Chinese Question Words: How to Ask Questions in Chinese

June 01, 2022

It’s incredible just how many questions we ask in a day. We are on a constant quest for information, and that’s just as true when speaking Chinese. For all you inquisitive Chinese language learners out there wondering, “How do you ask questions in Chinese?”, we have you covered.

We will look at yes/no questions in Chinese, the big six Chinese “wh-“ question words, rhetorical questions in Chinese, and a few other Chinese question forms you will certainly come across in your China travels.

Yes/No Questions in Chinese

Yes no maybe tickboxes no in Chinese customs

ma

Ma 吗 is a particle that, on its own, doesn’t have meaning. Instead, it is a particle that acts as a question mark. When you add ma 吗 to the end of a statement in Chinese, you instantly transform it into a yes/no question in Chinese.

For example:

Pinyin Characters English
Tāmen shì lǎoshī. 他们是老师. They are teachers.
Tāmen shì lǎoshī ma? 他们是老师吗? Are they teachers?

Answering the question is often as simple as restating the statement. If the answer is negative, you add 不 .

Pinyin Characters English
Tāmen shì. 他们是. They are.
Tāmen búshì. 他们不是. They are not.

Notice that there is not a single-word answer for “Yes” or “No”. There is no direct translation for this in Chinese. Instead, we answer using the details mentioned in the question. So, if we are asking about a verb, we respond with the verb. The same goes with adjectives and adverbs, too. But more on this later.


Before we move on:

Let’s say you want to confirm something you think you know the answer to. In English, this may look like, “You play football, right?”

Well, the question tag “…, right?” is another thing ma 吗 can help us with.

By adding any of the following to the end of a statement, you will be asking for that clarification:

Pinyin Characters English
shì ma? …是吗? … right?
duì ma? …对吗? … is that correct?
hǎo ma? …好吗? … is that OK?

For example, you can say:

你踢足球,是吗?
Nǐ tī zúqiú, shì ma?
You play soccer, right?

In answer, you can say:

Pinyin Characters English
shì / búshì 是。 / 不是。 Yes. / No.
duì / búduì 对。 / 不对。 Right. / Wrong.
hǎo / bùhǎo 好。 / 不好。 OK. / Not OK.

When it comes to a yes/no question in Chinese, you can always turn to ma 吗. That said, there are other ways to do the same thing. And while the answers don’t always directly translate to a one-word yes/no answer, the concept remains the same.

verb + 不 + verb

Chuanr shaokao popular Chinese food

This “verb + 不 + verb” structure is another way to ask yes/no questions in Chinese.

你吃不吃肉?
Nǐ chī bù chī ròu?
Do you eat meat or not?

To answer, you restate the verb, adding 不 for the negative response.

Pinyin Characters English
Chī. 吃。 Yes, I do.
Bùchī. 不吃。 No, I don’t.

Remember those clarification words (是吗, 对吗,好吗) we discussed above? The same concept applies using this “verb + 不 + verb” structure. The following phrases can be used for clarification in the “verb + 不 + verb” structure:

Pinyin Characters English
shì búshì? … 是不是? …right?
duì búduì? … 对不对? …is that correct?
hǎo bùhǎo? … 好不好? …is that right?

For example:

他吃肉,对不对?
Tā chī ròu, duì bùduì?
He eats meat, right?

The answers to these are the same as before:

Pinyin Characters English
shì / búshì 是。 / 不是。 Yes. / No.
duì / búduì 对。 / 不对。 Right. / Wrong.
hǎo / bùhǎo 好。 / 不好。 OK. / Not OK.

Now let’s continue this similar structure with other parts of speech.

adjective + 不 + adjective

Adjective bu adjective questions in Chinese

Just as we used verbs before, in the “adjective + 不 + adjective” structure, we are trying to clarify that adjective.

Perhaps your colleague is looking a bit weary. You could ask them:

你今天累不累?
Nĭ jīntiān lěi bùlěi?
Are you tired today?

In this case, your colleague would then respond with the adjective lěi 累 (tired), adding 不, if the answer is negative.

Pinyin Characters English
Lěi. 累. Yes, I’m tired.
Bùlěi. 不累. No, I’m not tired.

adverb + 不 + adverb

HSK exam

This “adverb + 不 + adverb” structure works much the same as the verb and adjective structures; “adverb + 不 + adverb” structure is used to clarify how someone does something.

