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.

Shénme rén?
Who’s there?

Shénme rén gàosù nǐ de?
Who told you this?

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.

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.

Zhè shì shénme huà?
What are you saying? (Preposterous!)

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

为什么 (wèishénme) means why.

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.

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:

Zhè jiàn shì rúhé jìnxíng bǐjiào qiàdàng?
What’s an appropriate way to proceed with this matter?

Xīfàn zěnme zhǔ?
How to cook rice gruel?

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

zhègè zì de yīngyǔ zěnme shuō?
How to say this word in English?

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).

Nǐ juéde zěnmeyàng?
What do you think?
(How do you feel about this? How do you feel?)

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

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.

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?

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