Using 嘛 (ma) in Chinese grammar: stating the obvious and describing expectations

嘛 (ma) is a sentence particle used to indicate that something is obvious or self-evident in Chinese. It sounds the same as the question particle 吗(ma), but has a different purpose. Let’s have a look at how to use it.

嘛 as a sentence particle

嘛 often appears as a setence particle. That simply means a particle that goes on the end of a sentence. You may already be familiar with sentence particles like 吧 and 吗.

Stating the obvious with 嘛

Probably the most common use of 嘛 is to indicate that something is obvious or self-evident. In English you might use “of course” to express the same thing.

嘛 is often used in this way as a response to some sort of situation or something someone else said. The speaker wants to point out that the statement is obviously the case. This is demonstrated in each of the example sentences below. The second speaker uses 嘛 to respond to something the first speaker says:

你怎么穿了那么多衣服呢?

Nǐ zěnme chuānle nàme duō yīfú ne?

Why have you got so many clothes on?

今天天很冷嘛。

Jīntiān tiān hěn lěng ma.

Because it's cold today!

你怎么出了那么多汗呢?

Nǐ zěnme chūle nàme duō hàn ne?

Why are you so sweaty?

这些东西很重嘛。

Zhèxiē dōngxi hěn zhòng ma.

These things are really heavy, alright?

他怎么这样呢?

Tā zěnme zhèyàng ne?

What did he do that for?

小孩子不懂事儿嘛。

Xiǎoháizi bù dǒngshìr ma.

Of course little kids don't understand stuff like that.

Each of those sentences with 嘛 is a response to something that’s going on. The speaker thinks that the explanation is obvious and should definitely be accepted by the listener.

Have a look at some more example sentences for 嘛 indicating that something is self-evident. In each case you can probably imagine a situation where someone might say it.

我很累嘛。

Wǒ hěn lèi ma.

I'm tired, alright?

这个很难懂嘛。

Zhège hěn nán dǒng ma.

This is hard to understand!

她每天都很忙嘛。

Tā měitiān dū hěn máng ma.

She's busy every day, isn't she?

Notice how English doesn’t really have any direct equivalent of 嘛. Often in English this “stating the obvious” tone is just implied.

Stating an expectation or request with 嘛

Another common use of 嘛 is to mark an expectation or request. This is closely related to indicating that something is obvious. 嘛 marks requests that the speaker thinks are entirely reasonable or to be expected.

You could think of these two uses of 嘛 (stating the obvious and indicating expectations) as actually being the same. Either way, just remember that the main function of 嘛 as a sentence particle is about expressing obvious, non-surprising or reasonable statements.

你不要走这么快嘛。

Nǐ bùyào zǒu zhème kuài ma.

Can you not walk so fast?

你百度一下嘛。

Nǐ bǎidù yīxià ma.

Why don't you just Baidu it?

你快点嘛!

Nǐ kuài diǎn ma!

Can you hurry up?

你想看电影就自己去嘛。

Nǐ xiǎng kàn diànyǐng jiù zìjǐ qù ma.

If you want to see a film, just go and see one yourself.

The last sentence there seems a little bit rude! It might be the speaker’s response to someone else pestering them to go and see a film together. The speaker apparently thinks that the obvious solution is for the other person to just go and see the film themselves.

嘛 as a topic marker

The next major use of 嘛 in Mandarin Chinese is as a topic-marker. You may know that Chinese is a topic-prominent language, but don’t worry if you don’t know what that means.

The topic of a sentence is what the sentence is about. It’s also called the theme of the sentence. Again, don’t worry if you don’t know any of this - it’s never necessary to know the terminology to speak a language well!

Chinese is a topic-prominent language, so it often puts the topic first in a sentence, before anything else. First you say the topic, then you comment on it. 嘛 is often used as a marker that comes after the topic.

You can probably understand this without thinking about terms like ‘topic’ and ‘comment’. You could simply see 嘛 as a way of pausing to think about what one is going to say. The speaker says what they’re going to speak about, pauses to think with 嘛, then gives the information.

The structure for this would simply be:

[topic] 嘛 [comment]

Some example sentences might make this clearer:

这个嘛,我也不知道。

Zhège ma, wǒ yě bù zhīdào.

That... I don't know either.

那个人嘛,他一直都是那样的。

Nàgè rén ma, tā yīzhí dōu shì nàyàng de.

That guy... He's always like that.

小孩子嘛,都喜欢玩儿。

Xiǎo háizi ma, dōu xǐhuan wánr.

Little kids all like to play.

You can see the topic-comment structure in the sentence above. The speaker says what they want to talk about and then pauses using 嘛, and then they make a comment on it.

嘛 meaning ‘what’

嘛 can also mean ‘what’ in certain situations. There are many ways to use 嘛 to mean ‘what’, but we’ll just look at the most common here.

干嘛

(gànmá)

The character 嘛 appears very commonly in the phrase 干嘛, literally “doing what”. 干嘛 can be used to mean simply “what are you doing”, or it can be used to question an action or behaviour. In either case, 干嘛 is quite casual and should not be used in formal situations.

First, some example sentences where 干嘛 is neutral, meaning “doing what”:

你明天要干嘛?

Nǐ míngtiān yào gànmá?

What are you doing tomorrow?

你在北京都干嘛了?

Nǐ zài běijīng dū gànmá le?

What did you do in Beijing?

这个东西是干嘛的?

Zhège dōngxi shì gànmá de?

What's this thing for?

In those sentences, 干嘛 is simply being used to ask about actions or functions without making any comment on them. You can also use 干嘛 to suggest that an action is ‘incorrect’ or undesirable, though:

你干嘛这样?

Nǐ gànmá zhèyàng?

Why are you being like this?

干嘛一直担心这个?

Gànmá yīzhí dānxīn zhège?

What's the point of worrying about it all the time?

你说这个干嘛?

Nǐ shuō zhège gànmá?

What did you say that for?

Those sentences carry a negative feeling, as if the speaker is criticising the action. In these situations, 干嘛 is something like “what’s the point” or “why” in a critical sense. 干嘛 is often used on its own when someone says or does something that the speaker thinks is wrong, annoying or questionable in some way:

干嘛?

Gànmá?

You what? What are you doing?

Less commonly, you may hear people use 嘛 to mean ‘what’ in other situations. This is probably ‘non-standard’ Mandarin Chinese, which some people would categorise as dialect use. In any case, that’s a topic for another article!

Questions? Suggestions? Criticisms? Please share all in the comments!

See also

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