Counting System

How Japanese Counting Systems Work in a Sentence

Expressing Amount

In the last two lessons you learned the Japanese counting system in terms of pronunciation and counters. Although it will take some time to memorize all of them, we think that you have the basic knowledge now. In this lesson, let’s learn how to use numerals in a sentence.

How to Express Japanese Numerals in a Sentence

Numerals basically appear in two different ways. The first is to express plurality with nouns like, “I will read three books.” The second is to express supplementary information like, “I will study at 11:00am.” Here, we will focus on the former one since we plan to pick up the later in another section.

Basic Two Sentence Patterns

Numeral + Counter + の + Noun

[わたし は / が] 3冊さんさつほん う / います
[Topic / Subject] Direct Object Verb
[I will] buy three books.

In the first sentence pattern, you utilize the function of の: Explanation. This can express not only an amount, but also attributes (*Look at the third and fourth examples below). This usage can appear with any parts such as subjects (が), objects (を), targets (に), means (で), etc.

2人ふたり先生せんせいいえに(る / ます)。
The two teachers come to my house.
にん友達ともだちがみを(く / きます)。
[I will] write a letter to five friends of mine.
いちリットルのコップを(う / います)。
[I will] buy a glass which holds one liter.
七色なないろにじが(あらわれる / あらわれます)。
The rainbow with seven colors will come out.

Noun + Particle + Numeral + Counter

[わたし は / が] ほん3冊さんさつ う / います
[Topic / Subject] Direct Object Verb
[I will] buy three books.

In the second sentence pattern, numerals and counters are placed after particles. Unlike the above, this can only work to specify an amount and appear with the particle が and を. Note: if you use this with other particles, the sentences don’t make sense.

友達ともだちにんいえに(る / ます)。
Four friends of mine will come to my house.
リンゴをみっつ(べる / べます)。
[I will] eat three apples.


=> Mobile with 16GB [storage] is good.
=> Wrong!

The first one is correct because only the first sentence pattern “Numeral + Counter + の + Noun” can express an attribute.

つぎ旅行りょこうみっつのホテルに(まる / まります)。
As for the next travel, [I] will stay at three hotels.
つぎ旅行りょこうはホテルにみっつ まる / まります
=> Wrong!

The second sentence is wrong because the sentence pattern: “Noun + Particle + Numeral + Counter” can be used only with the particle が and を.


The Difference of the Two Sentence Patterns

さつほんる / ります)。
[I will] sell five books.
ほんさつる / ります)。
[I will] sell five books.

When both sentence patterns express an amount, there is no difference in meaning. However, when the first sentence pattern expresses an attribute, a difference will appear.

100ひゃくページのほんむ / みます)。
[I will] read the book which contains 100 pages.
ほん100ひゃくページむ / みます)。
[I will] read 100 pages of the book.

The first example indicates that the book contains 100 pages (attribute), but there is no information on how many pages he/she will read. On the other hand, the second example indicates he/she will read 100 pages (amount), but there is no information that how many pages the book contains.

How to Express Approximate Numbers

In English you can express approximate numbers by placing “about,” “around,” and “approximately” before numerals. In Japanese, you can express it in two ways: by placing particular words before or after numerals.

Placing やく or およそ Before Numerals

やく100ひゃくにん学生がくせいが(あつまる / あつまります)。
About 100 students will gather.
書類しょるいおよそ1000せんまいつくる / つくります)。
[I will] make about 1000 documents.

The usage is very simple and the nuance of the two words are almost the same.

Placing ぐらい or ほど After Numerals

いちメートルほどさかなを(べる / べます)。
[I will] eat the fish which is approximately one meter long.
 たん1000せんぐらいならう / ならいます)。
[I will] learn about 1000 words.

The nuance of the two words here is different. ほど sounds formal and is preferred in writing while ぐらい sounds casual and is preferred in speaking. You may sometimes find くらい instead of ぐらい.  They have the same meaning and are interchangeable.

だいたいいちメートルほどさかなを(べる / べます)。
 たんだいたい1000せんぐらいならう / ならいます)。

Some like to use だいたい, which should be placed before numerals with ほど and ぐらい. By using だいたい, you can make sentences slightly more casual.

Which Should You Use, Kanji or Numerals in a Sentence?

Numerals are generally more common. There are three cases where you should use kanji.

1. When You Write Large Numbers

If you say 90 million by using only numerals in a sentence, it will be like this: “90,000,000きゅうせんまんえんのマンション だ / です ([it] is an apartment priced at 90 million yen).” That’s not easy to read. Therefore, you should write it like this “きゅうせんまんえんのマンション だ / です.”

2. When You Use Set Phrases

There are words that include numbers in the words. For example, when you say WWII in Japanese, numerals are usually not used, i.e. 二次世にじせ界大戦かいたいせん.

3. When You Write from Top to Bottom


Japanese people don’t prefer writing numerals from top to bottom like the left. In everyday life, when you write a letter, you usually need to write your address from top to bottom. In that case, please use kanji to express numbers.


  1. There are two basic sentence patterns:
    • Numeral + Counter + の + Noun, e.g. 3冊さんさつほんを(う / います)
    • Noun + Particle + Numeral + Counter, e.g. ほん3冊さんさつう / います)
  2. You can express approximate numbers:
    • Placing やく or およそ before numerals
    • Placing ぐらい or ほど after numerals
  3. In general, numerals are more common in a sentence.

We believe that the usages which you learned here are simple enough. Having to choose the proper counters and use various pronunciations correctly are the trickiest things with learning Japanese. Let us emphasize it again; you don’t have to learn them all at once. Having a perfect understanding of all counters is not essentially important as native speakers themselves often don’t have a complete understanding. Please tackle this section at your own pace with patience.

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