Perhaps your friend is telling you about the way their sister does her homework. In turn, you may ask:

她写快不快?
Tā xiě kuài búkuài?
Does she write quickly or not?

Your friend would then respond with either:

Pinyin Characters English
Kuài. 快. Yes, quickly.
Búkuài. 不快. No, not quickly.

Yǒu méiyǒu 有没有

Dog asking a question

So far, we’ve used various parts of speech to ask yes/no questions in Chinese. Now, we are going to clarify whether someone has something or not by using the Chinese question phrase yǒu méiyǒu 有没有.

“Subject + yǒu méiyǒu 有没有 + noun (the item we want to ask if they have).”

As you chat with your friend about animals, they mention they love dogs. So you ask them:

你有没有狗?
Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu gǒu?
Do you have a dog?

The answer is as simple as:

Pinyin Characters English
Yǒu. 有. Yes, I do.
Méiyǒu. 没有. No, I don’t.

The Big Six “Wh-“ Question Words in Chinese

Just as in English, Chinese has a set of key question words that any Chinese language learner will want to know.

Who? | Shéi 谁?

baifumei

There are a few ways to use shéi 谁 in Chinese, the first of which is to ask who someone is:

她是谁?
Tā shì shéi?
Who is she?

The structure Subject + shì 是 + shéi 谁? is a quick and easy way to find out who someone is.

To answer, you would repeat the first half (Subject + shì 是 …) and then add the name or relationship of the person in question. For example:

她是我的妹妹.
Tā shì wǒ de mèimei.
She is my sister.

You can also simply answer:

我的妹妹.
Wǒ de mèimei.
My sister.

You can also use shéi 谁 to clarify who completed an action. In that case, the structure changes to Shéi 谁 + verb (+ object)?

谁做了功课?
Shéi zuòle gōngkè?
Who did the homework?

To answer, you can answer with the name or relationship of the person, just as we did above. To make it sound more complete, you can also add the verb. For example:

她们(做了).
Tāmen (zuòle).
They did.

What? | Shénme 什么?

shenme what question word in Chinese

When used as a question word, shénme 什么 asks “What?” You’ll use this to find out about objects, abstract words, and actions.

你做什么工作?
Nǐ zuò shénme gōngzuò?
What is your job?

This structure works with most questions: Subject + verb + shénme 什么 (+ object)?

To answer, you can typically restate the subject, followed by your answer. In the case of this question, perhaps you say:

我是作者.
Wǒ shì zuòzhě.
I’m a writer.

Interestingly, shénme 什么 can also be used as a pronoun to mean “something” or “any”:

你有什么想法吗?
Nǐ yǒu shénme xiǎngfa ma?
Do you have any ideas?

Did you notice the ma 吗 at the end there? Usually, shénme 什么 and ma 吗 cannot be in the same sentence, but as shénme 什么 plays the role of a pronoun here instead of a question-word, we add our ma 吗 question-maker to the end!

Find more about how to use shénme 什么 here!

Where? | Nǎlǐ 哪里? / Nǎr 哪儿?

Type Chinese on a Samsung phone

To find out the location of something or someone, you can use either nǎlǐ 哪里 or nǎr 哪儿. Both mean “where”, but nǎr 哪儿 is more commonly used in northern China.

For the sake of this article, we will stick with nǎr 哪儿.

This question’s structure (Subject + zài 在 / verb + nǎr 哪儿?) is simple.

我的手机在哪儿?
Wǒ de shǒujī zài nǎr?
Where is my phone?

To answer, you can state where the item is:

你的手机在桌子上.
Nǐ de shǒujī zài zhuōzi shàng.
Your phone is on the desk.

Simply change the pronoun, repeat zài 在 (“to be at, in, or on”), and state the location.

When/what time?

Shénme shíhòu 什么时候?

calendar

Well, would you look at that: Shénme 什么 is back!

By saying “Shénme shíhòu 什么时候?”, you’re literally asking, “what time?” This phrase can be used to inquire about either the time (1:00, 2:30, etc.) or the date (tomorrow, next week, May 4th, etc.).

To inquire about when something happens, use this structure: “Subject + shénme shíhòu 什么时候 + verb / object?

你什么时候回家?
Nǐ shénme shíhòu huí jiā?
When will you come home?

The structure of a “when” question may change when asking for a specific time of a future event:

Subject + shì 是 + shénme shíhòu 什么时候?

我们的航班是什么时候?
Wǒmen de hangban shì shénme shíhòu?
When is our flight?

