How to say “eh” in Chinese?

One of the easiest Chinese characters to recognize is the word that stands for “mouth”, or (kǒu). If you look at all the Chinese characters that you know, you can probably spot this radical in a couple of them. Why, the word for “China” is 中国 (Zhōngguó). (zhōng) means “middle”, and you would write it by putting a vertical stroke across the middle of the word (kǒu). In this case, the aspect ratio of the character is modified somewhat to make room for the extra stroke.

The simplest way of using (kǒu) as a radical is to add it on the left side of an existing character. You already know the interrogative marks (ma), (ne) and (ba). You have also come across the interjection (ya). Actually, (ba) and are also used at the end of exclamatory sentences. For example:

Tā chī le wǔ gè bāozi ne!
He ate 5 buns!

Suàn le ba!
Forget it! Never mind!

(suàn) means to count, to compute, to count as or to reckon. 算了吧﹗ could be interpreted as: “Consider it settled.” It can be expressed in a friendly, sarcastic, or angry way, depending on the tone used.

Below are the characters on the right side of these words:

(mǎ) is a horse.
(ní) is a Buddhist nun.
(bā) is to wait anxiously or to cling to someone.
(yá) means a tooth, or teeth.

Notice how we’re just borrowing the approximate sounds of these characters to use for the composite characters that are formed. The good news is that there are many more such words that offer the bonus of letting you easily learn two different words at the same time. Following are a few examples.

(lā) means to pull or tug. (lā) is used at the end of an exclamatory sentence to show excitement or to get attention.

(kě) means to approve, to be suitable, or to be permissible. It is also the important helping verb that stands for “can” or “may”. (hē) is the sound you make when you breathe out with your mouth open. It used to represent a loud laugh or a roar.

(hēi) is the black color. It also means dark or shady. (hēi) is just what it sounds like, “Hey!”

(yí) means smooth or to wipe out. It is also a name of ancient tribes on the east side of China. Say (yí) at the beginning of a remark to express a mild surprise.

(hēng) is a descriptive word indicating that things are going smoothly. On the other hand, (hng) translates to “humph”, which expresses displeasure. When someone starts a remark with this interjection, you will know that he or she is unhappy about something. When they are really mad, they will sound it in the 4th tone.

(yuē) is to restrict or to make an appointment, an agreement or a date. (yō) can be used at the end of an exclamatory sentence. It can also be used as an interjection, which usually has a teasing, sarcastic or confrontational undertone, such as in: “Well! You think you are the prettiest girl in town; don’t you?”

(ài) is a medicinal plants used in moxibustion. You have most likely heard the interjection 哎呀 (āiyā), which ranges in meaning from “Well, …” to “Goodness!” to “Alas!”, depending on the tone in which it is uttered.

(má) means flax, sesame, pockmarked, paralyzed or anaesthesia. (ma) can be used at the end of the sentence when you are requesting a favor informally.

So, what’s the Chinese word for “eh”? My dictionary provides two options: (è), and (ā). The word (è) means a hiccup. When used for “Eh?”, say it in the 2nd tone. When used for “um”, say it in the 3rd tone. Similarly, (ā) can be used in a few different ways. When using (ā) as the interjection “Oh!”, say it in the 1st tone. When using (á) as “Eh? What?”, say it in the 2nd tone. (à) in the 4th tone represents “Ah!”, or “Eh!” It is also used at the end of a reminder or instruction, or a gentle command or reproach, as in: “Eh? See? Understand? OK?” Often (à) is added to serve as a pause in the sertence, or to accentuate the preceding word or clause.

The delightful children’s song, “Old McDonald Had a Farm”, features a number of human and animal sounds. The Mandarin version at the following link sings about the ducks and the sheep on the farm.

Wáng lǎo xiānsheng yǒu kuài dì.
Old Mr. Wang has a piece of land.

Tā zài tián biān yǎng xiǎo yā.
He raises ducklings at the side of the field.

