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Yes-no questions with "ma"

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The question particle 吗 (ma) is a simple way to form questions in Chinese. By placing 吗 (ma) on the end of a statement, you convert it into a yes/no question (questions that could be answered with "yes" or "no" in English).

Basic Usage

Structure

Any statement can be converted into a yes/no question with 吗 (ma). You could think of 吗 (ma) as being like a question mark you say out loud. So the basic structure is:

[Statement] + 吗 ?

Examples

  • 你 喜欢 咖啡 。statementNǐ xǐhuan kāfēi.You like coffee.

The sentence "You like coffee" can easily be converted into the question "Do you like coffee?" by adding 吗 (ma):

  • 你 喜欢 咖啡 questionNǐ xǐhuan kāfēi ma?Do you like coffee?

More examples of yes/no questions that revert to statements when you remove the 吗 (ma):

  • 你 是 大 学生 questionNǐ shì dàxuéshēng ma?Are you a college student?
  • 他 是 老板 questionTā shì lǎobǎn ma?Is he the boss?
  • 你 喜欢 她 questionNǐ xǐhuan tā ma?Do you like her?
  • 你 想 家 questionNǐ xiǎng jiā ma?Do you miss home?
  • 你们 明天 见面 questionNǐmen míngtiān jiànmiàn ma?Are you going to meet tomorrow?
  • 你们 也 去 questionNǐmen yě qù ma?Are you also going?
  • 他 在 你们 学校 学 中文 questionTā zài nǐmen xuéxiào xué Zhōngwén ma?Does he study Chinese in your school?
  • 妈妈 会 做饭 questionMāma huì zuòfàn ma?Does mom know how to cook?

It's important to remember that you do not normally add 吗 (ma) to a sentence that's already a question. For example:

  • 你 是 谁 谁 (shéi) is a question wordNǐ shì shéi ma?
  • 这 是 不 是 书 是不是 (shì bu shì) is a question patternZhè shì bu shì shū ma?

These would be something like "Are you who are you?" and "Is this is a book?" in English, both obviously ungrammatical. Still, if you're not careful, you may find yourself throwing a 吗 (ma) onto the end of a question that doesn't need it. Many learners make this mistake, so don't worry if it happens every once in a while, just catch it and remember it the next time.

How to Answer

You can answer a Chinese yes-no question in one of two ways:

  1. Answer with 对 (duì) or the more casual 嗯 (ǹg) to affirm what was asked.
  2. Answer a clearer "yes" by simply repeating the positive form of the verb, or "no" by using the negative form of the verb.

Here's the slightly tricky part: if you answer with 对 (duì) and the question is in the positive, then you're saying "yes" (and affirming the positive verb in the question). If you answer with 对 (duì) and the question is in the negative, then you're saying "no" (and affirming the negative verb in the question). Let's take a look at some examples of this sort.

  • A: 你 是 大 学生 Positive verb in the questionNǐ shì dàxuéshēng ma?Are you a college student?
  • B: 对 。对 (duì) affirms the positive verb.Duì.Yes, I am.
  • A:没 有 工作 Negative verb in the questionméiyǒu gōngzuò ma?Do you not have a job?
  • B: 对 。对 (duì) affirms the negative verb.Duì.No, I don't.

Now let's try some answers that reuse the verb for a super-clear "yes" or "no," which works the same way regardless of whether it's a positive or a negative verb in the question.

  • A: 你 明天 不 来 Negative verb in the questionNǐ míngtiān bù lái ma?You're not coming tomorrow?
  • B: 来 。Repeat the verb for greater clarity.Lái.Yes, I'll come.
  • A: 你 明天 不 来 Negative verb in the questionNǐ míngtiān bù lái ma?You're not coming tomorrow?
  • B: 不 来 。The negative verb means "no."Bù lái.No, I won't come.

Finally, a mix of the two ways to answer, where one person is asking questions of two different people.

  • A:你 喜欢 中国菜 Positive verb in the questionNǐ xǐhuan Zhōngguó cài ma?Do you like Chinese food?
  • B: 喜欢 。Repeat the verb for greater clarity.Xǐhuan.Yes, I do.
  • A:不 喜欢 中国菜 Negative verb in the questionbù xǐhuan Zhōngguó cài ma?Don't you like Chinese food?
  • C: 对 。对 (duì) affirms the negative verb.Duì.No. (I don't.)

You sometimes hear that "yes" in Chinese is (shì) and "no" is 不是 (bù shì). This can be true, but only when the main verb in the question is also 是 (shì). If the verb in the question is something else, like 喜欢 (xǐhuan), then that verb becomes the word for "yes." It's been said that Chinese has hundreds of ways to say "yes," and this is why: every verb can be used to mean "yes."

More Advanced Usage

However, this doesn't mean that a sentence can't ever have a question word and 吗 (ma). If a sentence contains verbs of understanding such as 知道 (zhīdào),了解 (liǎojiě), 明白 (míngbai), 认识 (rènshi), etc., then 吗 (ma) can still be added at the end of the question. You will later learn more about these advanced yes-no questions with "ma".

See also

Sources and further reading

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