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Dec 12

Beyond counting: the curious number 2 (Elementary)

What exactly do you know about the number 2? Is it just a mere number in Mandarin? Let’s have a look at the following conversation and see just where you stand.

             Nǐ tài èr le.
Lǐ Huá:你 太 2 了。

 

              Á?
  Lucy:啊?

 

             Nǐ de chēpáishang yǒu hěnduō sì.
Lǐ Huá:你的     车牌上       有     很多   4。

 

             Á? Shénme yìsi?
  Lucy:啊?什么    意思?

 

People have love-hate relationships with numbers depending on what country they’re in. Thirteen conjures memories of hockey masks and horror in the western world, while four is avoided to such a degree in China that people pay extra for telephone numbers void of the despised numeral. With that said, why does Lǐ Huá comment on the number of fours in Lucy’s license plate number? Also, what does 2 mean?

The answer to the bitter hatred against the lonely number 4 is that its pronunciation in Chinese is “,” which sounds uncomfortably similar to the Chinese word for death: 死 (), granting it immediate tenure amongst the vast selection of unlucky things in China. In Li Hua’s eyes, it’s very silly to use a license plate with too many fours. With the sometimes seeming absence of traffic laws on Chinese roads, advertising death on a license plate is just asking for trouble, or at least a visit to an auto shop.

For our second question: why does she use the number 2, pronounced as èr, to make her comment on the license plate? Actually, the number 2 in Chinese has another meaning that translates to stupid, silly or careless. 二 (èr) is the Arabic number for 2 written in Chinese. Sometimes, it’s a bit unpleasant to address someone as 二哥 (èrgē) which originally meant someone’s second eldest brother, but now carries the connotation of stupid brother. However, there are always exceptions. 二 (èr) in some situations is just a casual way to say someone is optimistic or has a broad outlook on life. If your good friend did something silly which happened to amuse you, calling them 二 (èr) is very appropriate and to be taken in good fun.

Example:

     Nǐ de étóu zěnme le?
A:你的  额头  怎么  了?

 

     What’s wrong with your forehead?

     Wǒ zhuàng shùshang le.
B:我      撞         树上     了。

 

       I hit it on a tree.

      Nǐ tài èr le.
A:你 太 二了。

 

       You dummy.

Speaking of 二 (èr), we have a few other things you need to note. One is the difference between 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) which both mean two. Look at the following dialogue.

      Nǐ yǒu jǐběn shū?
A:你 有   几本   书?

 

       How many books do you have?

     Wǒ yǒu èrběn.
B:我   有   二本。

 

       I have two.

As you’ll soon discover, it’s very obvious that B’s response chooses incorrectly to express two using 二 (èr) rather than 两 (liǎng). The difference between the two words lies in the following set of magical rules:

 

1. Use  (èr) when reading numbers and numbers in sequence, but  (liǎng) in front of  (qiān, thousand),  (wàn, ten thousand) and 亿 (, a hundred million).

Examples:

    Wǒ  yǒu èrshí gè píngguǒ.
(1) 我   有   二十 个    苹果。

 

      I have twenty apples.

     Wǒ de chēpái hàomǎ shì líng èr wǔ qī.
(2) 我   的   车牌    号码    是   零  二 五 七。

 

       My license plate number is 0257.

     Wǒ yǒu liǎngqiān kuài qián.
(3) 我   有     两千      块    钱。

 

      I have two thousand Yuan.

2. Use  (liǎng) before classifiers such as 两年 (liǎngnián, two years), 两岁 (liǎngsuì, two years old), and 两本  (liǎng běn).

Example:

Wǒ yǒu liǎng běn shū.
我    有    两    本   书。

 

I have two books.

3. Put  (èr) directly before nouns to express “second.” For example, 二楼 (èr lóu) means the second floor.

Example:

Wǒ zhù zài èrlóu.
我   住   在  楼。 

 

I live on the second floor.

4. Use 二 (èr) to refer to something second-hand or not brand new such as 二手房 (èrshǒu fáng, second-hand house), 二手车 (èrshǒu chē, second-hand car).

Example:

Wǒ mǎi le yíliàng èrshǒu chē.
我    买  了 一辆     手    车。

 

I bought a second-hand car.

Note that you may come across the expression 二两 (èrliǎng). Here 两 (liǎng) is not a number, but a classifier referring to a unit of weight that is unique to Chinese.

So many differences from such small words! Can you now tell 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) apart?

Exercises:

1. How do you describe your friend who did something stupid?

A. 他很好。(Tā hěn hǎo.)           B. 他很两。(Tā hěn liǎng.)

C. 他很二。(Tā hěn èr.)              D. 他有很多四。(Tā yǒu hěnduō sì.)

2. 我有_____条鱼。(Wǒ yǒu___ tiáo yú.)

A. 二 (èr)       B. 两 (liǎng)

3. What does the sentence “这是二手房。(Zhè shì èrshǒu fáng.)” mean?

A. This is a second-hand house.

B. This is the second house.

C. This is not my house.

Answers:

1. C        2.B         3.A

Got questions? Take a Free 1-on-1 live online lesson with our professional teachers from China.

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