One of the pure joys and enduring charms of spoken Chinese is the prevalence of “exclamatory particles”.
These are one syllable, neutral tone words which slip off your tongue at the end of a sentence to add emphasis, soften or stiffen the tone, or indicate a question or command. They range from grammatically necessary to playful additions at the whim of the speaker.
There are no direct equivalents in English, and thus tend to present some confusion to newbies. It can be difficult to master the art (not science) of the properly placed particle, and takes much practice to perfect the neutral tone.
Today, we’ll examine three of the most rudimentary Chinese particles- 吗 (ma), 吧 (ba), and 呢 (ne). These three can all indicate a question is being asked, but carry very different implications. Continuing our No Nonsense Newbie Tips series, we’ll briefly explain the meanings of each, provide simple example sentences, and conclude with important points.
1. 吗- ma
Usually the first particle you will encounter, and although it could be helpful to (at first) think of this as the equivalent of a question mark, don’t go sticking it indiscriminately at the end of all question sentences.
The answer to a 吗 question should be yes or no (or more accurately, confirm or negate the verb). Adding a 吗 to the end of a declarative sentence is similar to swapping the position of the subject and verb in an English sentence (You are Ben vs. Are you Ben?).
吗 isn’t used if you are instead using the common ___不___ or 有没有 patterns to pose a question.
Note: you will probably also encounter 么 (me) at the end of a question sentence. Although a bit more informal, its meaning here is identical to 吗.
nǐ zhī dào ma
Do you know?
nǐ huì shuō zhōng wén ma
Can you speak Chinese?
nǐ nǚ péng yǒu hē jiǔ ma
Does your girlfriend drink?
gē men er, nǐ zuì jìn hǎo ma
Bro, have you been well recently?
nǐ kàn guò jiǎ sī tīng bǐ bó de xīn fǎ xíng ma hǎo kě’ài!
Have you seen Justin Beiber’s new haircut? So cute!
2. 吧- ba
Unlike 吗 or 呢, 吧 does not always indicate a question. It is most commonly used when making a suggestion or request, similar to “how about…” or “let’s…” in English.
However, it can be tacked to the end of a statement to indicate speculation or deduction, and implies you are seeking confirmation. “…right?” in English is close. The speaker believes something to be true, and by inserting a 吧 at the end, is inviting validation.
The excellent blog East Asia Student calls these “tag questions”.
wǒ men chū qù chī fàn ba
Want to go eat? (or lets go eat!)
míng tiān bù xíng, hòu tiān ba
Tomorrow won’t work, what about the day after tomorrow?
màn diǎn er kāi chē ba, lù shàng xiǎo xīn!
Could you please drive a bit slower? Be careful on the road!
nǐ hàn yǔ shuō de hěn hǎo, shì zài běi jīng xué de ba
You speak Chinese so well, was it in Beijing you studied?
jīn tiān shì nǐ de shēng rì, jīn tiān yào chū qù ba
Today is your birthday, you want to go out tonight, right?
3. 呢- ne
Used primarily as a “reciprocal inquiry”, using 呢 is a great way to inquire about something you have just been asked. It allows you to bounce the topic of conversation back to the other person or people for their take on the matter.
Answers to a 呢 question do not have to be a simple yes or no (as with 吗), but can lead to more open ended replies. The English equivalent is “and…” or “and what about…”
wǒ guò de hěn hǎo, nǐ ne
I‘ve been well, you?
zhào lǎo shī hěn bàng, wáng lǎo shī ne
Teacher Zhao is awesome, what about teacher Wang?
nǐ xiǎn rán bù dǒng huà xué, shēng wù xué ne
Its obvious you don’t understand chemistry, what about biology?
wǒ men dōu yào cān jiā jù huì, nǐ de péng yǒu men ne
We are all going to this party, what about your friends?
wǒ tīng shuō nǐ bù xǐ huan tiào wǔ, nà chàng gē ne
I’ve heard you don’t like dancing, what about singing?
1) As with all Chinese particles, these three are all neutral tone. Let it slip off your tongue lightly and quickly at the very end of your sentence.
2) 吗 questions demand a simple yes or no, or confirmation or negation of the verb. 吧 and 呢 invite more open ended responses.
3) As opposed to other newbie conundrums we have covered, there isn’t much overlap between these three. Choose the wrong one and your meaning will be lost or distorted!