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My first question is, are counters always required when counting things? Can't I just slap a number in front of the noun? For example,「いちりんご」for 1 apple?

Secondly, in Lesson 5 of the Japanese For Busy People I textbook, it states this sentence structure, but gave no grammatical explanation for it -

thingをnumeral(or numeral and counter)ください。

Since it gave no explanation, is this a valid sentence structure, like that of XはYです and noun1のnoun2? Can someone explain this sentence structure to me? Why is the numeral(or numeral and counter) after the particle を? If it is part of the thing, why is it not on the other side?

If you can answer in order and provide any follow-up links, that'd be great! Also, I've only been studying Japanese for almost 2 months, so please forgive all my questions :)

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  1. The following Wikipedia article on Japanese counter word explains well about how the counter words or counters (josūshi 助数詞) work in Japanese.

In Japanese, as in Chinese and Korean, numerals cannot quantify nouns by themselves (except, in certain cases, for the numbers from one to ten; see below). For example, to express the idea "two dogs" in Japanese one could say 二匹の犬 ni-hiki no inu (literally "two small-animal-count POSSESSIVE dog"), or 犬二匹 inu ni-hiki (literally "dog two small-animal-count"), but just pasting 二 and 犬 together in either order is wrong.

Therefore, you have to use リンゴ一つ or 一つのリンゴ to express one apple.

  1. "リンゴをください" means "Please give me an apple". This sentence doesn't specify how many applies you want. If you want to specify it, you have to insert the counter between リンゴを and ください as in "リンゴを一つください." which means "Please give me one apple."

    The link further explains:

Grammatically, counter words can appear either before or after the noun they count. They generally occur after the noun (following particles), and if used before the noun, they emphasize the quantity; this is a common mistake in English learners of Japanese. For example, to say "[I] drank two bottles of beer", the order is ビールを二本飲んだ bīru o nihon nonda (lit. "beer OBJECT two-long-thin-count drank"). In contrast, 二本のビールを飲んだ nihon no bīru o nonda (lit. "two-long-thin-count POSSESSIVE beer OBJECT drank") would only be appropriate when emphasizing the number as in responding with "[I] drank two bottles of beer" to "How many beers did you drink?".

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Think like this:

All nouns in Japanese are uncountable. You can't count apples any more than you count water or light. Thus under Japanese grammar you always have to say "two 'objects' of apple", "four 'sticks' of banana" and "seven 'bodies' of dog", as if they are "two bottles of water" or "four rays of light" etc.

りんご一つ/一個 an object of apple = an apple (fruit)
りんご一山 a lot/pile of apples
りんご一年分 a year's worth of apples
りんご一本 a stick of apple = an appletree

The only exception is a few words represent shapes, (abstract) groupings, unit of measure etc. that could be used as counter words as well.

三試合 three matches/games
十世帯 ten households
三十メートル thirty meters


Why is the numeral(or numeral and counter) after the particle を? If it is part of the thing, why is it not on the other side?

Because they are adverbs, unlike English, where numerals are used like adjectives. We prefer saying "give me apples in three" or "kids are playing in three", instead of "give me three apples" or "three kids are playing". They can basically appear anywhere after the base word and before the verb (but can be restricted by context, such as nesting or other countable words).

ペンを三本ください。
ペンが三本あります。
ペンが机の上に三本あります。
ペンを二本は太郎くんと次郎くんに、花子さんには三本あげてください。

[numeral] の [noun] type of expression does exist too, but it only sounds natural in some limited settings. Generally, it's able to be translated as "the [numeral] [noun]s" such as:

三匹の子ぶた The Three Little Pigs

But in many cases when this expression would be valid, you'd only see a numeral (and counter) alone rather than its full form, because in such cases the base word is very likely to be stated already, thus simply omitted for that time.

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Without using counters, in general, you can't make it sure if it's trying to express natural numbers or ordinal ones.

りんごを 一つ ください is valid because 一つ is an adverb here.

リンゴ一つを ください is also valid because リンゴ一つ is a compound noun this time.

  • Which one is most commonly used and what are their literal translations? – Apple Mango Jul 22 '16 at 18:55
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    It's the former. And since English grammar doesn't have the same structure, translations have to be "one apple" after all. – user4092 Jul 23 '16 at 7:36

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