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This article is in the series Teach Yourself Japanese

7.9. Questions

7.9.1. Colloquial questions


It is quite easy to ask a question in colloquial Japanese. Just say a sentence with a rising pitch at the end.

Kana:きょうはさむい。
Romanization:Kyô wa sa mu i .
Structure:(noun, today) (topic marker) (adjective, is cold)
Meaning:It is cold today.

Kana:きょうはさむい?
Romanization:Kyô wa sa mu I *1 ?
Structure:(noun, today) (topic marker) (adjective, is cold)
Meaning:Is it cold today?

*1 It begins with a low pitch and ends with a high pitch, because of raising.

You can say "It is cold today?" in English by merely rising tone at the end of the sentence, so I think this way of making questions is easy to understand. There is an exception, though. If the final word of a sentence is a nonpast form of a copula, which is either the plain だ or the polite です, you need to remove it. You might be fed up with the irregularity of a copula. Note that past-form copulas are not removed.

Kana:トマトはやさいだ。
Romanization:To ma to wa ya sa i da .
Structure:(noun, tomatoe) (topic marker) (noun, vegetable) (copula, is)
Meaning:Tomatoes are vegetables.

Kana:トマトはやさい?
Romanization:To ma to wa ya sa i*2 ?
Structure:(noun, tomatoe) (topic marker) (noun, vegetable)
Meaning:Are tomatoes vegetables?

*2 It begins with a high pitch and ends with a higher pitch, because of raising.

In questions, the affirmation suffix is quite commonly used like this:

Kana:トマトはやさいなのだ。
Romanization:To ma to wa ya sa i na no da .
Structure:(noun, tomatoe) (topic marker) (noun, vegetable) (copula, is) (affirmation suffix)
Meaning:The fact is that tomatoes are vegetables.

Kana:トマトはやさいなの?
Romanization:To ma to wa ya sa i na no ?
Structure:(noun, tomatoe) (topic marker) (noun, vegetable) (copula, is) (affirmation suffix)
Meaning: Is it true that tomatoes are vegetables?

Note that the copula in the affirmation suffix is removed because it is a nonpast-form copula at the end of a sentence. You have learned that the affirmation suffix のだ "noda" often becomes んだ "nda", but the change never occurs when the copula in the affirmation suffix is removed.

The nuance of having the affirmation suffix in a question is that you doubt what another person said or wrote. In this case, you might be told that tomatoes are vegetables and sceptical about that.

7.9.2. Formal questions

The grammatically stricter way to make a question sentence is to add the sentence-final postposition
か "ka", which is a question marker. The plain nonpast copula だ "da" is also removed when followed by the question marker か "ka", but the polite copula です "desu" is not removed when the question marker is used. That is a difference from the colloquial way.

Kana:きょうはさむいです。
Romanization:Kyô wa sa mu i de su .
Structure:(noun, today) (topic marker) (adjective + politeness, is cold)
Meaning:It is cold today.

Kana:きょうはさむいですか。
Romanization:Kyô wa sa mu i de su ka .
Structure:(noun, today) (topic marker) (adjective + politeness, is cold) (question marker)
Meaning:Is it cold today?

As you see, the question mark "?" is not often used with the question marker か "ka", because having a question marker at the end of a sentence means the sentence is a question. You can use both of them, though. Having both of them sounds like you are more eager to know or you are more surprised.

The formal way of making questions is not limited to polite mode. You can use the question marker with plain sentences, but that is not very common in spoken Japanese, because you can be considered impolite. When you speak in a friendly way, you use the colloquial way of making questions more often, and when you speak formally, you often use the polite mode. It is no problem to use it in written Japanese, where the polite mode is not necessary.

Kana:とうきょうはしゅとだ。
Romanization:Tô kyô wa syu to da .
Structure:(noun, Tôkyô) (topic marker) (noun, capital) (copula, is)
Meaning:Tôkyô is the capital.

Kana:とうきょうはしゅとか。
Romanization:Tô kyô wa syu to ka .
Structure:(noun, Tôkyô) (topic marker) (noun, capital) (question marker)
Meaning:Is Tôkyô capital?

Remember that the plain nonpast copula is removed in questions.

7.9.3. Yes/no and negative questions

Japanese has several words which mean yes or no. Here are the formal ones:

Kana:はい
Romanization:ha i
Meaning:yes

Kana:いいえ
Romanization:î e
Meaning:no

The word はい "hai" and other Japanese yes words are much weaker than the English yes. They often mean "I understand what you say", so you may think they are more similar to the English uh-huh.

