Sometimes You Can Add A Little Attitude When Getting To The Bottom Of Something
Remember: Knowing Grammar Rules ≠ Acquisition
As adults, we are capable of conceptualizing a grammar rule in a new language in a way children cannot. This can be an advantage if approached correctly, but can easily hinder your language acquisition. Learning a grammar rule should only be used in the context of noticing it in future reading & listening, but do not use the grammar rules to question yourself when speaking.
Verb + 不 + Verb (or adjectives)
Take a look at this simple sentence:
“他怕它吗? tā pà tā ma? (Is he afraid of it?)”.
You can also say:
“他怕不怕它? tā pà bu pà tā?”.
The meaning is the same, but take note that it is one or the other. If you use the structure that has the 不 bu in between the repeated verb (or another part of speech), you do NOT use 吗.
A Note On Pronunciation
不 bù is normally pronounced with a 4th tone (or sometimes a 2nd tone based on the tone change rule), but in this construction it is different. It is pretty much always 5th tone when you have the V + 不 + V or ADJ + 不 + ADJ construction. Why? Because it’s faster. Some tone changes happen in speech simply to speed things up, but it wouldn’t be correct to say it is a “rule”, because it isn’t necessarily applied consistently., but the vast majority of the time it is 5th tone.
Actions & Descriptions
In terms of frequency, a verb + 不 + verb construction is a bit more common, but sometimes it will be Adjective + 不 + Adjective sometimes as well. For example, I might say “我酷不酷? wǒ kù bu kù? Am I cool or not?”.
Is There Any Difference Between “V + 不 + V” & 吗 Ma?
Usually, there is not a substantive difference between the two, but sometimes the “verb + 不 + verb” construction feels more assertive, impatient, or otherwise not exactly polite. Through context, you can tell whether or not this is true by the speaker’s tone of voice, but to be clear, it does not necessarily carry this extra connotation. For this reason, don’t assume a Chinese person using the “V + 不 + V” construction is being rude.
你喝不喝可乐？nǐ hēbuhē kělè? – Are you drinking cola or not?
她是不是你的妈妈？tā shìbushì nǐde māma? – Is she your mother or not?
你怕不怕他？nǐ pàbupà tā? – Are you afraid of him or not?
妈妈饿不饿？māma èbuè? – Is mom hungry or not?
你怕他，是不是？nǐ pà tā, shìbushì? – You are afraid of him, yes or no?