Dec 05 2009

How To Ask Questions in Mandarin Chinese

Asking questions in Chinese couldn’t be easier.  Let’s first compare English statements to questions

He is big

Is he big ?

In English we need to reverse the order of the verb and the pronoun in order to create a question.  However we also have another way to ask questions and that is using intonation.  If we were to make the statement “he is big” but at the end of the sentence raise our voice this conveys the idea of asking a question.  It’s not grammatically a question as the tone cannot be conveyed on paper unless of course we write the question mark like “he is big?”.

In mandarin however they have what I like to think of as a verbal question mark.  In Mandarin Chinese any statement can be turned into a question by simply saying the word “ma1” (1st tone) at the end.  So in the example above you would have :

He big

He big “ma” ?

I think this is a great feature of Mandarin Chinese making it very easy to learn.  Also notice the lack of the verb “to be” in the examples above.  In English we really overuse the verb “to be”.  We have to say “He IS big” but in mandarin it isn’t necessary as it is logically implied.  If we say “he” and then an adjective, logic implies that he IS that adjective.

There is also another way to make a question and that is to say the following :

He big not big ?

So if you don’t want to put “ma” at the end of a sentence to make it a question you can simply give the positive and negative options.  This and the use of “ma” are essentially only useable with yes/no questions.

Finally there is one more way to ask questions that is probably less common and I didn’t know until moving here.  Therefore this method may only be idiomatic or “street chinese” so it may not sound good to every Chinese speaker.  Similar to putting “ma” at the end of a sentence to make it a question you can also put “mei2you” or even just simply “mei2”.   So using our example above you could ask :

He big mei2you ?

He big mei2 ?

But remember this is something I heard after moving here so it could be street slang or whatever.  Use this method carefully.

So there you have it.   Asking a question in Mandarin Chinese is as simple as making a statement and adding the question tag word “ma” at the end or just stating both the positive and negative in the same sentence.

Of course when using actual question words like “who,what, when, where, why, how” etc you wouldn’t use any of the above structures because by using question words it’s already obvious you are using a question.  This is a mistake many foreigners make when speaking Chinese.  They get so used to saying “ma” at the end of a question that they even say “ma” when asking a who,what, when, where, why, or how question.  So try to be careful of that bad habit.

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