How to in Chinese

When we were young and the teachers tried to cram all the geography, history, mathematics and, yeah, Chinese lessons into us, we secretly wished for shorter school days and less to learn. Now that we’re older and wiser, we’ve come to realize that there is so much that we’d like to know more about; there is so much out there to learn. One way to obtain information is to ask questions. Ask someone who knows, or search for the information on the Internet. Following are a few words that you could use to initiate a question.

To ask what something is, start with 什么 (shénme).

什么人 (shénme rén) means what person or who.

什么人?
Shénme rén?
Who’s there?

什么人告诉你的?
Shénme rén gàosù nǐ de?
Who told you this?

这是什么人的东西
Zhè shì shénme rén de dōngxi?
Whose thing is this?

Please note that the following three sentences could be uttered with a positive or negative connotation.

这是什么意思?
Zhè shì shénme yìsī?
What does this mean?
(What’s this supposed to mean?)

When someone wants to go out of his or her way to do you a favor, you could make a gesture to refuse it by saying that that would be absurd. The other party would insist on helping you, and you would then graciously accept the good will. On the other hand, when someone says something that is absurd, you could use the very same sentence to express your displeasure.

这是什么话?
Zhè shì shénme huà?
What are you saying? (Preposterous!)

什么话! (Shénme huà!)
Shénme huà!
What nonsense!

为什么 (wèishénme) means why.

为什么她还没来?
Wèishénme tā hái méi lái?
Why has she not come yet?

哪个 (nǎge) means which. 哪一天 (nǎ yītiān) means which day. Some people use the short form 哪天 (něi yītiān).

怎么 (zěnme ) and 如何 (rúhé) both mean how. 如何 (rúhé) is the formal form.

怎么做 (zěnme zuò) and 怎么弄 (zěnme nòng ) both mean how to do or handle something.

这件事怎么做比较好?
Zhè jiàn shì zěnme zuò bǐjiào hǎo?
What’s a good way to get this done?

A more formal way to communicate the above would be:

这件事如何进行比较恰当?
Zhè jiàn shì rúhé jìnxíng bǐjiào qiàdàng?
What’s an appropriate way to proceed with this matter?

稀饭怎么煮?
Xīfàn zěnme zhǔ?
How to cook rice gruel?

怎么说 (zěnme shuō) can be interpreted in two different ways.

这个字的英语怎么说?
zhègè zì de yīngyǔ zěnme shuō?
How to say this word in English?

怎么说?
Zěnme shuō?
How do you mean? (Could you elaborate?)

怎么样 (zěnmeyàng) also means how or in what manner. It is often shorted as 怎样 (zěnyàng).

你觉得怎么样?
Nǐ juéde zěnmeyàng?
What do you think?
(How do you feel about this? How do you feel?)

不怎样.
Bù zěnyàng.
Nothing special. (I’m not impressed.)

怎么回事?
Zěnme huí shì?
What’s the matter? (What happened?)

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.

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

你不会生气吧?
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.

他真的要去.

Tā zhēnde yào qù.
He really wants to go.

他真的要去?
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.

看见你?
Shéi kànjian nĭ ?
Who saw you?

你看见?
Nĭ kànjian shéi?
Wom did you see?

什么时候出发?
Nĭ shénme shíhòu chūfā?
When do you start off?

你看见什么?
Nĭ kànjian shénme?
What did you see?

哪儿有咖啡店?
Nǎr kāfēidiàn?
Where can I find a café?

邮局在哪儿?
Yóujú zài nǎr?
Where is the post office?

为什么这饺子不好吃?
Wèishénme zhè jiǎozi bùhǎo chī?
Why does this dumpling not taste good?

这要怎么做?
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:

爱情不能当面包.
Āiqíng bùnéng dāng miànbāo.
Love cannot serve as bread.

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

他有钱.
Tā yǒuqián.
He is rich.)

有钱人住大房子.
Yǒuqián rén zhù dà fángzi.
Rich people live in large houses.

有钱能使鬼推磨.
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

他有很多钱,是不是?
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:

他没有钱.
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,

他有没有钱?
Tā yǒu méiyǒu qián?
Is he rich?

你是不是美国人?
Nĭ shì bù shì Měiguórénì?
Are you an American?

他高興不高興?
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:

他高不高興?
Tā gāo bù gāoxìng?
Is he pleased?

他知不知道呢?
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:

他会不会生气?
Tā huìbùhuì shēngqì?
Will he get angry?

你要不要打球?
Nĭ yào bù yào dǎqiú?
Would you like to play ball?

他有没有去?
Tā yǒu méiyǒu qù?
Did he go?

有没有下雨?
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.

他去了没?
Tā qù le mé?
Has he gone?

下雨了没?
Xiàyǔ le méi?
Has it begun to rain?

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