Jǐ diǎn 几点?

Ji dian question word in Chinese

You can ask “when” or “what time?” in Chinese using this phrase. However, while shénme shíhòu 什么时候 can be used for both times and dates, jǐ diǎn 几点 can only be used for times. To help you remember, jǐ diǎn 几点literally means “how many (几) o’clocks (点)?”

For example:

你几点回家?
Nǐ jǐ diǎn huí jiā?
What time will you come home?

我们几点上课?
Wǒmen jǐ diǎn shàngkè?
What time do we start class?

Keep scrolling for more ways to use 几 to ask questions!

Why? | Wèi shénme 为什么?

why weishenme question word in Chinese tofu

Yet again, shénme 什么 returns to help us ask “Why?” in Chinese. In fact, the phrase “wèi shénme 为什么?” directly translates to mean “for what?”

To ask for the reason behind something, you will use this structure: “Subject + wèi shénme 为什么 + verb (+ object)?

你为什么不喜欢豆腐?
Nǐ wèi shénme bù xǐhuan dòufu?
Why don’t you like tofu?

他们为什么要去越南?
Tāmen wèi shénme yào qù Yuènán?
Why are they going to Vietnam?

Often, you will answer this with a “Because …” statement: Yīnwèi 因为 + reason

Which? | /něi 哪?

cake which Chinese question word

To ask “Which?” in Chinese, you will need 哪 (you may also hear this word pronounced as “něi” but for the sake of this article, we will stick with ).

Just follow this structure: “Subject + verb + 哪 + object?

你想要那块蛋糕?
Nǐ xiǎngyào nǎ kuài dàngāo?
Which piece of cake do you want?

To answer, just state which one, often done by saying “zhège 这个” (this) or “nàgè 那个” (that).

    Careful! It is easy to accidentally write or say 那 (that) instead of 哪 (which) if you don’t watch your tones and/or characters!

How?

Next up, we have the question word “How?” In Chinese, there are actually a few ways to ask this question, depending on what you want to know! Let’s take a look.

Zěnme 怎么?

In a situation where you want to know the process by which someone did something, you can use zěnme 怎么 with the structure “Subject + shì 是 + zěnme 怎么 + action?

你是怎么来到这里?
Nǐ shì zěnme láidào zhèlǐ?
How did you get here?

你是怎么做到的?
Nǐ shì zěnme zuò dào de?
How did you do that?

To answer, just say what you did!

The word zěnme 怎么 can also be used to inquire about the reason behind something, such as “How come …? For this, use the structure “Subject + zěnme 怎么 + verb / object?

你怎么这么累?
Nǐ zěnme zhème lèi?
How come you’re so tired?

Like a “Why?” question, you can answer using "Because… (Yīnwèi 因为… )"

    Bonus!

    There are also a number of other ways zěnme 怎么 can be used. Here are a few examples you may find handy in day-to-day life!

  • Zěnme bàn 怎么办? (What can you do?)
  • This question is useful when it seems there’s nothing that can be done about a situation. The question is fairly rhetorical. Often the question-asker is simply stating that it’s a tough situation, rather than asking for an actual solution?

  • Zěnme le 怎么了? (What’s up?)
  • Zěnme yang 怎么样? (How was it?/How are things?)
  • You can use this to ask how something went (ie. a date the previous night or a meeting earlier in the day). You can also use this as a greeting, to see how someone is doing.

  • Zěnme gǎo de 怎么搞的? (What’s wrong?/What went wrong?)
  • Zěnme shuō ne 怎么说呢? (Why is that?/How come?)

How many?/How much? | Duōshao 多少?

How many how much in Chinese

If you want to ask “How much? / How many?” in Chinese, you’ll need duōshao 多少.

“Subject + verb + duōshao 多少 + object?”

她想要多少苹果?
Tā xiǎngyào duōshao zhī bǐ?
How many pens does she want?

你喝了多少咖啡?
Nǐ hē le duōshao kāfēi?
How much coffee did you drink?

Answer with the number!

Note that duōshao 多少 is usually used for a higher amount, typically more than 10. For those smaller amounts, try this next Chinese question word:

How many? |

As promised, here is more on the Chinese question word 几. This question word is helpful when asking about the quantity of something where the answer is likely under 10.

“Subject + verb + 几 + measure word + object?”

(Note that often the measure word is ge 个!)

他们有几个孩子?
Tāmen yǒu jǐ ge háizi?
How many kids do they have?

