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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 one apple?

Secondly, in Lesson 5 of the Japanese For Busy People I textbook, there is this sentence structure with no grammatical explanation:

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

Since it gives no explanation, is this a valid sentence structure, like XはYです and noun 1 の noun 2? Can someone explain this sentence structure to me? Why does numeral (or numeral and counter) come after the particle を? If it is part of the "thing", why is it not on the other side?

3 Answers 3

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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 for 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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  • Actually, I'm pretty sure 二犬 occurs in classical Japanese. Numeral + noun also fossilizes in modern Japanese too. Think 二人.
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 26 at 1:36
  • @EddieKal それって「にけん」?「ふたいぬ」?
    – Angelos
    Apr 26 at 2:22
  • @Angelos さー。「中頃の郡主甲賀三郎兼家といふ人あり弓馬の道万人に勝れ其威四方に振ひ諸人恐纉□せずという事なし日々遊猟を好んで鹿を射事九百有余に及り則史家を射留し所を留沢といふ其此此山に二犬あり此二犬頻に吼て三日なをやます兼家公奇異の思ひをなし樹陰よりひそかにこれを見れば長五尺に余れる鹿大に怒て兼家公にむかふ兼家公よき猟と喜びいさんで矢一筋射給えば其鹿たちまち一寸八分の観音菩□とあらわれて弓筈にかゝり二犬すなわち二石と化すといふ其二石今猶歴然たり兼家公弓前を捨て尊像をかりきぬの袖につゝみ礼拝し懺悔していはくわが子孫に至るまで永く此山も鎮護大旦那とならんと誓ひ此時の住持応伝師に帰依し本山十一面尊像の御くしに納め若干の荘園を寄附し給う。」link
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 26 at 2:37
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    @EddieKal It's にけん, and 二石 is also にせき. An application of Classical Chinese grammar, which does not have the concept of counter. Jul 31 at 4:06
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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.

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  • Which one is most commonly used and what are their literal translations? Jul 22, 2016 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, 2016 at 7:36
  • @AppleMango It seems that the second structure would be used when you when one wants to quantify individual nouns in a list of nouns in which the quantities aren't the same for each noun (e.g., in a sentence like "One apple and two bananas, please."). There's more discussion of possible structures at japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/8136/…. Nov 19, 2020 at 10:03

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