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Top 10 Most Common Chinese mistakes made by English Speakers: #5


Hi gang, Yangyang here! You know what's coming... more helpful advice to help you avoid common mistakes when speaking Chinese!

In my years of teaching Chinese, I have come to notice that English speakers tend to make similar mistakes over and over again. Today, I am going to tell you the most common mistake #5.

The goal here is to become aware of these mistakes to help you avoid making them in the first place! 

Mistake #5 Using "ma" for "non-yes-or-no" questions

Some students have this wrong notion: "whenever you put 'ma' at the end of a statement, you instantly change that statement into a question."

This is not an accurate statement. The accurate statement should be: 

"Whenever you put "ma" at the end of a statement, instantly, you change that statement into a "yes-or-no" question".

Basically, for any question that requires a real answer other than "yes-or-no", you CANNOT add "ma" at the end of the sentence.

For example, when you ask "who are you", "what do you do", "how do I say this in Chinese", "why", "where is the bathroom" etc., you are looking for real answers such as "I am Mary", I am a lawyer", "the bathroom is there", etc.

These are NOT yes-or-no questions, so you don't add "ma" at the end. 

The only time you add ma at the end of the sentence is when you are asking a question that requires a "yes-or-no" answer.

For example, to ask "Do you want coffee?" you simply add "ma" at the end of the statement of "you want coffee", because the answer that the question requires is either "yes, I do", or  "no I don't". In this case, you can add ma at the end. 

Questions that need specific answers (Omit “ma”)

Who are you? (lit. You are who?)
nǐ shì shéi? 
你是谁?/ 你是誰?

What job do you do? (lit. You do what job?)
nǐ zuò shén me ɡōnɡ zuò? 
你做什么工作?/ 你做什麼工作?

How old are you? (lit. You how old?)
nǐ duō dà? 

Where’s the bathroom? (lit. The bathroom is where?)
xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎ lǐ ? 
洗手间在哪里?/ 洗手間在哪裡?

Do you want coffee or tea?
nǐ yào kā fēi hái shì chá? 
你要咖啡还是茶?/ 你要咖啡還是茶?

Questions that need “yes-or-no” answers (add “ma” at the end)

Can you speak English? (lit. You can speak English ma?)
nǐ huì shuō yīnɡ wén ma
你会说英文?/ 你會說英文

Does she have a boyfriend? (lit. She has a boyfriend ma?)
tā yǒu nán pénɡ yǒu ma
她有男朋友?/ 她有男朋友

Did you eat yet? (lit. You ate ma?)
nǐ chī fàn le ma? 
你吃饭了?/ 你吃飯了

Hope this post was helpful... please add your comments or questions below!

If you still want to explore the topic of forming questions and answers, check out this Google Hangout:

For even further study, we have a video lesson in our Beginner Conversational Course, Unit 19, that explains this topic: