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The particle "ge 個/个" is one of the most frequent characters in written Chinese (12th in a list of 9,933 unique characters).  It is generally thought of as a classifier, numerary adjunct, measure word.  Indeed, it functions as the almost universal, default classifier when you're not sure what the correct / proper measure word for a given noun should be.  In addition, "ge" has more than a dozen other definitions and usages, for which see Wiktionary. However, I'm not sure that any dictionary or grammar accounts for a very special usage that I have long been intrigued and enchanted by, namely the "ge" in this type of sentence:

Wǒ máng de gè yàosǐ


"I'm so busy I could die!", i.e., "I'm incredibly busy!"

Here de 得 is a particle marking the complement of degree.

Because I lived with a big household full of Chinese (Shandong) in-laws, I picked this construction up very early in my learning of spoken Mandarin, but I always had a visceral feeling that it was extremely colloquial and unlikely to be encountered in written texts and was probably not covered in conventional grammars.  So I asked around among colleagues and native speaker informants how they would explain this unusual "ge", grammatically or otherwise.  Here are some of the replies I received.

A speaker of northwest Mandarin says that she never heard this usage in her whole life and thinks it may be a southernism.

Here are some examples given by other respondents:

Jīn wǎn wánr gè tòngkuài!


Let's have a really good time tonight!


Xiān chī ge bǎo zài shuō!


Let's have a full meal first, then we'll decide what to do!


One of my favorite insults:

Nǐ dǒng gè pì


"You know shit."

I don't think that any of these sentences exactly fit the paradigm of the original example, but they are illustrative of other idiomatic usages of "ge".

The following are some longer communications:

Maiheng Dietrich:

I don't really have an answer for your question. I don't think it can be explained with grammar, because the "ge" is not present in standard Mandarin máng dé yàosǐ 忙得要死. My guess is this colloquial expression fulfills or stresses a certain emotion of the speaker, similar to some people's usage of swear words for purpose of emphasis or intensification (of course, "ge" is no swear word).


Zheng-sheng Zhang:

So "ge" is not restricted to occur only after "de".  One more example:  Dǎ (le) gè luòhuāliúshuǐ 打(了)个落花流水。("beat somebody to pieces / a pulp")

"ta" [3rd person pronoun] often occurs before "ge": 打他个落花流水。 了 doesn't seem to fit here.  I wonder why?


Jing Hu:

I think that  "ge" here in this sentence is to emphasize the speaker's opinion / tone subjectively (in a colloquial language):

1. to emphasize "do something / or something is too big / to a great extent (subjectively)"; "个” is put between verb / adjective and complement, for example:

喝(得)个痛快 / 喝(得)个一醉方休





忙/饿/累 得个要死
(there is "死“ in the above sentences, so the adjectives are normally negative)

2. to emphasize the small quantity/the degree is light subjectively (the speaker subjectively feels "easy, relax, not a big deal etc.):

For example:






Anwei Feng:

I think I heard such ‘ge’ in a sentence like this before, but I don’t think it is always employed in speech. My gut feeling is that it might be used by speakers of a specific dialect(s) / topolect(s). The explanation for that ‘ge’ should therefore be best given by dialectologists who know that dialect(s).


Don Snow:

First, I'm pretty sure it doesn't come from Cantonese – at least it doesn't sound right to me in Cantonese (though I am open to correction from those who know the language better than I do).

However…. I have been studying Suzhounese with one of the staff in my center, and asked her about this; she in turn consulted with some friends. The consensus was that inserting a ge in examples like the one you gave is fairly normal in both Suzhounese and in Mandarin spoken by Suzhounese people. As to function, it basically adds emphasis. So, at least around here, by adding ge instead of simply saying "I am busy to death", you are saying "I am really busy to death!"


Neil Kubler:

Of course, Wo mangde yaosi is even more common but, yes, I've heard Wo mangde ge yaosi and my spouse (very traditional Beijing family who grew up in Taiwan) just confirmed that this can indeed be said, is very COLLOQUIAL, and is EVEN STRONGER than just Wo mangde yaosi.
Obviously this is on the pattern of chi ge tongkuai and mang ge buting.
Jerling (my wife) offers two more examples:

rang ni chide ge bao

rang ni chide ge guoyin

In addition to my comments about Wo mangde ge yaosi that I sent you, I suspect it's also "Northern-style Mandarin," not Southern.
I'm in Taiwan now and casually asked 2 of my grad students and they had not heard it — one said it was ungrammatical and the other said he had heard it but only from Northern Chinese. On the other hand, just Wo mangde yaosi without the ge is very common in Taiwan. In fact, whereas traditionally the resultative ending -si is supposed to be for infelicitous things (qisi, guisi), it's also often used for happy things: Wo gaoxingsi le!


