Major Question Words in Chinese

major questons in chinese

Last time we covered the most important basic grammar points for any beginner to know. To continue our foray into Chinese grammar, let’s learn the Chinese characters that create the foundations for some of the most commonly used question words.

  1. 谁 (shuí) (in oral speech: “shéi”) – who


  1. 哪 (nǎ) means where.

You may often come across with these two words: 哪里 (nǎ li) and 哪儿 (nǎr), which both mean where. They vary according to where you are in China. 哪儿 is more Northern, 哪里 is more Southern.


These two question words are created by adding a suffix that forms interrogative – 么 (me):

  1. 什么 (shén me) – what


  1. 怎么 (zěn me) – how


One of the multiple meanings of 为 is “for”, as in “for the benefit of” or “for the sake of”. When it precedes 什么, we get another Chinese question word:

  1. 为什么 (wèi shén me) – why (literally: “for what”?)


You can also create some more specific question words by adding a noun to 什么, for example:

  1. 什么时候 (shénme shíhou) – when


  1. 什么名字 (shénme míngzi) – what name


By combining 多 that means “many” and 少 (“a few”, “a little”), we get this useful word:

  1. 多少 (duō shǎo) – how many (how much)

If you ask someone about a price, use this simple question:

多少钱? (Duō shǎo qián?) – How much does it cost? (literally: “How much money?”)


多 may be combined with other adverbs and adjectives:

  1. 多久 (duō jiǔ) – how long (ago)?


  1. 多大 (duō dà) – how big

多大 is also used to ask how old is an adult person. But for children it is better to use an alternative expression of how much/how many, 几, as in the following question:

  1. 你几岁 (Nǐ jǐ suì?) – How old are you? (How many years?)

Grammar point – the difference between and多少

When combined with nouns and measure words, 几 means “how many”. It is used for asking about a small number of objects, say less than 10 as a rule of thumb, while 多少 is for a bigger number. We use几 to ask about time:

几点? (jǐ diǎn) – What time? (literally: how many hours?)

This is a summary of the major question words in Chinese, I hope you find it useful to have them all in one place! Do you think I have missed out any important points? Or perhaps you always struggle with the use of a question word? Tell us in the comments!

Oksana Ermolaeva

Oxana Ermolaeva is a freelance writer, editor and translator from Russia. She loves studying new languages and cultures. Her special interest is Chinese language. She owns a page on Facebook and a website about learning Chinese. Now she is also running a channel Hacking Chinese Characters at Dig Mandarin.