Chinese Question Words

How to Say “What” in Chinese?

什么 Shénme & 怎么 Zěnme in Mandarin



How to Say What in Chinese?

What in Chinese is more commonly known as 什么 Shénme and is one of the Chinese Interrogative Pronouns used when constructing a Chinese question. Another word is 怎么 Zěnme with limited use for What in Mandarin as it is mostly referred to How in Chinese.

When there are mentions of Demonstrative Pronouns (this, that, these, those) or Subject Pronouns (I, He, She, We, They) in a sentence, place them at the beginning of a phrase before What in Chinese – 什么 Shénme.

In English: What is this?
In Chinese: This is what? 这是什么?

Such a Mandarin question structure is different from English because the Interrogative Pronouns would usually be the first word of an English sentence. Whereas in the Chinese language, we do not necessarily and more likely not use them as the first word if you look at the illustrations below.



What in Chinese as Interrogative Pronoun – 什么 Shénme

Here are some frequently used simple questions with What in Chinese with no Demonstrative Pronouns or Personal Pronouns. In most instances, What in Chinese will become a Subject Interrogative Pronoun.

What is the matter?

什么事?
Shén me shì?


What happened?

发生了什么事?
Fā shēng le shén me shì?


What is the situation now?

现在是什么状况?
Xiàn zài shì shén me zhuàng kuàng?


What is the problem? / What is the problem that happened?

什么问题?有什么问题?/ 出了什么问题?
Shén me wèn tí? Yǒu shé me wèn tí? / Chū le shén me wèn tí?


What is correct? What is wrong?

什么是对?什么是错?
Shén me shì duì? Shén me shì cuò?


What is real? What is fake?

什么是真?什么是假?
Shén me shì zhēn? Shén me shì jiǎ?


What is the meaning? What do you mean by this? I do not understand.

什么意思?这是什么意思?我不明白。
Shén me yì si? Zhè shì shén me yì si? Wǒ bù míng bái.



 

With Demonstrative Pronoun + What in Chinese 什么 Shénme

If you have a question with English Demonstrative Pronouns (this, that, these, those) and no Personal Pronoun, place the Chinese Demonstrative Pronouns (, , 这些, 那些 | Zhè, Nà, Zhèxiē, Nàxiē) at the start of the sentence.

What is this? What is that? What thing?

这是什么?那是什么?什么东西?
Zhè shì shén me? Nà shì shén me? Shén me dōng xī?


What are these? What are those?

这些是什么?那些是什么?
Zhè xiē shì shén me? Nà xiē shì shén me?


What is this one? What is that one?

这个是什么?那个是什么?
Zhè ge shì shén me? Nà gè shì shén me?


What place is this?

这是什么地方?
Zhè shì shén me dì fāng?


What is interesting here? What are fun things (to do) here?

这里有什么好玩的?
Zhè li yǒu shé me hǎo wán de?



With Subject Pronoun + What in Chinese 什么 Shénme

When a Chinese sentence contains a Subject Pronoun (I, He, She, We), move it to the beginning. What in Chinese – 什么 Shénme will then become an Object Interrogative Pronoun.

*The last two examples below on the usage of Le after a Chinese Verb which converted the sentence to past tense in English = The event is over.

What do you want to eat? What do you like to eat?

你想吃什么?你喜欢吃什么?
Nǐ xiǎng chī shén me? Nǐ xǐ huān chī shén me?


What do you want to drink? What do you like to drink?

你想喝什么?你喜欢喝什么?
Nǐ xiǎng hē shén me? Nǐ xǐ huān hē shén me?


What do you want to buy? What do you want to sell?

你想买什么?你想卖什么?
Nǐ xiǎng mǎi shén me? Nǐ xiǎng mài shén me?


What did I say wrong? (Literally: I said/put it this way, what is wrong?)

我这么说,有什么不对?
Wǒ zhè me shuō, yǒu shé me bù duì?


What is the excuse that he used for not coming to work?

他用什么借口不来工作?
Tā yòng shén me jiè kǒu bù lái gōng zuò?


What are you saying (Present tense)? What did the boss say (Past tense)?

