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@hippietrail And there is also a Mandarin ge, which is curiously written (though only in traditional script) 個. :) The difference is that it's far more useful in Mandarin, and it's even the default counter word for many common categories (such as people), while Japanese is a little bit stricter, and if you can use a default counter words for low numbers, you'd usually prefer the native (つ) counters. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 3 '11 at 16:45
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@Boaz Yaniv: I know the simplified version of that, which is . :D –  Alenanno Jun 3 '11 at 18:25
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

You'd fall back to 個. It's understandable to count everything as 個, and in many cases it's acceptable (or the only common way) as well.

Counting animals as 個 does sound quite weird though, so you might want to avoid that. And never count people as 個. That's just wrong.

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In my experience, 個 tends to be limited to tangible objects, like helmets or fruit. Is there a general counter for abstract things, such as in the sentence: "14 proposals were presented."? Counting 提案 with 個 sounds a little strange to my ears. –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 16:14
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@Derek: 14個の提案 sounds correct to me. An alternative may be 14本の提案, but I do not feel that either one is more correct than the other. I am not sure if this use of 個 can be applied to everything abstract. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 3 '11 at 16:34
    
I use 個 for intangible things too, but I don't know if it's correct. 三個のアイディアがあった. Maybe it does sound strange. 三つのアイディアがあった? –  nevan king Jun 3 '11 at 16:48
    
@nevan: I agree that 三つのアイデア is more natural than 三個のアイデア. Maybe the reason 14個のアイデア sounds natural to me is because we cannot say 14つ. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 3 '11 at 16:55
    
@Tsuyoshi: Ah, so I guess this is a case of my non-native ears getting in the way again. :) –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 17:44
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