When a Question Word Isn’t a Question

Some, Any, Every and None

Asking questions in Mandarin might seem easy, but it’s not always quite as easy if it seems at first.

In Mandarin you can make a yes/no question by using the particle ma and placing it onto the end of a statement. So ma is just like a verbal question mark. Yes/no questions are therefore much simpler than in English, which requires changing the word order.

nǐ chī fàn le 你吃饭了 (you have eaten)

nǐ chī fàn le ma? 你吃饭了吗?(have you eaten?)

Like English there are also the ‘WH question words’ such as shén me (what) ná lǐ (where) and shéi (who). Again, unlike English there is no change of word order. In English these words appear at the start of a sentence, but in Mandarin they usually appear at the end of the sentence just after the vowel.

nǐ xiǎng chī shén me? 你想吃什么 (you want eat what/ what do you want to eat?)

nǐ qù ná lǐ? 你去哪里 (you go where/ where are you going?)

However, the word shén me not only means ‘what’, it can also act like the words ‘something’, ‘anything’, ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’. Similarly, ná lǐ (where) can also mean ‘somewhere’, ‘anywhere’, ‘nowhere’ and ‘everywhere’. Following on from this you should probably be able to figure out that shéi (who) can mean ‘someone’, ‘anyone’, ‘no one’ and ‘everyone’.

Confused? Let Me Explain….

1 – SOME

This is largely just contextual. If you say to your friend nǐ xiǎng chī shén me? Then you’re probably asking “what do you want to eat” but if you say wǒ xiǎng chī diǎn shén me. Then you’re probably not asking yourself what you want to eat, you’re probably saying “I want to eat something”. Another consideration is intonation. Although Chinese is a tonal language the intonation of a question and a statement will be different, without changing the tones. For more about that click here.

2 – ANY

If you use a question word like shén me and then add the question particle ma on the end of your question it changes the meaning to ‘any’ and so becomes a yes/no question.

nǐ xiǎng chī shén me? (you want eat what/ what do you want to eat?)

nǐ xiǎng chī shén me ma? (you want eat what [ma]/ do you want to eat anything?)

Again, a question using ná lǐ becomes a yes/no question when you put ma on the end.

nǐ qù ná lǐ? (you go where/ where are you going?)

nǐ qù ná lǐ ma? (you go where [ma]/ are you going anywhere?)

The word shén me often appears in front of a noun to mean ‘any’ in these kinds of questions. So shén me shū 什么书 could mean ‘what book’ but could also mean ‘any book’ when used in a question with ma.

nǐ zài kàn shén me shū? (you reading what book/ what book are you reading?)

nǐ kàn le shén me zhōng wén shū ma? (you have read what Chinese book [ma]/ have you read any Chinese books?)

You could also use it with bāng zhù (help) to offer help. nǐ xū yào shén me bāng zhù ma? (do you need any help)


When used in statements the question words can mean ‘every’, but you need to use the word dōu (all) right after the question word.

wǒ shén me dōu xiǎng chī (I what all want eat/ I want to eat everything)

The clue here is that in this sentence the word shén me is before the verb, not after it. As mentioned above, in questions shen me comes after the verb. The fact it is before the verb here indicates it is not a question and doesn’t mean ‘what’ in this sentence.

You can, however, turn this statement into a yes/no question in the usual way using ma at the end.

wǒ shén me dōu xiǎng chī (I want to eat everything)

nǐ shén me dōu xiǎng chī ma? (Do you want to eat everything?)

If you’re travelling around China and your friend asks you where you want to go you might respond with. wǒ ná lǐ dōu xiǎng qù (I where all want go/ I want to go everywhere)

4 – NO

This is the same as with ‘every’ but after dōu you need to make the sentence negative by either using or méi.

wǒ shén me dōu bù xiǎng chī (I want to eat nothing)

wǒ shén me dōu méi chī (I ate nothing)

wǒ shéi dōu méi kàn dào (I saw no one) but this sentence might sound a bit more natural as wǒ méi kàn dào shéi (I didn’t see anyone)


This post is open to comments. If you’re still confused by this grammar point feel free to ask any questions. If you think you can help clarify and explain things more clearly please leave a comment to help others.



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