(yǎng) is to raise a child or an animal, or to provide for, to nurture or to cultivate.
(yā) is a duck.
(guā) is the quacking sound of a duck. By the way, 呱呱叫 (guāguājiào) is an expression that means “top-notch”.

(yáng) is a sheep or a goat.
(miē) is the sound of a sheep bleating.

Who, when, where, what, why, how?

We’ve discussed several ways to form a question in Chinese. So, how would you translate “Do you know?” into Chinese?

It’s true that (zuò) means “to do”, and one may be tempted to say: 做你知道? (Zuò nĭ zhīdào?) Dead wrong.

In “Do you know?”, the word “do” is not a verb but an auxiliary verb that helps for a question in English. In Chinese, you would simply drop this helping verb and add the interrogative particle 吗? (ma) to the main statement to get:
你知道吗? (Nĭ zhīdào ma?) If you remember, this is the most straighforward way of asking a question that was mentioned in my 5/4/11 post.

Hem, following are a few additional ways to ask questions.

VI e) Use the interrogative word particle 呢? to ask for opinion

Such questions are practically coverd by the following examples, all of which translate to: “What do you think?”, “What do you say?”, or “What’s your opinion?”

你看呢? (Nĭ kàn ne?)
你说呢? (Nĭ shuō ne?)
你以为呢? (Nĭ yǐwéi ne?)
你认为呢? (Nĭ rènwéi ne?)

VI f) Use the word particle 吧? to request confirmation
In the following questions, the presumed answer is presented for confirmation.

Tā huì lái ba?
He will come., won’t he?

Nĭ bùhuì shēngqì ba?
You won’t get mad, will you?

VI g) Use body language to help pose a question
A questioning facial expression or tone will automatically turn a statement into a question. Look at the following sentences and imagine how each is delivered.


Tā zhēnde yào qù.
He really wants to go.

Tā zhēnde yào qù?
He really wants to go?

VI h) Use the five W’s (and one H) to form a question

Just as with English, you can form a questions by using such words as: Who, when, where, what, why, and how. And don’t forget about how much and how many. These words are generally placed at the start of a question in English. As you can see from the following examples, such is not the case with Chinese. Notice how the placement of a noun or a pronoun determines whether it is the subject or the object.

Shéi kànjian nĭ ?
Who saw you?

Nĭ kànjian shéi?
Wom did you see?

Nĭ shénme shíhòu chūfā?
When do you start off?

Nĭ kànjian shénme?
What did you see?

Nǎr kāfēidiàn?
Where can I find a café?

Yóujú zài nǎr?
Where is the post office?

Wèishénme zhè jiǎozi bùhǎo chī?
Why does this dumpling not taste good?

Zhè yào zěnme zuò?
How to do this?

这要多少钱?Zhè yào duōshǎo qián?
How much will this cost?

means many or much, while means few or little. The combination poses a question “Many or few?”, or “Much or little?”, corresponding to “How many?”, or “How much?”, respectively.

Chapter 17 of the book “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” provides numerous examples of how to answer questions containing the adverbs “when”, “where”, “how” and “why”.

The sentimental song, 情人的眼泪 (qíngrén de yǎnlèi), or “Lover’s Tears“, begins with a question. The original music was composed by 姚敏 (Yáo Mǐn), the original lyrics by 陈蝶衣 (Chén Diéyī). Listen carefully so you won’t miss the first syllable, which is sung to a very low note.

Following are some of the words used in the first stanza of the song.

