How to use the particles 吗 (ma) and 呢 (ne) in Chinese grammar

The particles 呢 (ne) and 吗 (ma) are extremely common in Chinese. This article explains the two particles for beginners.

呢 and 吗 are similar in the following ways:

Both go at the end of a sentence.
Both of them can form questions.
Both of them are pronounced in neutral tone.
But these two particles have different uses:

吗 is used to turn statements into yes-no questions.
呢 is mostly used to turn statements into queries (amongst other things).
Now let’s look at the two particles in detail.

吗 (ma)

As mentioned above, 吗 is a question particle that is used to turn statements into yes-no questions. What exactly does that mean? A yes-no question is also known as a “binary question” or a “polar question”. This simply means that it’s a question that can only be answered with “yes” or “no”. In other words, it’s not an open question.

The question particle 吗 is the easiest way to form this kind of question in Mandarin Chinese. All you do is put it on the end of a plain statement, and the statement becomes a yes-no question. Have a look at some examples:

Nǐ shì Lǐ Xiānshēng ma?
Are you Mr Li?
Nǐ huì Zhōngwén ma?
Do you speak Chinese?
Zhèli yǒu xǐshǒujiān ma?
Is there a toilet here?
Those would all be valid sentences without 吗. They would just be plain statements:

Nǐ shì Lǐ Xiānshēng.
You are Mr Li.
Nǐ huì Zhōngwén.
You speak Chinese.
Zhèli yǒu xǐshǒujiān.
There is a toilet here.
Compare the two sets of sentences. You can see that when 吗 is added on the end, they become yes-no questions. All of those questions can only be answered with agreement or disagreement. That’s what 吗 is for.

In this way, 吗 is almost like a question mark that you say out loud. It goes on the end of the sentence and indicates that it’s a question. Have a look at some point statements being changed into yes-no questions with 吗:

Zhè shì nǐ de.
This is yours.
Zhè shì nǐ de ma?
Is this yours?
Tā shì Tàiguórén.
He’s from Thailand.
Tā shì Tàiguórén ma?
Is he from Thailand?
Nà shì fēijī.
That’s a plane.
Nà shì fēijī ma?
Is that a plane?
Notice how in English you have to re-arrange the word order of the sentence to form these questions. In Chinese, all you have to do is add 吗 on the end.

呢 (ne)

The particle 呢 has more uses than 吗, but we’ll look at the most important one here: forming queries, or asking bounce-back questions.

The most common use for 呢 is probably to form simple queries. All you do is put 呢 after the thing you want to query. This is often equivalent to saying “and … ?“, “what about … ?” or “how about … ?” in English. Some examples:

Nǐ ne?
And you?
Wǒ ne?
What about me?
Zhèxiē dōngxi ne?
What about these things?
As you can see, it’s very easy to query things in Chinese using 呢. Just say the thing you’d like to know about, and put 呢 right after it. This is very commonly used to ask ‘bounce-back questions’ in Chinese. This is when someone asks you a question, and you return the question to them after answering it. This is commonly done by simply asking “你呢?”.

There are a few other uses for 呢 in Chinese grammar, but we won’t go into detail about those in this article.

Comparing 吗 and 呢

As you can see above, these two particles are fairly similar. But what are the important differences? Let’s have a look at a few here.

The first difference is that 吗 is only for yes-no questions, wheras 呢 cannot be used in yes-no questions. 吗 always forms these questions, wheras when 呢 is used to form queries, they are open-ended.

The second difference is that 呢 can combine with question words to emphasize a query. 吗 can’t be doubled-up with other question words; it marks questions on its own. For example, 呢 is being used to add a further querying element to these questions:

Nǐ wèishénme bù qù ne?
Why aren’t you going?
Tā yǒu shénme bù xǐhuan chī de ne?
What is there that he doesn’t like to eat?
Those would both be grammatically valid questions without 呢, but by adding 呢 the speaker makes it clear that they don’t just want an answer to the question – they’re questioning the situation or even criticising it. They’ve added a further query to it.

吗, on the other hand, can’t combine directly with other question words in a statement. If there’s already a question word, it fills up the question “slot”, and there’s no more space for 吗.

The only way 吗 can appear with other question words in the same sentence is if it’s used to ask a yes-no question about a condition. That sounds complicated, but this example might make it clearer:

Nǐ zhīdào tā wèishéme bù chī ròu ma?
Do you know why he doesn’t eat meat?
吗 is appearing with another question wor(为什么) in that sentence, but it’s not actually part of that question. There are two questions in the sentence here: an inner question about why the person doesn’t eat meat, and an outer question about whether the listener knows the answer to the inner question:

Nǐ zhīdào ma?
Do you know?
Tā wèishénme bù chī ròu?
Why doesn’t he eat meat?
吗 really only applies to the outer question, so it doesn’t clash with the question word in the inner one. Other than that kind of situation, 吗 can’t appear directly together with other question words.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *