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

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.

  • 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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