Asking questions in Chinese with 吗 (ma), allows you to ask simple yes or no questions. This article is about an alternate way to ask questions without using 吗 (ma).
In our pronunciation course, generally, we don’t worry too much about grammar. Instead, we focus on how to produce each initial, final & tone properly. Here is an exception!
REMEMBER: KNOWING GRAMMAR RULES ≠ ACQUISITION
As adults, we are capable of conceptualizing a grammar rule in a new language in a way children cannot. 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 Chinese question 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 other parts of speech), you do NOT use 吗.
A NOTE ON PRONUNCIATION
You usually pronounce 不 bù 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 structure. Why? Because it’s faster.
Some tone changes happen when speaking to speed things up, but it wouldn’t be correct to say it is a Rule because it isn’t applied consistently. However, in the vast majority of the times, 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 aswell. For example, I might ask, “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 substantial 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 connotation. For this reason, don’t assume a Chinese person using the “V + 不 + V” construction is being rude.
EXAMPLE Questions you could ask in Chinese
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?
If you would like to read more on Chinese question structures, please head over to our post on the usage of What in Chinese.