你说什么?老板说什么?
Nǐ shuō shén me? Lǎo bǎn shuō le shén me?


(Interjection) What! What did you do? What are the things that you have done?

什么! 你做了什么?你到底做些什么?
Shén me? Nǐ zuò le shén me? Nǐ dào dǐ zuò le xiē shén me?

 

With Object Pronoun + What in Chinese 什么 Shénme

An Object Pronoun (him, her, us) would usually not be at the start of the sentence. The Subject Interrogative Pronoun (什么 + Noun) will be placed first.

What are the things that make her happy?

什么东西能使她快乐?
Shén me dōng xī néng shǐ tā kuài lè?


Under what circumstances can make him cry?

什么情况之下能让他哭?
Shén me qíng kuàng zhī xià néng ràng tā kū?



 

With Both Subject & Object Pronouns + What in Chinese 什么 Shénme

Both the Subject Pronouns and the Object Pronouns share the same Chinese words – 我,你,他,她,我们,你们. Hence, it might be somewhat confusing when both groups of pronouns appear together. See Personal Pronouns (I vs Me) to clarify the difference.

I do not know what you are talking about just now. I cannot hear clearly. You repeat one more time, please.

我不知道你刚才说什么?我听不清楚。请你在重复一遍。
Wǒ bù zhī dào nǐ gāng cái shuō shén me? Wǒ tīng bù qīng chǔ. Qǐng nǐ zài chóng fù yī biàn.

 

Flexible Chinese Word Order Construction – What in Mandarin

For new Chinese learners, it makes sense to try and place the Subject Pronoun first where possibleHowever, the Chinese language is flexible.

If you have a stronger Mandarin foundation and a deeper understanding of how Chinese grammar works after some time, you should be able to move around the Chinese word order construction without difficulty. Look at the two sets of examples below.

Example 1

What can I do to make her happy? Give a call to her?

我要做什么,才能让她开心?打通电话给她吗?
Wǒ yào zuò shén me, cái néng ràng tā kāi xīn? Dǎ tōng diàn huà gěi tā ma?


To make her happy, what can I do? Go to her house and send flowers to her?

要让她开心,我能做什么?去她家送花给她吗?
Yào ràng tā kāi xīn, wǒ néng zuò shén me? Qù tā jiā sòng huā gěi tā ma?

 

Example 2

What would be the method used so he could work? Apply for a work permit?

他要用什么方法,才能工作?申请工作准证吗?
Tā yào yòng shén me fāng fǎ, cái néng gōng zuò? Shēn qǐng gōng zuò zhǔn zhèng ma?


Use what method so he could work? Apply for a visa?

要用什么方法,他才能工作? 办签证吗?
Yào yòng shén me fāng fǎ, tā cái néng gōng zuò? Bàn qiān zhèng ma?


 

What Type / Kind / Sort – 什么样 Shénme Yàng / 什么类型 Shénme Lèixíng

What type / kind / sort of + Noun” is a question which you ask someone about their preferences in a category. We use either 什么样 Shénme yàng or 什么类型 Shénme lèixíng.

What kind of movie do you like to watch?

你喜欢看什么样的电影?
Nǐ xǐ huān kàn shén me yàng de diàn yǐng?


What sort of furniture do you like?

你喜欢什么样的家具?
Nǐ xǐ huān shén me yàng de jiā jù?


What type of men do you like?

你喜欢什么类型的男生?
Nǐ xǐ huān shén me lèi xíng de nán shēng?


What type of women do you like?

你喜欢什么样的女生?
Nǐ xǐ huān shén me yàng de nǚ shēng?



What in Chinese – 怎么 Zěnme

Other than 什么 Shénme, we also have 怎么 Zěnme to express What in Chinese. 怎么 is not an explicit representation of What in Chinese. Or rather, it has a more definite association with How in Chinese.

Sometimes, when translating 怎么 Zěnme from Chinese to English or vice versa, the final version depends on whether a person wants to use How or What as a term for expressing an English question.


Moving on, we will discuss How to Say Which in Chinese in the next post.

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