What in Chinese with 什么, 想, 在 & Context

Questions with What in Chinese

In Level 14 of The Mandarin Blueprint Method course, we introduce the question word “什么 shénme – What?” ‘What?’ At that point, you also know 想 xiǎng (to think), which is a hugely helpful verb. 在 zài (in, at, located) is a character we wrote a blog post about and is useful in understanding how definitions change based on context.

Consider these sentences:

你想什么?nǐ xiǎng shénme? ‘What do you want?’ 

你想什么吗?nǐ xiǎng shénme ma? ‘Do you want anything?’

你在想什么?nǐ zài xiǎng shénme ‘What are you thinking about?’

我想你。wǒ xiǎng nǐ ‘I miss you.’

You should be able to figure out all the different word usages based on the context of the sentence. 什么 (what in Chinese) can mean ‘what,’ but it can also mean ‘anything.’ 想 (miss you) can mean ‘want/desire,’ ‘to think’ or ‘to miss.’ How do you know which one?

什么 (What in Chinese) can mean “What” or “Anything”!

The Process of Elimination Using 吗

Two types of sentences contain 吗 (yes or no question indicator), and 吗 only appears in yes or no questions. ‘What’ is not a ‘yes or no’ question word, so by process of elimination, ‘什么’ must mean ‘anything.’ Is there no 吗 character but still a question mark? Then you better believe 什么 means ‘what.’

在 Gives You a Clue

How about 想? Consider that by adding 在 you can quickly figure out the difference between the “want” and the “think” usages. The 想 (miss you) in 你在想什么 (What are you thinking) is only logical because you’d rarely ask a person “What are you wanting right now?” You’d say 你想什么?“ (what do you want?). “What are you thinking about right now?”, on the other hand, is a common refrain of anyone who has a girlfriend.

Chinese Makes You Think About What Words REALLY Mean

What about 我想你 (I miss you?) Well, what the heck is ‘missing’ someone? It’s thinking about them and wanting them. Once again, Chinese gives you a fast track to the essence of a concept in one dang character, and there’s even a 心 (heart) in 想. Amazing!