Other Japanese yes words include ああ "â", ええ "ê", and うん "un", all of which have an accent fall at the first mora (high pitch + low pitch). These words are so colloquial that they are not used in written Japanese.

There are also other Japanese no words, such as いえ "ie", いや "iya", and ううん "uun". The last one might be difficult to pronounce because it has nasal sounds like English uh-huh and it also has a rising tone at the end. Anyway, it is too colloquial to be used in written Japanese. The other two are also colloquial.

These Japanese yes-no words may be confusing for English speakers when they are used to answer negative questions. Negative questions have a negation word, such as "Don't you know that?"

Here is a colloquial negative sentence and its question form in Japanese:

Kana:きょうはさむくない。
Romanization:Kyô wa sa mu ku na i .
Structure:(noun, today) (topic marker) (adjective, is cold) (auxiliary adjective, not)
Meaning:It isn't cold today.

Kana:きょうはさむくないか。
Romanization:Kyô wa sa mu ku na i .
Structure:(noun, today) (topic marker) (adjective, is cold) (auxiliary adjective, not) (question marker)
Meaning:Isn't it cold today?

The question above has two translations, which makes answering it confusing. The one is "Isn't it cold today", and the other is "It isn't cold today, is that right?", and answers for them are opposite. If the speaker means the former, you use はい, which means yes, to mean "Yes, it is cold today." If he/she means the latter, you use はい to mean "Yes, that's right. It isn't cold today." How to answer negative questions using yes-no words depends on context, in particular among the younger generation, because negative questions are not always questions but sometimes invitation and suggestion like the English phrase "Why don't you ...", so the best way to answer negative questions is to use predicators instead of yes-no words.

You can use one of the following answers:

Kana:さむいよ。
Romanization:sa mu i yo .
Structure:(adjective, is cold) (opinion marker)
Meaning:(It) is cold (today).

Kana:さむくないよ。
Romanization:sa mu ku na i yo .
Structure:(adjective, is cold) (auxiliary adjective, not) (opinion marker)
Meaning:(It) is not cold (today).

The opinion marker is used to share new information here. The person who is asked the question is considered to know better about the weather.

Please remember that only a predicator is necessary to make a sentence grammatically correct in Japanese. The answers shown above are correct sentences.

When you use the affirmation suffix, answers are easier to understand.

Here are examples:

Kana:きょうはさむくないのだ。
Romanization:Kyô wa sa mu ku na i no da.
Structure:(noun, today) (topic marker) (adjective, is cold) (auxiliary adjective, not) (affirmation suffix)
Meaning:The fact is that it isn't cold today.

Kana:きょうはさむくないのか。
Romanization:Kyô wa sa mu ku na i no ka.
Structure:(noun, today) (topic marker) (adjective, is cold) (auxiliary adjective, not) (affirmation suffix) (question marker)
Meaning:Is it true that it isn't cold today?

The first sentence above is not a negative one at all. Using the affirmation suffix makes it an affirmative sentence, as its English translation indicates. So its question form, the second sentence, is not negative either. You can easily see はい (yes) means "Yes, it is true. It isn't cold today." The use of the affirmation suffix thus makes Japanese negative questions easier to answer.

7.9.4. Interrogatives


Interrogatives are words used for questions to request new information. In English, wh-words are interrogatives, such as who, what, and when.

I explain three interrogatives here.

Kana:だれ
Romanization:da re
Meaning:who (noun)

Kana:なに
Romanization:na ni
Meaning:what (noun)

Kana:いつ
Romanization:i tu
Meaning:when (adverb)

Here is a base sentence for explanation:

Kana:かれはきのうえをうりました。
Romanization:Ka re wa ki nô e o u ri ma si ta .
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (adverb, yesterday) (noun, picture) (accusative marker) (verb + politeness, sold)
Meaning: He sold a picture yesterday.

Let's ask when he sold a picture. Use いつ "itu" like this:

Kana:かれはいつえをうえをうりましたか。
Romanization:Ka re wa i tu e o u ri ma si ta ka .
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (adverb, when) (noun, picture) (accusative marker) (verb + politeness, sold) (question marker)
Meaning:When did he sell a picture?

All you have to do is replace the word for time, and add the question marker if you use the formal way of making questions. You don't have to change the word order at all, so it is straightforward to use Japanese interrogatives. You should raise tone at the end of the sentence precisely like plain questions even when you use interrogatives.

