As a Mandarin learner, you most likely already know how to pronounce the numbers one, two, three and four (yī èr sān sì). So let’s continue with some numbers that are a little bit more complex. For example:
You may say to yourself “Oh yeah, I know that. It’s èr qiān.” However, you would be incorrect. The correct way to say it is liǎng qiān.
If you got that wrong, please don’t get frustrated. Let’s try again with another example. This one is about time:
Now, you might say “I know! This must be èr diǎn èr shí èr!” However, once again, you will have gotten it wrong. The answer is instead liǎng diǎn èr shí èr.
After all this, chances are that you are somewhat confused. And you may be asking yourself “when should I use 二 and when should I use 两?”
The answer is that there are several rules governing this. Let’s take a look some examples of them in the following article.
Small cardinal numbers, telephone numbers, room numbers and zip codes
When we read cardinal numbers using the number two in Chinese, we read them as èr. For example, 2 is read as èr, 12 is shí èr and 20 is èr shí. We follow the same rules when we read telephone numbers, room numbers and zip codes.
- Room number 202 is read as èr líng èr.
- The Shanghai Zip Code 200000 is read as èr líng líng líng líng líng.
Larger cardinal numbers
There are also some general rules for larger cardinal numbers. Let’s look at some below:
- 200 is read as either èr bǎi or liǎng bǎi. Both are correct.
- 2,000 is read as liǎng qiān.
- 20,000 is read as liǎng wàn.
- 200,000 is read as èr shí wàn (because here we have an èr shí).
- 2,000,000 is read as either èr bǎi wàn or liǎng bǎi wàn (because here we have an èr bai / liǎng bǎi).
- 20,000,000 is read as liǎng qiān wàn (because here we have a liǎng qiān).
- 200,000,000 is read as liǎng yì.
After these examples, I think you will be able to understand how to say larger numbers involving the number 2.
For ordinal numbers, we use èr. For instance, 第二 (second) is read as dì èr and 初二 is read as chū èr (this is the second day in a Chinese lunar month or the second grade in middle school).
For common measurements, we use liǎng.
- 两个苹果 two apples: liǎng ge píngguǒ
- 两瓶啤酒 two bottles of beer: liǎng píng píjiǔ
- 两双鞋 two pairs of shoes: liǎng shuāng xié
For special measurements, we can use both 二 and 两. Let’s look at some specific examples below.
Measurement words for weight
In China, we prefer to use the measurement units 斤(jīn, half a kilogram) and 公斤(gōngjīn, one kilogram). 二斤(èr jīn) and 两斤(liǎng jīn) are both correct, as well as 二公斤(èr gōng jīn) and 两公斤(liǎng gōng jīn).
Another larger unit for weight is 吨(dūn, ton). It follows the same rule: 二吨 and 两吨 are both correct.
However, there is an exception. When we talk about smaller values for weight, we can use 两, which is equal to 1/10 of 斤 or 1/20 of kilogram. As you can see, this smaller unit for weight shares the same character and pronunciation as 两. Therefore, when we have two of this unit, we use èr liǎng(二两) instead of liǎng liǎng.
Measurement words for length
In China, we use 米(mǐ) for one meter and 千米(qiānmǐ) for one kilometer. We also have some traditional measurement units for length, which include 里(lǐ, half a kilometer) and 公里(gōnglǐ, one kilometer). In these cases, both 二 and 两 are correct.
- 二米(èr mǐ) / 两米(liǎng mǐ)
- 二千米(èr qiān mǐ) / 两千米(liǎng qiān mǐ)
Time of the day: 2:00 is read as 两点(liǎng diǎn) instead of 二点(diǎn), while 2:22 is read as 两点二十二(liǎng diǎn èr shí èr). When referring to a duration of “two hours,” we say 两个小时(liǎng ge xiǎoshí).
Week: “Tuesday” is read as 星期二(xīngqī èr).
Date: If we are referring to the second day of the month, we use 二号(èr hào). However, if we are referring to a duration of “two days,” we say 两天(liǎng tiān).
Month: February (the second month) is read as 二月(èr yuè). However, if we are referring to a time period of “two months,” we use 两个月(liǎng ge yuè) because it includes the unit 个(gè).
Year: We read the year 2002 as 二零零二年(èr líng líng líng èr nián). However, if we are referring to a time period of “two years,” we use 两年(liǎng nián).
A note of caution...
In some dialects, people also use 二 to describe someone who is a little bit silly, reckless or someone who does something without thinking.
For example, we know that 200 can be said as either èr bǎi or liǎng bǎi. However, if you say 250, you need to be careful about its pronunciation. Specifically, 250(èr bǎi wǔ) is also a bad word that can be used to say that someone is stupid.
Furthermore, if someone says 你二啊？(Nǐ èr a?), it means “Are you fool?”
Lastly, there is a new buzzword online 二货 (èr huò), which also means “you fool,” but in kind of a cute way. However, you need to be very careful with your tones and facial expressions when you use 二货, otherwise people might think you are being hostile.
Now let’s try practicing a sentence:
- Èr líng líng líng èr nián èr yuè èr shí èr hào liǎng diǎn èr shí èr zhège èrhuò chī le èr shí ge píngguô.
- This fool ate 20 apples on 2:22, Feb. 22, 2002.
二 and 两 are quite similar, but they are also very different. Even Chinese people can get them confused sometimes. But don’t worry. Even if you say them incorrectly, people will still understand you.
In any case, please remember that the Chinese language is full of exceptions, including the uses of 二 and 两 seen here. Today, we have discussed some very common saying in Mandarin Chinese. However, you should keep in mind that in the various dialects, there are always many more exceptions.