ER vs LIANG: A Complete Guide to Understanding 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) in Chinese

er or liang

Are you confused about when to use 二 (èr) and when to use 两 (liǎng) in Chinese? It can be tricky for Chinese beginners as both er and liang are translated as ”two” in English. Then, what’s the difference between 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng)?  Luckily for you, you have this article, which will guide you through how to understand and use each, with examples!

Let’s dive in!

The Difference between 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng)

Essentially, both 二 (èr) and (liǎng) mean “2”, it’s just that they are used for different circumstances in Chinese. To put it short: 二 (èr) is the “2” for numbers and 两 (liǎng) is the “2” for measure words.

I know it sounds very abstract right now. But hang on! Once we get to the details, it will make sense.

When to Use 二 (èr) for 2?

二 (èr) is generally used in numbers, such as when you do the counting, perform mathematical operations, give your telephone number, etc.

Let’s find out how to use 二 (èr) properly in Chinese in these circumstances.

1. Use 二 (èr) to Tell Numbers, Count and Do Math

Let’s see some examples!

  • 三四五
    èr sān sì wǔ
    one two three four five

  • shí èr
    twelve

  • èr shí èr
    twenty-two
  • 八十
    bā shí èr
    eighty-two
  • 个人
    shí èr gè rén
    twelve people
  • 块钱
    èr shí èr kuài qián
    twenty-two RMB (Kuai: basic monetary unit of China)
  • 八十
    bā shí èr suì
    eighty-two years of age
  • 点五
    èr diǎn wǔ
    two point five
  • 三分之
    sān fēn zhī èr
    two-thirds
  • 等于四
    èr jiā èr děng yú sì
    two plus two equals four
use er instead of liang in math

If the digit 2 is part of another number, big or small, you can read it as 二 (èr).

Examples:

  • 20

    èr shí
  • 200

    èr bǎi
  • 0.2
    零点
    líng diǎn èr

That said, there are some occasions where you can read the 2 in a number as 两 (liǎng) as well. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Now, when the digit 2 appears in a series of numbers, you always read it as 二 (èr). That’s why you only hear 二 (èr) in a telephone number.  

For example, if your phone number is 802-4226-5372, you read it as 八零二二六 五三七 (bā líng èrèr èr liù wǔ sān qī èr).

2. Use 二 (èr) to Express “2nd”

In addition to cardinal numbers, 二 (èr) is constantly used to express the ordinal number “second”.

Examples:


  • èr
    the second

  • èr gè
    the second one

  • èr
    the second time

  • èr tiān
    the second day

  • èr zhōu
    the second week

  • èr lóu
    the second floor

  • èr
    the second oldest brother

  • èr yuè
    February (the second month)

  • èr hào
    the second date (of the month)
  • 月二十
    èr yuè èr shí èr hào
    February twenty-second (the twenty-second date of the second month)
use er instead of liang in Chinese to express the second

When to Use 两 (liǎng) for 2?

When you want to express a quantity of things (and by using a measure word to do so), you will need to use 两 (liǎng) instead for 2. In other words, use 两 (liǎng) for “two” when you need to say “two of something”.

Pattern 

两 (liǎng) + measure word

Let’s take a look at some examples!

  • 只猫
    liǎng zhī māo
    two cats
  • 位老师
    liǎng wèi lǎoshī
    two teachers
  • 本书
    liǎng běn shū
    two books
  • 个月
    liǎng gè yuè
    two months
  • 周时间
    liǎng zhōu shíjiān
    two weeks of time
  • 块钱
    liǎng kuài qián
    two RMB (Kuai: basic monetary unit of China)

  • liǎng suì
    two years of age

  • liǎng
    two times
  • 个小时
    liǎng gè xiǎoshí
    two hours
  • 个孩子
    liǎng gè háizi
    two kids
use liang instead of er in Chinese to express two of something

As you can see, there is always a measure word after 两 (liǎng).

