Dec 20 2009

Mandarin Chinese Question Words

Here are the most common question words in Chinese

Wh0 – shei2 / shui2 (shei2 is most common but shui2 is used by some people depending on where they are from)

What – shen2me

Where – na3li3

When – shen2me shi2hou4 (literally “what time”)

Why – wei4shen2me (literally “for what”)

How – zen3me

How about / What about – zen3me yang4

When using the question words above you wouldn’t need to use the question tag “ma” because by using a question word we already know it’s a question being asked.  You could however optionally use the “ne” at the end of a sentence using one of the question words above, but “ne” would be optional.  Perhaps similar to how is English we might say “huh” or “eh” at the end of a sentence.

However if you were asking the following question :

Do you know where the post office is ?

Asking this question in Chinese WOULD require the use of “ma” because you aren’t asking WHERE the post office is, you are asking if the person KNOWS where it is.  So the real question is “Do you know something”.

If you didn’t use “ma” at the end of the question then you would literally be TELLING the listener that they know where the post office is.  The “ma” is required to make the statement “You know where the post office is” into a question.  So you would literally say ?

You know post office located where “ma” ?

That is the word order.  You could of course use the other way of asking questions in mandarin and avoid the “ma” by saying :

You know don’t know post office located where ?

By using the “know don’t know” phrase you don’t need to use “ma”.  All “ma” questions can also be asked by stating both the positive and negative in the question instead.

3 Responses to “Mandarin Chinese Question Words”

  1. Da Mao Houzi says:

    Perhaps you should not be giving advice if you do not know the language. It is worse to give out wrong information than no information at all.

    Given that this in “how to learn chinese online” why not use chinese characters as “chinese” is the written language.

    Do you know where the post office is ?


    There is no need to use 吗.

    “Where” or 哪儿 / 哪里 is an interrogative pronoun. You do not need to use any other question forming structure with it.

    That is the word order. You could of course use the other way of asking questions in mandarin and avoid the “ma” by saying :

  2. says:

    Hi thanks for your feedback

    As for using “chinese” I prefer to use english to explain it as this stage I am naturally appealing to beginners or just trying to show people who aren’t familiar with Chinese at all how this language works. You will see that I have characters in other places like the idioms and proverbs as that is for actual learners/speakers.

    As for the use of 吗 in my example question above, I will double check with a Chinese friend as I have always learned that without the 吗 you are TELLING the person they know where the post office is. I don’t claim to know everything about Chinese as I am not native. Everyone can make mistakes and I always welcome feedback. 三人行必有我师焉 right ?

    …… I have since checked with my Chinese friends and it turns out that I am correct in using 吗 here. Without the “ma” you aren’t asking a question. The “ma” is necessary if you want to ASK someone whether or not they know something.

  3. Roxanne Remillard says:

    I think this is a very clear explanation. I am an American student of Chinese and I still need to see the pinyin. What you explain corroborates with what my (very experienced native speaker) Chinese teacher has taught us, and you articulate it very well.

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