Wolfgang Behr:

Historically, both ge and de could serve as complement (補語) markers in [VP + ge/de + complement] constructions since the Yuan period, with subtle differencces in the kinds of complements, types of definiteness, negation etc. involved. To me the construction looks like a conflation of both types, where BOTH ge and de are prosodically reduced markers introducing the complement. There is, however, a sizeable group of well-known scholars who consider ge as a measure word or classifier in such constructions, which would belong with the object, such that in sentences with both ge and de, de's function would be to introduce a complement NP, which would be internally classified by ge.

I am attaching three papers [VHM:  omitted for this post] related to this problem: Sun Tianqi discusses all theoretical approaches proposed in the literature (and adds his own generative solution); Zhu Yubin provides a historical dimension since the Yuan period; and the old article by You Rujie offers a simple breakdown of the different semantic types of VP + ge vs.  VP + de.


Zihan Guo:

I hear more often expressions like “…(你)個頭," used to negate in an emphatic way or to convey irritation, complaint. For example,
“你是不是在騙我?” “是你個頭!/ 騙你個頭!”
“我覺得這樣很好。” “好你個頭!”
“我還想再睡一會兒。” “睡你個頭!”
"…你個頭" might strike people as rude, but often used between very intimate friends, I think. And sometimes it is not used to express real discontent, but feels more like throwing a tantrum at someone close to you.
I am not sure if strictly speaking there is a grammatical base to the use of 個 here, but in general it adds much more stress and force to the statement.

Although I knew 個頭 with the pronunciation and meaning gètóu ("height; build; stature"), I had never encountered it with the pronunciation and meaning gè tóu ([slang, mildly rude] "my ass / arse"), so I am especially grateful to Zihan for helping me increase my command of genuine, spoken Mandarin.

Incidentally, the difference between gètóu and gè tóu supports my contention for the vital semantic, syntactic, and grammatical significance of pauses in Sinitic speech, which I have often argued for on Language Log — even micropauses and slight differences in intonation matter and convey important information / nuances.  Finally, writing gètóu and gè tóu in Pinyin demonstrates the superiority of the latter over Sinographs in depicting the subtleties of spoken language.


Selected readings

[Thanks to David Moser, Robert Sanders, Cynthia Ning, and Diana Zhang]


  1. Michael Watts said,

    July 23, 2021 @ 5:14 pm

    I've wondered about what is probably the same construction. A friend of mine corrected my effort "春天下雨下得不停" to 春天下雨下个不停 [In the spring it rains incessantly.] She had no grammatical analysis, saying 其实就是一个习惯用法 [it's just something we say]. But she provided many similar examples:

    她哭个不停。电脑响个不停。他说个不停。舞跳个不停。他开心的 [sic] 说个不停。他难过的说个不停。

    Obviously this is the same phrase appearing in several sentences. But it looked to me like it was displacing what "should have been" a 得-of-manner, similar to Wolfgang Behr's analysis above. And perhaps the two final examples, compounding a 得-introduced result with the 个 of manner appearing inside the result, are of interest.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    July 23, 2021 @ 11:38 pm

    It's disappointing that Professor Mair has not done his usual job in providing characters, pronunciation, literal meaning, and meaning/significance of all the examples given. This is a post that only people who are deeply versed in Mandarin would understand. What would someone not familiar with Chinese make of rang ni chide ge bao, 騙你個頭, and 面个试还这么紧张?

    That said, reading all of these examples still gives me the impression that 個/个 is derived from the classifier, and that the construction is somehow meant as a noun, just as in the English "He wants to help me, my fat arse", where "my fat arse" is indeed an NP, but wouldn't fit so well into theories of grammatical description. Not that it couldn't be fitted into theories of grammatical description, but you could rest assured that different grammarians working within different traditions would come up with different analyses.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    July 23, 2021 @ 11:44 pm

    面个试还这么紧张? and the other examples listed with it look like ordinary uses of the measure word to me, appearing as they do right before nouns.

  4. Phil H said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 1:19 am

    I don’t think that I’ve ever heard the version with both 得 and 个, as in the very first example. Many of the forms without 得 are common here (Xiamen). If pushed, I would have said they are in fact contracting versions of noun forms:
    你懂个屁 = 你连一个屁都不懂
    吃个饱 = 吃一顿饱饭 (or I suppose maybe 吃出一个很饱的感觉来)
    But I’m not sure how robust this analysis is!