(yào) means to want, to ask for, or to be important. It is also used as an auxiliary verb that corresponds to “want to” or “be going to do somthing” in English.
(duì) means to be correct, to correspond to, to match or to be directed at.
(diào) is to drop or to lose.
眼泪 (yǎnlèi) are tears.
难道 (nán dào) translates to “Are you saying that you …”
明白 (míngbai) means to be plain and clear, to be clear on something, or to understand. 不明白 (bù míngbai) means not to understand.
为了 (wèile) means “for the sake of”.
只有 (zhǐyǒu) means “only”.
有情人 (yǒu qíng rén) are lovers, or people with affection.
珍贵 (zhēnguì) means “precious”. (zuì) means “the most”. 最珍贵 (zuì zhēnguì) means “the most precious”.
一颗 (yī kē) is a unit of measure for small discrete things, like tears, bullets, marbles or eggs. 一颗颗 (yī kē kē) means each and every one of the small items.

Here is my translation of these first lines:

Why am I shedding tears in your face?
Don’t tell me you don’t know it’s all for love.
Only the lover’s tears hold the highest place,
‘Cause every tear drop stands for love, stands for love.

Money talks?

Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women” once said, “Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes.” This sentiment is reflected in the following modern Chinese saying:

Āiqíng bùnéng dāng miànbāo.
Love cannot serve as bread.

(qián) is money. (yǒu) means “to have”. 有钱 (yǒuqián) means “to be rich”.

Tā yǒuqián.
He is rich.)

Yǒuqián rén zhù dà fángzi.
Rich people live in large houses.

Yǒuqián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò.
If you’re rich, you could make the devil turn your millstones. (Money talks.)

Following is a way to ask for confirmation of a statement.

VI. c) Statement + “Yes or no?” or “Correct or not?” = Question

Tā yǒu hěn duō qián, shìbùshì?
He has a lot of money; yes or no?

你是美国人, 对不对?
Nĭ shì Měiguórén, duì bùduì?
You are an American, right or not?

Some people drop the last word from the above question format. For example:

你是中国人, 对不?
Nĭ shì Zhōngguórén, duì bù?
You are a Chinese, correct?

If someone is not rich, then you would say:

Tā méiyǒu qián.

没有 (méiyǒu not to have) is the negation of (yǒu). These two words also serve as auxiliary verbs to help form the past or perfect tense of other verbs. 没有 is oftened abbreviated as (méi).

Generally, to form the negation of an adjective or other verbs, you would add the word (bù no, not). For example:

他不高興. (Tā bù gāoxìng.) He is not pleased.
他不是. (Tā bùshì.) He is not.
他不喜欢. (Tā bù xǐhuān.) He does not like.
他不去. (Tā bù qù.) He won’t go.

Now, what does the following sentence mean?
他没有去. (Tā méiyǒu qù.)

It means: “He did not go.” Here, 没有 (méiyǒu have not) is used as an auxiliary verb to indicate that the action did not take place, or has not taken place.

Try and apply (bù no, not) and (méi have not) to the following action words, and make sure you fully understand the difference between these two terms.

(zǒu go, walk), 回家 (huíjiā go home), (zuò do), 打球 (dǎqiú hit/play ball), (gǎi change).

We are now ready to talk about another method you could use for forming a question.

VI. d) Add negation to a verb or an adjective to change a statement into a question.

The Chinese convey the uncertainty expressed through the use of “whether or not” by pairing the verb or adjective with its negation. For example,

Tā yǒu méiyǒu qián?
Is he rich?

Nĭ shì bù shì Měiguórénì?
Are you an American?

Tā gāoxìng bù gāoxìng?
Is he pleased?

You may add the interrogative particle (ne) at the end of this type of questions. Also, in such a question format, the first occurrence of a polysyllable word will often be represented by just the first character in the word. For example:

Tā gāo bù gāoxìng?
Is he pleased?

Tā zhī bù zhīdào ne?
Does he know?

If an auxiliary verb is used, then the negation is applied to the auxiliary verb rather than the main verb. For example:

Tā huìbùhuì shēngqì?
Will he get angry?

Nĭ yào bù yào dǎqiú?
Would you like to play ball?

Tā yǒu méiyǒu qù?
Did he go?

Yǒu méiyǒu xiàyǔ?
Did it rain?

