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In basic conversational Chinese, there are three forms of asking a question. Since Chinese uses tone to signify the meaning of words, and not the overall meaning of sentences, there is a fairly strict syntax on how to ask a question.

For example, in English, "This is your book" could be either a statement or a question, depending on how you raised or lowered the tone on the word "this". Since almost all words in Chinese are tonal, it would be impossible to change the tone on the word without changing its meaning.

Also, since Zhongwen does not convey grammar through changing the form of words, that is, there is no plurals, tenses or conjugations, it depends solely on word order to convey how things relate. Thus, whereas in English we can say "Is this your book" to convey a question, switching the pronoun and verb like this would not be acceptable in Chinese.

That being said, there are three ways to ask a question correctly in Hanyu:

  1. By using the interrogative participle, which is ma, at the end of a statement. This word changes a statement into a question. For example, "This is your book" as a statement would be "Zhe shi ni de shu". But "Zhe shi ni de shu ma?" means "Is this your book?".
    Personally, in my very short experience with Chinese, this is a hard form to remember. I often find myself forgetting to add the "ma", especially when it is a question that I already know the answer to.
    This form, of course, suggests a yes or no answer, since the answerer can either affirm or deny the question.

  • Usage of an interrogative pronoun, such as what, where or who. Unlike in English, where the interrogative pronoun begins the sentence, "Who is that?", in Chinese word order is maintained, and the question would be "Ta shi shui?" meaning "He is who?". The pronoun goes in exactly where the noun would go.
    Unlike the first type of questions, these questions leave open answers, instead of a yes or no answer.
  • Verb-Negation Verb form.
    In this form, a choice is presented of either a verb or its negation. In Chinese, the word bu is used to negate (most) verbs, so in a sentence that contains a verb followed by the negation of the verb, a choice is made for the answerer to reply with the verb or its negation.
    For example, "Ni dong bu dong?" would translate into literal English as "You understand not understand?", or, more loosely: "Do you understand me or not?"
    This can also be used with the verb "shi", meaning "to be", as in "Ta shi bu shi ni de pengyou?", meaning "He is not is your friend?", or "Is he your friend or not?"
    The verb "you", meaning "to have" is negated with the word "mei", but the principle remains the same "Ni you mei you mao?" means "You have not have cat?" or "Do you have a cat or not?"
    Like the questions of type 1, these types of questions take a "yes or no" answer, the answerer must either affirm or deny the question.

    Although the usage of a special word to signify a question is not familiar to English, the other two forms, usage of either a interrogative pronoun or a verb-negation combination to signify a question are both standard English, although of course English is a great deal looser with word order, and requires a great deal more prepositions to do the same thing.

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