  5. Michael Watts said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 2:01 am

    I would also tend to interpret 你懂个屁 as involving a noun, although my interpretation might be closer to "what you understand amounts to [no more than] a fart" as opposed to "you don't even understand a fart".

    But 他说个不停?How do you interpret that as a noun? And 吃个饱 looks like that to me, with 个 introducing a complement clause that would here be the result of the verb.

    On the other hand, I could imagine the argument that 吃个饱 is parallel to 面个试, with the resultative 吃饱 construction being reanalyzed as a verb+object construction, and 个 then being inserted before the object.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 6:05 am

    "This is a post that only people who are deeply versed in Mandarin would understand."

    Regular readers of Language Log will know that the vast majority of my posts here are designed for people who don't know any Chinese, or only a minimal / moderate amount. They will also realize that I am assiduous in providing transcriptions, literal translations, and grammatical notes for quotations of example sentences and terms in a thoroughgoing way that I think you'll seldom find elsewhere. I made an exception (one out of a hundred) with this post for the following reasons:

    1. the post was already getting very long for a typical LL essay

    2. it was intended for specialists, as occasionally happens with my colleagues' posts in other subfields of linguistics (e.g., phonology and phonetics)

    3. part of the reason for providing a variety of presentations of the materials that were quoted was to show that you can still understand things written only in Pinyin (even without tones!), sometimes better than when they're written with characters; as a matter of fact, in a couple of cases where correspondents sent in Pinyin-only examples (e.g., "Ni dong ge pi" and "Xian chi ge bao zai shuo"), I added characters and English translations so that beginners and intermediate learners could also appreciate these interesting expressions.

    It is disheartening that, when I had all of these considerations keenly and consciously in mind, a frequent reader who is himself at an advanced level would still complain in this exceptional case.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 6:25 am

    I am in agreement with the drift of a number of commenters that many of the examples given in the o.p. can be analyzed as deriving from the basic meaning / function of "ge 個/个" as a classifier / numerary adjunct / measure word, i.e., "a", but not the very first one with which I began the post and others that include both the complement particle "de 得" and "ge 個/个", as well as the final spate of examples with “…(你)個頭", which is a different construction altogether, one that I find particularly fascinating, and which shows the syntactic versatility of "ge 個/个".

  8. David C. said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 8:53 am

    The examples given by Professor Mair in the original post and by Michael Watts above all appear to have 個 (gè) in an emphatic role expressing completeness or thoroughness, while 得 (de) marks the degree. I rather like the explanation of conflation given by Wolfgang Behr.

    The usage certainly did not strike me as ungrammatical. A search for the use of 得個 in one dictionary yielded a large number of results, with examples of where it has been used in literature, some dating back to the Yuan dynasty. There are too many to list so hopefully this link works here. Not every entry fits the pattern, but most do.

    On a side note, the confusion between 的/地/得 (de) is increasingly common, especially among speakers whose native tongue is Mandarin, for which the pronunciation is identical. The misuse is now widespread even on Chinese state television and written media. For instance, in the list of examples given by Michael Watts, 难过的 should have been 难过得 [難過得].

  9. Chris Button said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 9:35 am

    I wonder if 我忙得個要死 could be literally translated as something like “I’m busy to the degree of a desire for death” or some such thing? That can then maintain some version of 個 as a classifier before a noun phrase.

  10. julie lee said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 11:51 am

    Thanks for the post, Professor Mair, which I enjoyed very much.

    My parents had lived in Hankow, Nanjing, Peiping (Beijing), and Shanghai, and I grew up hearing "ge" and "de ge" a lot.

    Later, when I studied Yuan dynasty drama and had books from the library, my husband (a physicist) picked them up to read and was amazed at the 13th century dialogue. "That's just the way we spoke at home in Shandong", he exclaimed. He grew up in Tengxian County, Shandong, and went to school in Qingdao. I couldn't understand his Shandong speech. I too was amazed that Chinese colloquial speech (in Shandong) lasted from the 13th century till the 20th century—700 years. The dialogue in Yuan drama was popping with lively expressions.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 3:19 pm

    David, your link "works" in the sense of transporting the reader to a new page (at, but sadly that page displays nothing for me in either of my two browsers, and "Show source" shows nothing.

