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I find the distinction between 匹 and 頭 is rather tricky, because it is based on the size of the animal in question, and size is very relative and varies greatly among animals, even within the same species. And unfortunately there doesn't seem to be comprehensive list on which animal goes with which counter.

So when you look at an animal, how do you determine which counter to use?

Is it based purely on size or on collocation (or conventional usage if you will)? Roughly speaking, how big is "big" and how small is "small"? And if it's usually based on collocation, how do you expand the rule of thumb to unfamiliar animals, like say a capybara, a python or a binturong? Do all breeds of dog go with 匹? What about huge ones like the St. Bernard? Does "two piglets" use the same counter as "two grown pigs"? From what I've Googled, kangaroos seem to go with 匹 even though lots of them are so big they can easily knock a grown human out.

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Roughly speaking, an animal bigger than a human being is "big". As for St. Bernard and kangaroos, both 匹 and 頭 are fine. We usually use 頭 for lions, but using 匹 for a baby lion is fine. In certain scientific contexts, 頭 is preferred regardless of the size.

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Here's a thing about language in general: When there is a case statement like this one, it is almost never based on a hard and fast rule. It's not like "If an animal is 5'1" tall then it's an A, if it's less than 5' then it's a B", because usually a) it doesn't matter and b) nobody is actually going to check your math. The general rule of thumb should be: When you think of the case in question, do you associate that image with A or with B? For example, if I think "dog", I usually think of a small animal. When I think of "bear", I usually think of a big animal. Therefore, for dog I would use 匹 and for bear I would use 頭, even when talking about a small bear or a large dog. Babies of large animals are, of course, a special case.

  • I'm not asking a specific rule, I'm sure there's no such thing. We're talking about a language that classifies "rabbits" into the same category as "birds". Hence, the "roughly speaking" part. Specific math, no. Rough math, yes, not as in "is 5'1"" (whatever that means), but as in, for example, larger than an average grown adult, or maybe "around*/*smaller*/*larger 5'1"". – Vun-Hugh Vaw Apr 10 at 15:55
  • "Association" only works to a point, because more people are aware of animals they don't see in their homeland on a daily basis, the harder it is to determine what is "usual" because nothing could be both unfamiliar and "usual". Like for example, how would you "usually" think of kangaroos? I'd argue they're "usually" big, but as I said, from what I've Googled, some "kangaroos" could be "usually" small. I've read somewhere that service dogs may go with 頭 instead, so the "usual" rule may not be that convincing. – Vun-Hugh Vaw Apr 10 at 16:00
  • Therefore, I think it's a combination of both: actual size (big, small, whatever) and conventional use (or "usual association" use if you will). However, I'd like to know if there's a way to go beyond "usual", because like I said, there are tons of things that can't be "usual". And even among things that can be called "usual", there are smaller "usualnesses", as in the cases of baby animals, for example. That's why I'm asking this question. – Vun-Hugh Vaw Apr 10 at 16:03
  • Also, you may think of it as "usual", but to make anything "usual" to yourself you'd need quite some extensive understanding of the animal in question. For example, when you first look at a binturong, something you've never seen before, would you bother to research to know what their "usual" size (adult, infantile or otherwise) is, or would you just use the size of the binturong you're looking at? – Vun-Hugh Vaw Apr 10 at 16:11
  • @Vun-HughVaw Personal anecdote: When I began learning Japanese (I'm not a native Japanese speaker), when we learned counters in class, 匹 was among the first ones we learned; 頭 was not. Therefore, when in doubt, I would think that the default should be 匹. – Ertai87 Apr 10 at 18:05

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