Oct 16, 2023

The Top 10 Must-Know Chinese Question Words (With Audio Examples)

Starting a new language, we often learn basic words like “hello,” “good morning,” or “My name is.” Soon, you can answer questions in Chinese.

But how about asking your own? That’s important too!

In this post, we’ll go over the top ten Chinese question words. We’ll give some key points and examples for each one.

With this newly acquired knowledge, you’ll be ready to step up your Chinese level and have stimulating conversations with your Chinese friends.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

A yes/no question marker – 吗

yes/no question word in Chinese

Key points:

  • The compound character (ma) combines 口 (mouth) and 马 (horse). 口 suggests the meaning as one is asking questions verbally. 马 (mǎ) indicates the sound.
  • Turning a statement into a question in Chinese can be as simple as adding 吗 at the end, making it a beginner’s favorite.
  • Remember to pronounce 吗 with a neutral tone, keeping it light and gentle.

Can you speak English?
你会说英语吗?(written in simplified Chinese)
你會說英語嗎?(written in traditional Chinese)
(nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma)
Chinese word order: you + can + speak + English language + 吗.

Will you come tomorrow?
(míngtiān nǐ huì lái ma)
Chinese word order: tomorrow + you + will + to come + 吗.

What – 什么

Key points:

  • The character 什 (shén) already hints at the meaning “what,” but it’s rarely if ever, used solo. Combining it with 么, pronounced in a neutral tone, makes it sound complete and gives us the commonly used “什么.”
  • In contrast to English, where WH- questions typically start the sentence, the Chinese WH- questions are often placed at the end.

What is this?
(zhè shì shénme)
Chinese word order: this + is + what.

What are you watching?
(nǐ zài kàn shénme)
Chinese word order: you + -ing + to watch + what.

Why – 为什么

Key points:

  • The question word for “why” 为什么 (wèi shén me) extends from the earlier discussed 什么 (shén me). In this context, 为 (wèi) represents 因为 (yīn wèi), which means “because.” So, if we break it down, 为什么 literally translates to “because what,” echoing the English “why.”
  • Unlike 什么, which usually sits at the end of a sentence, 为什么 is often placed after the subject when asking for reasons.
  • However, by placing 为什么 before the subject, the emphasis shifts to the subject itself.

Why are you learning English?
(nǐ wèishénme xué yīngyǔ)
Chinese word order: you + why + learn + English language.

Why are you late?
(nǐ wèishénme chídào)
Chinese word order: you + why + late.

Alternative phrasing: 为什么你迟到? (why + you + late) – This arrangement, with 为什么 (why) placed BEFORE 你 (you), emphasizes the individual being asked.

When – 什么时候

Key points:

  • The Chinese word for “when” is 什么时候 (shénmeshíhòu). You’re already familiar with 什么 (shénme), meaning “what.” Coupled with 时候 (shíhòu), which translates to “period” or “time,” the combined phrase 什么时候 literally means “what period” or “what time.”
  • For asking about a specific time, like “what time is it?”, switch to 几点 (jǐ diǎn), meaning “how many o’clock.” This elicits precise times, such as 五点十分 (5:10), rather than broader time frames like 下个星期 (xià ge xīngqí; next week) or 明天 (míngtiān; tomorrow).
  • Typically, 什么时候 queries broader times or durations, like dates or times of day (e.g., morning, afternoon).

When are you going abroad?
(nǐ shénmeshíhòu chū guó)
Chinese word order: you + when + to go out + country.

What time is it now?
(xiànzài jǐ diǎn)
Chinese word order: now + how many + o’clock.

Which – 哪

Key points:

  • The compound character (nǎ) is the combination of 口 (mouth) and 那 (that). While 口 implies verbal questioning, 那 (nà) indicates the sound.
  • Instead of standing alone, 哪 is frequently paired with a measure word followed by a noun, creating a complete query. Examples include 哪本书 (nǎ + běn + book, translating to “which book”) and 哪个公司 (nǎ + ge + company, translating to “which company”).
  • The noun after the measure word can be skipped when the context is clear. For instance, 哪个 (nǎ + ge) becomes “which one,” while 哪位 (nǎ + wèi) means “which person.”

Which one do you want?
(nǐ yào nǎ ge)
Chinese word order: you + to want + which + the measure word 个.

