How to Use 什么 and 吗 to Ask Questions in Chinese (HSK 1)

July 06, 2021

In Chinese, 什么 and 吗 are both question words. However, as question words, 什么 and 吗 cannot be used together in the same sentence.

Let’s look at 什么 and 吗 one at a time.

吗 is a particle with no direct meaning on its own, but when added to the end of a sentence, indicates a question being asked. (Think of 吗 as a question mark that you pronounce.) In other words, the particle 吗 is used to turn a statement into a yes-no question.

Here are a few examples:

Without 吗 With 吗
你喜欢吃苹果。
Nǐ xǐhuān chī píngguǒ.
You like to eat apples.
你喜欢吃苹果吗?
Nǐ xǐhuān chī píngguǒ ma?
Do you like to eat apples?
你是大卫。
Nǐ shì Dàwèi.
You are David.
你是大卫吗?
Nǐ shì dàwèi ma?
Are you David?
这件衣服漂亮。
Zhè jiàn yī fú piāo liàng.
This outfit is pretty.
这件衣服漂亮吗?
Zhè jiàn yī fú piāo liàng ma?
Is this outfit pretty?

All of these sentences are correct without 吗, but they are just statements instead of questions. All you need to do to turn a statement into a question in Chinese is to add 吗 to the end. Super simple!

什么 means “what” in Chinese and is used to ask open-ended questions. In Chinese, 什么 can be placed at the end of the sentence, or before the object of the sentence. For example:

你喜欢吃什么?
Nǐ xǐhuān chī shénme?
What do you like to eat?

你叫什么名字?
Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?
What is your name?

那是什么颜色?
Nà shì shénme yánsè?
What color is that?

Besides its use as a question word, 什么 can also be a pronoun meaning “something”, “anything”, or “any”, so you may see sentences such as:

你想喝点什么吗?
Nǐ xiǎng hē diǎn shénme ma?
Do you want something to drink?

您有什么不明白的吗?
Nín yǒu shénme bù míngbái de ma?
Do you have any questions?

In these sentences, 什么 is no longer a question word, which is why 什么 and 吗 can appear together.

However, when using 什么 as a question word in Chinese, remember: 什么 and 吗 cannot be used together!