Questions in the perfect tense can also be phrased as follows. In this case, do not add any interrogative particle at the end.

Tā qù le mé?
Has he gone?

Xiàyǔ le méi?
Has it begun to rain?

How to pop the question?

For those who are planning to propose in the near future, here are a few ways to pop the question:

Nǐ yuànyì zuò wǒ de zhōngshēn bànlǚ ma?
Will you be my lifelong companion?

Nǐ yuànyì jià gěi wǒ ma?
Will you marry me?

嫁给我, 好吗?
Jià gěi wǒ, hǎo ma?
Marry me, all right?

我们结婚, 好不好?
Wǒmén jiéhūn, hǎo bù hǎo?
Let’s get married, okay or not?

愿意 (yuànyì) means to be willing to.
(jià) is to transfer or marry into another’s family, usually said of a woman.
(qǔ) is to take a wife, usually said of a man.
结婚 (jiéhūn) is to get married.
终身 (zhōngshēn) means lifelong.
伴侣 (bànlǚ) is a companion or a mate.

As you can see, there are several ways to ask a question in Chinese. We will mention two today.

VI. a) Statement + (ma) + “?” = Question

This is the easiest way to form a question. For example:

(Nĭ gāoxìng ma?)
Are you happy? Are you pleased?

Xiàyǔ le ma?
Is it raining?

Nĭ xǐhuān kàn diànyǐng ma?
Do you like to watch movies?

喜欢 (xǐhuān) means to like somebody or something, or to enjoy doing something.
电影 are movies, and 电视 are television shows.

VI. b) Statement + “Okay or not?” = Question (request)

请小声一点, 好吗?
Qǐng xiǎoshēng yīdiǎn, hǎo ma?
Please lower your voice (or the volume of noise), all right?

我们去散步, 好不好?
Wǒmen qù sànbù hǎo bù hǎo?
Let’s go for a walk. Okay or not?

(shēng), or 声音 (shēngyīn), means a sound.
小声 (xiǎoshēng) means “in a low volume of sound”.
一点 (yīdiǎn) means “a bit”.
(qù go) is the opposite of (lái come).
(bù) is a step one takes in walking.
means to disperse, dissipate or scatter. As an adjective, it indicates a state of being random, disorganized or undisciplined. 散步 is leisurely walking,

Now, Mother’s Day is coming up this Sunday.

Wǔyuè de dì èr gè xīngqītiān shì mǔqīnjié.
The second Sunday of May is Mother’s Day.

(yuè) is the character for “moon”. It represents the months, which are ordered from one to twelve in a year. So, 五月 (wǔyuè) is the fifth month of the year, or May. Adding the word particle (de) to any noun or pronoun turns it into one in the possessive case. Therefore, 五月的 (wǔyuè de) means “of May”, or “belonging to May”. 星期天 (xīngqītiān) and 星期日 (xīngqīrì) both refer to Sunday.

Whereas in English you’d say, “the second Sunday of May”, in Chinese you’d say, “May’s second Sunday”. In English, you could say, “my friend” or “a friend of mine”, in Chinese you’d always say, “my friend”, or 我的朋友 (wǒ de péngyǒu). This simple rule should be easy to keep in mind.

Stories and verifiable records abound to show that behind many a great personage in history there was a great mother. At the tender age of eleven, John Quincy Adams, while accompanying his father on a diplomatic mission to Europe, received a letter from his mother, Abigail Adams, that contained these lines: ” … I would much rather you should have found your grave in the ocean that you have crossed, or that any untimely death crop you in your infant year, than see you an immoral, profligate, or graceless child.” On the other hand, I believe the majority of present-day affectionate and loving mothers, or 慈爱的母亲 (cíài de mǔqī), would be contented just to know that you love her, that you are eating right, sleeping 8 hours a day, and doing 20 minutes of exericse at least three times a week, and that you are working hard at learning Chinese.

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