Which book do you like?
(nǐ xǐhuan nǎ běn shū)
Chinese word order: You + to like + which + the measure word 本 + book.

Note: An shorter question, 你喜欢哪本?, skips the noun 书 (book) when both parties are clear about which books they’re referring to.

Where – 哪里

Key points:

  • The Chinese question word for “where” is 哪里 (nǎ lǐ). Stemming from our previous discussion on 哪, by adding 里 (lǐ) to it, we get the translation for “where.”
  • Unlike English, 哪里 typically isn’t placed at the start of a question in Chinese.
  • Another term for “where” is 哪儿 (nǎr). This variant is more common in the northern parts of China, such as Beijing, while 哪里 is frequently heard in the southern regions.

Where are you going?
(nǐ qù nǎlǐ)
Chinese word order: you + to go + where.

Where is the train station?
(huǒchē zhàn zài nǎr)
Chinese word order: train + station + to exist + where.

Who – 谁

Key points:

  • For asking “who” in Chinese, we have the word 谁, pronounced as either “shéi” or “shuí,” with “shéi” being the more common pronunciation.
  • Additionally, you can form the word for “whose” by adding 的 to 谁, giving us 谁的 (shéide; whose).
  • The placement of 谁 in questions follows patterns similar to the other question-words we’ve discussed, like 哪个 (which one), 哪里 (where), and 什么 (what).

Who is that person?
(nà ge rén shì shéi)
Chinese word order: that + the measure word 个 + person + is + who.

Whose book is this?
(zhè shì shéide shū)
Chinese word order: this + is + whose + book.

How – 怎么

Key points:

  • The word for “how” in Chinese is 怎么 (zěnme). While it may seem straightforward, it’s not always a direct translation of “how” from English.
  • Often, 怎么 is used to inquire about the method or means of doing something. Common phrases include 怎么说 (how to say), 怎么用 (how to use), and 怎么去 (how to go).
  • When asking someone’s opinion or feelings about something, the term 怎么样 (zěnme yàng) is employed. Here, 样 (yàng) refers to “manner” or “style,” making the question about “how things are” or “how something is.”

How to say this in Chinese?
(zhè ge zhōngwén zěnme shuō)
Chinese word order: this + the measure word 个 + Chinese language + how + to say.

How about this book? / What do you think of this book?
(zhè běn shū zěnme yàng)
Chinese word order: this + the measure word 本 + book + how + style.

How Often – 多常

Key points

  • While one might initially think of using 怎么 to translate “how often,” it’s not a direct match in Chinese.
  • The appropriate term for “how often” is 多常 (duō cháng), which literally translates to “many often.”
  • In the same vein, you’d use 多久 (duō jiǔ) for “how long,” meaning “many long.” It’s essential to remember that these phrases don’t correlate directly to 怎么.

How often do you go abroad?
(nǐ duōcháng chū guó)
Chinese word order: you + how often + to get out + country.

How long does this need to cook?
(zhè ge xūyào zhǔ duōjiǔ)
Chinese word order: this + the measure word 个 + to need + to cook + how long.

How many/How much – 多少

how many in Chinese

Key points:

  • When it comes to the English term “how many” or “how much,” you might initially consider the Chinese word 怎么. But the actual translation is 多少 (duō shǎo; many + few/little).
  • Another interesting word to consider is (jǐ), which can also mean “how many.” However, 几 is typically used when the expected number is under 10.
  • When using 几 in this context, it’s followed by a measure word and then a noun, as in 几个人 (jǐ ge rén) or 几本书 (jǐ běn shū).

how many in Chinese

How many people are there in your company?
(nǐmen gōngsī yǒu duōshǎo rén)
Chinese word order: you (plural) + company + to have + how many + people.

How many people are in your family?
你家有幾個人? (nǐ jiā yǒu jǐ ge rén)
Chinese word order: you + family + to have + how many + the measure word 个 + people.

And there you go! We’ve journeyed through the top 10 essential Chinese question words.

While it’s super useful to know each of them, remember: Chinese might play with word order differently than your native language. In Chinese, question words often sit right where you expect the answer to be.

Hold onto this golden tip, and soon you’ll be framing questions like a true Chinese language pro!

By Chineasy | A Super Chineasian

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