Just to be clear, I am talking about the 2 as the isolated cardinal number 2 here, as in “two of something”. 两 (liǎng) does not function as the ordinar number “2nd”, regardless of whether a measure word is used or not. Stick with 二 (èr) if you want to say “2nd of something”.

Examples:

  • √ 个人 liǎng gè rén
    two people
  • × 第个人 dì liǎng gè rén
    Never use 两 (liǎng) for the 2nd!
  • √ 第个人 dì èr gè rén
    the second person
  • √ liǎng tiān
    two days
  • × 第天 dì liǎng tiān
    Again, never use 两 (liǎng) for the 2nd!
  • √ 第天 dì èr tiān
    the second day

Numbers containing the digit 2 (e.g 12, 20, 22) can be read without changing the 二 (èr) sound when expressing a quantity (and it’s wrong to read the 2 as 两 (liǎng) in these numbers, even if the 2 appears directly before a measure word).

  • × 个孩子 èr gè háizi
    Never use 二 (èr) for “two of something”!
  • √ 个孩子 liǎng gè háizi
    two kids
  • × 十两个孩子 shí liǎng gè háizi
    Don’t switch to 两 (liǎng) if 2 is only part of a number!
  • √ 十二个孩子 shí èr gè háizi
    twelve kids
  • × èr suì
    Again, never use 二 (èr) for “two of something”!
  •  两liǎng suì
    two years of age
  • × 八十两bā shí liǎng suì
    Again, don’t switch to 两 (liǎng) if 2 is only part of a number!
  •  八十二bā shí èr suì
    eight-two years of age

When Do 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) Not Matter?

Here’s the tricky part (but believe me, it actually makes things easier for learners). In some cases, the line between 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) can be very vague that you can just forget about the grammar rules and use whichever version of 2 you like.

Here are the two most common scenarios when 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) can be used interchangeably.

1. Before Metric Numbers

According to the general rule, the number 200, should be read as 二百 (èr bǎi). I mean, it’s just a number and there is no measure word behind it, right?

But more often than not you will hear native speakers read it as 两百 (liǎng bǎi). And for the number 2,000 and 20,000, there is at least an 80 % chance that you’ll hear them say 两千 (liǎng qiān) and 两万 (liǎng wàn) instead of 二千 (èr qiān), 二万 (èr wàn).

From a grammatical point of view, if you think of the metric numbers 百 (bǎi), 千 (qiān), 万(wàn) as measure words for numbers (which is correct), it all makes sense. But this is not really about the grammar, it’s more about colloquial habit.

To native speakers, some word combinations just sound better than others. It just feels more natural to slip 两百 (liǎng bǎi), 两千 (liǎng qiān), 两万 (liǎng wàn) into a conversation, than 二百 (èr bǎi), 二千 (èr qiān), 二万 (èr wàn). While there is absolutely no problem to read the 2 as 二 (èr) in those numbers, it could sound a bit too formal in a casual conversation. You are more likely to hear er on news or in a math lesson.

  • 222
    百二十二
    èr bǎi èr shí èr
    the grammatically perfect, textbook version

    百二十二
    liǎng bǎi èr shí èr
    the more favored version in spoken Chinese
  • 2,222
    百二十二    
    èr qiān èr bǎi èr shí èr
    textbook version

    百二十二
    liǎng qiān liǎng bǎi èr shí èr
    spoken version
  • 22,222
    百二十二  
    èr wàn èr qiān èr bǎi èr shí èr
    textbook version

    百二十二    
    liǎng wàn liǎng qiān liǎng bǎi èr shí èr
    spoken version

2. Expressing 2 oclock

er and liang are interchangeable when expressing 2 o'clock in Chinese

Another potentially confusing example is the case of “2 o’clock”.

Some teachers might tell you 两点 (liǎng diǎn) is the correct way to express it. They even dig out the reason why you have to change 二 (èr) to 两 (liǎng) from the grammatical perspective. (yes, if you think of 点 (diǎn) as the measure word for the points on the clock, everything makes sense)

But this is not true. Both 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) are commonly used to express 2’o clock. Again, this has more to do with colloquial habit than grammar. As you can guess, 两点 (liǎng diǎn) does sound more natural than 二点 (èr diǎn) to native speakers, but really, either is fine.