Now you can ask what he sold yesterday:

Kana:かれはきのうなにをうえをうりましたか。
Romanization:Ka re wa ki nô na ni o u ri ma si ta ka .
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (adverb, yesterday) (noun, what) (accusative marker) (verb + politeness, sold) (question marker)
Meaning:What did he sell yesterday?

You can ask who sold a picture yesterday:

Kana:だれがきのうえをうえをうりましたか。
Romanization:Da re ga ki nô e o u ri ma si ta ka .
Structure:(noun, who) (nominative marker) (adverb, yesterday) (noun, picture) (accusative marker) (verb + politeness, sold) (question marker)
Meaning:Who sold a picture yesterday?

You cannot use the topic marker for interrogatives, because they will never be a topic. You use interrogatives to request information, while topics must have been already talked about. That is why you have to use the nominative marker here to mark the subject of the sentence.

Using interrogatives for a copula is also the same. Just change words as follows:

Kana:かれはすずきさんです。
Romanization:Ka re wa Su zu ki sa n de su .
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (noun, Suzuki, a family name) (suffix, Mr./Mrs.) (copula, is + politeness)
Meaning: He is Mr. Suzuki.

Kana:かれはだれですか。
Romanization:Ka re wa da re de su ka .
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (noun, who) (copula, is + politeness) (question marker)
Meaning:Who is he?

When the interrogative なに "nani", which means what, is combined with a copula, it becomes なん "nan" for ease of pronunciation.

Kana:これはりんごです。
Romanization:Ko re wa ri n go de su .
Structure:(noun, this) (topic marker) (noun, apple) (copula, is + politeness)
Meaning:This is an apple.

Kana:これはなんですか。
Romanization:Ko re wa na n de su ka .
Structure:(noun, this) (topic marker) (noun, what) (copula, is + politeness) (question marker)
Meaning:What is this?

Its pronunciation is not changed in colloquial questions, because the nonpast-form copula is removed in colloquial questions as I have explained.

Kana:これはりんごだ。
Romanization:Ko re wa ri n go da .
Structure:(noun, this) (topic marker) (noun, apple) (copula, is)

Kana:これはなに?
Romanization:Ko re wa na ni ?
Structure:(noun, this) (topic marker) (noun, what)

The interrogative なに "nani" can be used to ask a number. It works as a prefix and becomes なん "nan".

Look at the sample below:

Kana:かれはごだいめのおうです。
Romanization:Ka re wa go da i me no ô de su .
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (number, five) (counter, generation) (suffix, -th) (genitive marker) (noun, king) (copula, is + polite)
Meaning:He is the fifth king.

Kana:かれはなんだいめのおうですか。
Romanization:Ka re wa na n da i me no ô de su ka .
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (prefix, x) (counter, generation) (suffix, -th) (genitive marker) (noun, king) (copula, is + polite) (question marker)
Meaning:What is x, where he is the x-th king?

I use a bizarre translation here because translating it literally to English is impossible.

You can even ask the following question:

Kana:かれはにじゅうごさいだ。
Romanization:Ka re wa ni zyû go sa i da .
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (number, two) (number, ten) (number, five) (counter, years old) (copula, is)
Meaning:He is the fifth king.

Kana:かれはにじゅうなさい?
Romanization:Ka re wa ni zyû na n sa i ?
Structure:(noun, he) (topic marker) (number, two) (number, ten) (prefix, x) (counter, years old)
Meaning:He is the fifth king.

For both of the questions, you must answer not only x but whole phrases which contain x, which are "the fifth king" for the first question and "twenty-five years old" for the second.

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Takasugi
My name is TAKASUGI Shinji. TAKASUGI is my family name, and Shinji is my given name; a family name is placed before a given name in Japan, as in other Asian nations. My family name is capitalized to avoid misunderstanding.

I have been living in Yokohama since I was born. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, which is just 30 kilometers away from the biggest city Tôkyô. It takes 30 minutes to go by train from home to Shibuya, which is the hottest town now in Tôkyô.

I work as a display engineer.

One of my hobbies is creating things with computers; creating programs, computer graphics and web pages is the thing I spent a lot of time doing. I am also interested in a wide range of sciences, and linguistics is my favorite. I like English and I like using it, but my focus is mainly on Japanese, which is my native language. I'm proud of knowing the language, and the difference between English and Japanese has been fascinating me. I have been thinking whether I can introduce it to people outside of Japan. My attempt of introducing Japanese with some Java applets has had more than 1 million visitors.

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