  12. David C. said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 5:00 pm

    Thanks Philip. The link was correctly showing the search results when I made the post above, but it looks like the link is limited to a 30-minute session. What I had done was to search for occurrences of 得個, selecting the option for 全文 (full text), in the Revised Mandarin Chinese Dictionary, which is a publication of the Ministry of Education, R.O.C. (Taiwan).

    The link to the dictionary can be found here (in Chinese only).

  13. Bathrobe said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 8:33 pm

    Thank you for your explanation about your presentation of the orthography/pronunciation. In fact it would be more accurate to say that I was surprised rather than disappointed at your departure from your usual practice, but what you wrote makes perfect sense.

    I think Wolfgang Behr has given the most apt characterisation of this phenomenon from the point of view of linguistics. It would be interesting to see the papers.

    In linguistics nowadays there are all kinds of descriptions / explanations out there. Some seem truly outlandish, but accepting a proposal as highly insightful or rejecting it as truly outlandish requires a detailed and exact understanding of the argumentation used to arrive at that analysis, as well as the grammatical framework.

    For what they are worth, the following are my own musings.

    In understanding this phenomenon, one must first note that a measure word can be used without a noun following. For example:

    来一杯吧, omitting 酒
    来一个吧, omitting whatever the noun is.

    I've seen examples in China where you have to be familiar with the omitted noun that goes with the measure word in order to understand the meaning.

    At any rate, the ability to omit the noun would seem to leave open the possibility of substituting something else in that slot.

    In this connection, I note that even in English it's not unusual for the constituents of a sentence to 'overflow' the boundaries of grammar:

    I got an answer (Noun = 'answer')
    I asked for an answer and all I got was an 'I don't know'. ('I don't know' in Noun position).

    In English, even more startling examples of language 'overflowing its banks' can be found, such as this relative clause from

    There are films that you are lucky that you don't have to sit through the whole thing.

    I would not be surprised if similar 'overflowing of the banks' were to happen in Chinese, involving the substitution of whole expressions or sentences for the noun. For example:


    This opens the way for 个 to introduce a complement consisting of a whole sentence, in which case 个 could be reinterpreted as an intensifier. As Wolfgang Behr points out, this kind of usage goes back a long way.

    However, there is another pattern involved in the above examples, as Michael Watts noted, as seen in expressions like 帮忙, where 忙 is the object of 帮. This results in expressions like 帮我一个忙. This lies behind the example 面个试, and possibly also 吃个饭 and 逛个街. The example 走个十来里 seems like an extension of this, but in this case the function as an intensifier also seems to be present.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    July 24, 2021 @ 9:54 pm

    There are films that you are lucky that you don't have to sit through the whole thing.

    I don't understand the point you're making about this sentence. In the original LL post, it's an example of a relative clause containing content which the grammar doesn't allow. But the problematic relative clause in question is that you are lucky that you don't have to sit through the whole thing — the inner clause that you highlight has nothing wrong with it. "You're lucky that you don't have to sit through the whole thing" is a fully standard sentence.

    And the gapless relative discussion doesn't seem to involve surprising strings of words appearing where a noun phrase is expected (though there have been previous LL mentions of that phenomenon too). What is the 'overflowing of the banks' that you perceive in the quoted sentence?

  15. Bathrobe said,

    July 25, 2021 @ 1:50 am

    Yes, I mistakenly highlighted only part of the clause.

    The point I was making was that sentences can be embedded in ways that don't comply with ordinary grammar. In the English example I quoted, a fully standard sentence is embedded in a way that is incorrect in standard English, suggesting that the speaker was impatient with the constraints of relative clauses in "standard English". That is what I meant by saying that the sentence "overflows the banks" of standard English.

    For '个 + clause' in Chinese, where normally '个 + noun' might be expected, my suggestion was that this could perhaps also be understood as a case of grammar "overflowing its banks", stretching an ordinary construction beyond its normal usage in a desire to be more expressive.

    The English and Chinese examples are only very loosely related, the common thread being clause embedding. Since the structure appears to be very old, historical research would be needed to explain the actual evolution of the usage. My suggestion (and comparison) might be completely wrong.

  16. Phil H said,

    July 25, 2021 @ 11:01 am

    @Michael Watts
    "吃饱 construction being reanalyzed as a verb+object construction"
    Yeah, on reflection I think this makes more sense! It captures the playful messing-with-grammar feel of the construction, and seems to fit well with the way it's used, so far as I've heard it.

  17. Alan Shaw said,

    July 31, 2021 @ 10:36 am

    @Phil H, Michael Watts
    I think 談了個不停 also suits that explanation quite well.

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