Well, there are a few other cases where you can use 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) interchangeably in Chinese, but let’s stick to the basics for now and save them for the future. As a general rule (not the law though), you can use 二 (èr) when you want yourself sound serious and authoritative, and 两 (liǎng) when just want to be a happy, chatty folk.

Using 二 (èr) or 两 (liǎng): Regional Variations

It’s an interesting fact, people from Southern China use 两 (liǎng) much more often than their compatriots in the north.

As you are probably aware, there are thousands of dialects in China, and these dialects have a strong influence on how people speak Mandarin (I am talking about the choice of vocabulary, not accents).

Take Shanghai, for example, the local dialect of Shanghai uses only liang and ni (which is not a word in Mandarin) for 2, and there is not really an equivalent word for the er in Mandarin. Consequently, when people in Shanghai speak Mandarin, they would use lots of 两 (liǎng), and very few 二 (èr) out of habit.

For instance, you will most likely to hear them say 两月 (liǎng yuè) instead of 二月 (èr yuè) for February (the second month), and 两楼 (liǎng lóu) instead of 二楼 (èr lóu) for the second floor.

People from northern China, however, tend to overuse 二 (èr) when 两 (liǎng) is supposed to be used. For instance, in Beijing, you will likely hear 二位 (èr wèi) instead of 两位 (liǎng wèi) for two people (honorific), even though according to the grammar rule, 两 (liǎng) should be used to express a quantity.

liang is used more often in southern China

Well, I am not trying to mess your mind here, on the contrary, I encourage you to follow the grammar rules I explained: using 二 (èr) for 2nd, and 两 (liǎng) for measure words, then you’ll speak perfect Mandarin.

But let’s just say if you occasionally see native speakers use 二 (èr) where 两 (liǎng) is expected (or vice versa), don’t be surprised! It’s not that they are wrong. That’s just how Mandarin is spoken in different parts of China! (and the variation is perfectly understood across the country)

二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) Practice

Ready for some 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) practice? Here we go!

1. 我有 ____ 个哥哥。
Wǒ yǒu ____ gè gēge.

  • 二 (èr)
  • 两 (liǎng)

2. 我的爸爸 _______ 岁。
Wǒ de bà ba _______ suì.

  • 四十二 (sì shí èr)
  • 四十两 (sì shí liǎng)

3. 我家在 ______ 楼。
Wǒ jiā zài ______ lóu.

  • 二十二 (èr shí èr)
  • 二十两 (èr shí liǎng)

4. 请给我 ____ 杯水。
Qǐng gěi wǒ ____ bēi shuǐ.

  • 二 (èr)
  • 两 (liǎng)

5. 现在是下午 ____ 点四十分
Xiànzài shì xiàwǔ ____ diǎn sì shí fēn.

  • 二 (èr)
  • 两 (liǎng)
it's two fourty pm

Answers:

  1. 两 (liǎng) I have two elder brothers.
  2. 四十二 (sì shí èr) My dad is 42 years of age.
  3. 二十二 (èr shí èr) My home is on the 22nd floor.
  4. 两 (liǎng) Please give me two glasses of water.
  5. 二 (èr)/两 (liǎng) Now it’s 2:40 pm.

Grammar Summary: ER or LIANG

  • Both 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) mean “2” in Chinese. They are used for different circumstances.
  • 二 (èr) is used to tell numbers, count, do math & express 2nd.
  • 两 (liǎng) is used to express “two of something” 
  • 二 (èr) and 两 (liǎng) are interchangeable before metric numbers & when expressing 2 o’clock
  • Some regional differences exist in China, but people always understand, so no biggie!  

Remember, grammar is the glue that holds the pieces of language together, so don’t forget to check other grammar articles on ImproveMandarin.Com’s Grammar Channel! 谢谢 (xièxie) for reading this post!