The sentence particles 吧 (ba) and 吗 (ma) in Chinese grammar

吧 (ma) and 吗 (ma) are two of the most common sentence particles in Chinese grammar. (A sentence particle just means a particle that goes on the end of a sentence.)

They have some similarity in that both can be used to ask questions, but they are quite distinct in their uses. Learn how to use both of these sentence particles correctly with the guide below.

As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, please share them in them comments at the end of the page.

How to use the 吧 (ba) sentence particle

Once you’ve been learning Mandarin for a while, you’ll probably start to notice that the particle 吧 (ba) crops up all over the place. It’s extremely common in everyday speech. 吧 has two main uses, which we will cover here.

吧 makes instructions less direct

The first is to mark and soften commands, requests and suggestions. Remember that 吧 doesn’t just indicate that something is a command or suggestion - it also makes it sound a little bit softer. This use of the 吧 sentence particle can turn a slightly pushy instruction into a more neutral one.

Let’s have a look at some example sentences for this use of 吧:

咱们走吧。

Zánmen zǒu ba.

Let's go.

我帮你吧。

Wǒ bāng nǐ ba.

Let me help you.

快点吧!

Kuài diǎn ba!

Hurry up!

你来吧。

Nǐ lái ba.

Why don't you do it?

给我点儿纸吧。

Gěi wǒ diǎn er zhǐ ba.

Can you give me some paper?

Notice how English has a few different ways of making these sorts of requests and suggestions less direct. In Chinese, 吧 can be used in all of these situations. Also remember that all of the above sentences would still work without 吧, they would just be more direct.

吧 asks for agreement or confirmation

The second main use of 吧 is as a tag question to ask for agreement or confirmation with what is being said. These aren’t ‘true’ questions - they’re just prompting the listener to agree. The speaker thinks that what they are saying is probably true, but they’d like to confirm it.

Let’s have a look at some example sentences for this use of 吧:

他姓王,对吧?

Tā xìng wáng, duì ba?

His surname is Wang, isn't it?

你们很饿吧?

Nǐmen hěn è ba?

You must be hungry!

不错吧?

Bùcuò ba?

Pretty good, right?

不对吧?

Bùduì ba?

That's not right, is it?

You might be able to see the similarity between both uses of the sentence particle 吧. They’re both used in situations where the speaker doesn’t want to be too certain or direct in what they’re saying.

How to use the 吗 (ma) sentence particle

Most students of Chinese grammar find that the sentence particle 吗 (ma) is a little bit easier to understand. It is placed on the end of a sentence to turn it into a yes-no question. This type of question is also known as a polar question or binary question. It simply means that the question can only be answered with “yes” or “no” (rather than an open-ended response).

Here are some quick example sentences for the 吗 sentence particle:

你饿吗?

Nǐ è ma?

Are you hungry?

吃饭了吗?

Chīfànle ma?

Have you eaten?

你要去上海吗?

Nǐ yào qù Shànghǎi ma?

Are you going to go to Shanghai?

你看过这部电影吗?

Nǐ kànguò zhè bù diànyǐng ma?

Have you seen this film before?

As you can see above, 吗 is fairly easy to use as a sentence particle. You simply place it after a statement and it turns it into a yes-no question.

The difference between 吧 and 吗

As you saw above, 吧 and 吗 are similar in some ways but definitely not the same. 吧 is for softening commands, requests, questions and suggestions. 吗 is simply for turning statements into yes-no questions.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please share them in the comments below (bonus points if you use 吧 or 吗 in your question or suggestion!)

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