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3.8: Lesson 2 Grammar - Yes-no questions with 吗 (ma)

  • Page ID
    65615
  • The question particle 吗 (ma) is a simple way to form questions in Chinese. The tone of this character is a neutral tone, which can be written in pinyin as ma or ma0 or ma5.  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).

    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。
      Nǐ xǐhuan kāfēi.
      You like coffee.

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

    • 你喜欢咖啡吗?
      Nǐ xǐhuan kāfēi ma?
      Do you like coffee?

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

    • 你是大学生吗?
      Nǐ shì dàxuéshēng ma?
      Are you a college student?
       
    • 他是老板吗?
      Tā shì lǎobǎn ma?
      Is he the boss?
       
    • 你喜欢她吗?
      Nǐ xǐhuan tā ma?
      Do you like her?
       
    • 你想家吗?
      Nǐ xiǎng jiā ma?
      Do you miss home?
       
    • 你们明天见面吗?
      Nǐmen míngtiān jiànmiàn ma?
      Are you going to meet tomorrow?
       
    • 你们也去吗?
      Nǐmen yě qù ma?
      Are you also going?
       
    • 他在你们学校学中文吗?
      Tā zài nǐmen xuéxiào xué Zhōngwén ma?
      Does he study Chinese in your school?
       
    • 妈妈会做饭吗?
      Māma 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:

    • 你是谁吗?<< BAD EXAMPLE, DO NOT SAY IT THIS WAY!
      Nǐ shì shéi ma? 
      [Note: 谁 (shéi) is already a question word.]
       
    • 这是不是书吗?<< BAD EXAMPLE, DO NOT SAY IT THIS WAY!
      Zhè shì bu shì shū ma? 
      [Note: 是不是 (shì bu shì) is already a question pattern.]

    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 Questions with 吗 (ma) 

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

    1. Answer with 对 (duì "correct") or the more casual 嗯 (ǹg, like English "mm-hmm" as an affirmative) 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: 你是大学生吗?
      Nǐ shì dàxuéshēng ma?
      Are you a college student?
      [Note: Positive verb in the question.]
       
    • B: 对。
      Duì.
      Yes, I am. / That's correct, I am.
      [Note: 對 (duì) affirms the positive verb.]
    • A: 你没有工作吗?
      Nǐ méiyǒu gōngzuò ma?
      Do you not have a job?
      [Note: Negative verb in the question.]
       
    • B: 对。
      Duì.
      No, I don't. / That's correct, I don't.
      [Note: 對 (duì) affirms the negative verb.]

    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: 你明天不来吗?
      Nǐ míngtiān bù lái ma?
      You're not coming tomorrow?
      [Note: Negative verb in the question.]
       
    • B: 来。
      Lái.
      Yes, I'll come.
      [Note: Repeat the verb when responding.]
    • A: 你明天不来吗?
      Nǐ míngtiān bù lái ma?
      You're not coming tomorrow?
      [Note: Negative verb in the question.]
       
    • B: 不来。
      Bù lái.
      No, I won't come.
      [Note: The negative verb means "no."]

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

    • A: 你喜欢中国菜吗?
      Nǐ xǐhuan Zhōngguó cài ma?
      Do you like Chinese food?
      [Note: Positive verb in the question.]
       
    • B: 喜欢。
      Xǐhuan.
      Yes, I do.
      [Note: Repeat the verb in the response.]
       
    • A: 你不喜欢中国菜吗?
      Nǐ bù xǐhuan Zhōngguó cài ma?
      Don't you like Chinese food?
      [Note: The negative verb is in the question.]
       
    • C: 对。
      Duì.
      No, I don't. / That's correct, I don't.
      [Note: 对 (duì) affirms the negative verb.]

    You may sometimes imagine that "yes" in Chinese is 是 (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 whatever is the main 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" as a response to a question.

    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 learn later on more about such advanced yes-no questions involving "ma".

    [adapted from AllSet Learning Chinese Grammar Wiki, Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA 3.0]

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    Any Questions? 

    If you have any questions about this grammar point, please ask in the class forums!