In this case, the answer’s structure follows that of the question. Just replace 几 with the number!

他们有三个孩子!
Tāmen yǒu san ge háizi!
They have 3 kids!

The Ne 呢 Particle

How to Use 呢

Ne 呢 is has a number of different uses, especially when asking questions in Chinese. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Noun + ne 呢?

The “Noun + ne 呢?” structure implies a “Where?” question.

Say you have misplaced your headphones. You may mutter to yourself, “Where are my headphones?” That question in Chinese would be “Wǒ de ěrjī ne 我的耳机呢?”

Note that in this situation, ne 呢 is not the same as nǎr 哪儿. By asking this ne 呢 question in Chinese, you’re remarking that an item is not where it should be, and you are wondering where it might be. Think of it as asking, “My headphones should be here, but they are not – so where are they?”

For actual directions or locations, stick to nǎr 哪儿 or nǎlǐ 哪里.

Follow-Up Questions

blog > is chinese hard > headache

Let’s say someone asks:

你好吗?
Níhǎo ma?
How are you?

When you answer, you will typically indicate how you are, and then reciprocate with a follow-up:

我有点累, 你呢?
Wǒ yǒudiǎn lěi, nǐ ne?
I’m a little tired, and you?

In this case, ne 呢 is a particle for asking that follow-up question without having to restate the entire sentence. Think of it as asking, “What about …?” or “How about …?”

Here are a few more examples:

我通过了考试, 你呢?
Wǒ tōngguò le kǎoshì, nǐ ne?
I passed the test, how about you?

数学课很难, 科学课呢?
Shùxué kè hěn nán, kēxué kè ne?
Math class is very difficult, what about science class?

Read more about ne 呢 here!

Rhetorical Questions

There are a few ways to ask rhetorical questions in Chinese. In fact, we have already seen one in this article!

ne 呢 for Rhetorical Questions in Chinese

By adding ne 呢 to your question, you are implying that you don't actually need an answer.

他怎么能这样呢?
Tā zěnme néng zhèyàng ne?
How could he do this?

谁不想去那里呢?
Shéi bùxiǎng qù nàli ne?
Who wouldn’t want to go there?
(In this case, you would likely follow up with a reason why you can’t go.)

Other than using ne 呢, let’s explore a few other ways to get rhetorical with your questions:

"Isn’t / Aren’t …?" for Rhetorical Questions in Chinese

old friends

Zhè 这 / 那) + búshì 不是 + object + ma 吗?

他们不是好朋友吗?
Tāmen búshì hǎo péngyou ma?
Aren’t they good friends?
(In this case, perhaps two folks who are supposedly good friends are fighting.)

shénme 什么 for Rhetorical Questions in Chinese

If you ask, “Nǐ jǐnzhāng shénme 你紧张什么?”, you’re asking, “What are you so worried about?”, implying that there’s actually nothing to worry about!

Even simpler, “Hǎo shénme 好什么?” means “What good is it?”, with the implication that the action in question isn’t worth it.

nǎlǐ 哪里 for Rhetorical Questions in Chinese

In some cases, nǎlǐ 哪里 can also be used in rhetorical questions.

Perhaps it’s a beautiful day outside, and yet your mom is insisting you bring a coat. You may respond with:

今天天气很好, 哪里需要带上外套?
Jīntiān tiānqì hěn hǎo, nǎlǐ xūyào dàishàng wàitào?
Today’s weather is great, why should I bring a coat?

In this case, “nǎlǐ xūyào 哪里需要” can be translated as “where is the need,” or “why”.

Is it possible that …? | Nándào 难道 …? for Rhetorical Questions in Chinese

Facepalm stupid in Chinese

这简单的事情, 难道你还不明白吗?
Zhè jiǎndān de shìqing, nándào nǐ hái bù míngbai ma?
Is it possible you don’t understand this simple thing?

难道你忘了吗?
Nándào nǐ wáng le ma?
Is it possible you forgot?

In both of these examples, the question is meant to express incredulity - “Don’t tell me you did this…” or “How is it possible that…?” Nándào 难道 here simply emphasizes the rhetorical nature of the question.

By now, we hope your Chinese language tool belt is well-equipped with everything you need to ask questions in Chinese. Whether it’s a simple “yes or no” question, or a rhetorical musing, you now have all the vocabulary needed to ask questions in Chinese with ease!

Do you have questions about questions? Sign up for Chinese classes and get the answers!

Post contributed by Alexandra Sieh