Question Words

This lesson introduces Japanese question words, the equivalent of English who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Recommended background:

Questions and Negation – introduces the question marker ka, yes-no questions

What is it?

The Japanese word for “what” has two forms, nani and nan, both of which are written with the same Kanji (何). The rule for using them is simple: it’s nan before desu (and other forms of the copula), and nani elsewhere. Let’s start with the first case.

これは なんですか。 Kore wa nan desu ka? What is this? (Near the speaker)
それは なんですか。 Sore wa nan desu ka? What is that? (Near the listener)
あれは なんですか。 Are wa nan desu ka? What is that over there?

(Far from both people)

なんですか。 Nan desu ka? What is it?

“Nan desu ka?” without the topic is the most general. Including the “kore wa” gives it more of a feeling of “what about this one?”, such as if you’re asking about several things one after the other. If the object is not near you, sore (that) or are (that over there) would be the word to use.

(Words like these are called demonstratives and are covered in Demonstratives: The Ko-so-a-do Series.)

Notice that as with yes-no questions, the basic word order is unaltered in Japanese. In English we invert the order to get “What is this?” where as in Japanese it’s the equivalent of “This is what?”. In linguistics this is called movement, and does not occur much in Japanese.

To answer this type of question, simply substitute the item’s identity in place of the question word.

これ・それ・あれは とけいです。 Kore/sore/are wa tokei desu. This/that/[that over there] is a watch.
とけいです。 Tokei desu. It’s a watch.

Kore and sore will be flipped in the answer since they refer to the objects proximity to the speaker, while are stays the same since it’s still far away from both. “[Answer] desu” on the other hand, can be used in all cases.

それは なんですか。 Sore wa nan desu ka? What is that (near you)?
(これは) とけいです。 (Kore wa) tokei desu. (This near me) is a watch.

This works the same way for questions where the topic is not a pronoun.

おなまえは (なんですか)。 O-namae wa (nan desu ka). (What is) your name?
(なまえは) やまぐちです。 (Namae wa) Yamaguchi desu. (My name) is Yamaguchi.

In this case, the “nan desu ka?” is the part of the question that is dropped, whereas dropping “o-namae wa” would make the question too vague (what is what? my shirt?). Here’s another question you can ask in the same way.

おしごとは (なんですか)。 O-shigoto wa (nan desu ka). (What is) your job?
いしゃです。 Isha desu. It’s (= I am) a doctor.

This works whenever topic is a noun that can be qualified. You could ask “Kore wa?” or “Sore wa?” as well, but generally only in the context of asking repeated questions (like pointing to one Kanji after another).

Question Words as Subjects

When a question word is used as a subject, it must take the subject marker ga.

なにが おいしいですか。 Nani ga oishii desu ka? What’s delicious (=good)?
やきそばが おいしいですよ。 Yakisoba ga oishii desu yo. The yakisoba (fried noodles) is good.

(Read more about the sentence ending particle “yo”)

Because a question word refers to an unknown entity, it can’t be a topic, so question words can never be used with wa. The response is also generally marked by ga, since it is now a newly introduced subject.

The contrastive wa, however, *can* be used in place of ga in the response. The contrastive wa will be covered in an future lesson.

So, no matter where the question word is used, simply substitute the answer in the response.

Other Question Words

Here is a list of the basic question words.

Hiragana Roomaji English
なに・なん nani/nan what
だれ dare who
どれ dore which one
どの dono which (modifier)
どこ doko where
どちら dochira which direction
どのぐらい donogurai how long
どう dou how
どうして doushite how/why
なんで nande how/why
いつ itsu when
いくつ ikutsu how many
いくら ikura how much

Other question words you’ll encounter frequently are generally compound words created by adding nani or nan to various counters and other suffixes. All work in essentially the same way, and the detailed use of each will be covered in a relevant lesson. (Links will be added as those pages are written.)

Question Word Compounds

You’ll probably come across sentences like these at some point:

なにか ほしいですか。 Nanika hoshii desu ka? Do you want something?
なんでも いいです。 Nandemo ii desu. Anything is fine.
なにも ありません。 Nanimo arimasen. I don’t have anything.

These nani ka, nan de mo, and nani mo…(neg) are examples of question word compounds, and are used to create words equivalent to the English “some/any/no + thing/where/time”. These words will be covered in a future lesson.

What Next?

The Sentence Ending Particles “Ne” and “Yo”

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