Repeating question words in Chinese (place-holder question words)

Repeating question words are a really cool feature of Chinese grammar. Chinese question words are pretty interesting in general, as they function very logically and can be swapped in and out of sentences quite easily. One aspect of this is that you can repeat question words and use them as ‘place-holders’ for some sort of information.

I recently saw a little joke that demonstrates this: versatile Chinese question words”) quite well, but let’s have a look at it here from a more grammatical perspective. This is a great feature of the language to know, as it makes you much more flexible in forming sentences etc.

The way it works is pretty simple. You use a question word once, and then when you use it again in the sentence, it refers back to the first one. Hence the term “place-holder question words”. Here’s an example:

你点 什么 我吃 什么

Nǐ diǎn shénme wǒ chī shénme.

I'll order whatever you eat.

That’s a really common thing to say in restaurants - you’re letting the other person choose what to order and you’ll eat whatever it is. Look how the sentence works in Chinese - literally “you order what I eat what”. This is a really nice feature to use because it’s so elegant. You can express a lot of things this way.

Repeating question words: a bit like programming

This kind of sentence is slightly like programming or maths. The repeated question word is a bit like a variable - i__t holds one bit of information consistently wherever you put it. Or, it’s a bit like _x _in an equation - “you order x I eat x”.

Anyway, let’s have look at some different question words being repeated as place-holders. You’ll see that Chinese question words are very versatile and quite an elegant feature of the language.

谁 (shéi): whoever

You can very easily create sentences that would involve “whoever” in English by repeating 谁. Some examples:

有钱 有权。

Shéi yǒu qián shéi yǒu quán.

Whoever has money has power.

美国想打 就打

Měiguó xiǎng dǎ shéi jiù dǎ shéi.

America attacks whoever it wants.

要走 就走。

Shéi yào zǒu shéi jiù zǒu.

Whoever wants to leave, leave.

Pretty cool, right? There’s something very pleasing about those Chinese sentences. They seem neat and efficient, and very easy to understand once you know the repeating question words structure.

什么 (shénme): whatever

You can do the same thing with any question word you like. Let’s have a look at some example sentences for 什么:

你要买 什么 ,那个商店有 什么

Nǐ yào mǎi shénme, nàgè shāngdiàn yǒu shénme.

Whatever you want to buy, that shop has it.

你有 什么 我买 什么

Nǐ yǒu shénme wǒ mǎi shénme.

I'll buy whatever you've got.

你要我做 什么 我就做 什么

Nǐ yào wǒ zuò shénme wǒ jiù zuò shénme!

I'll do whatever you want!

As you can see, you’ve just got to put in the relevant question word to hold the place of whatever thing you want, and the sentence works.

哪儿 (nǎr): wherever

Moving on, you can talk about places in this way using 哪儿. Some examples:

你去 哪儿 我就去 哪儿

Nǐ qù nǎr wǒ jiù qù nǎr.

I'll go wherever you go.

哪儿 暖和咱们就去 哪儿

Nǎr nuǎnhuo zánmen jiù qù nǎr.

Let's go wherever is warm.

你在 哪儿 藏起来我们就会在 哪儿 找到你。

Nǐ zài nǎr cáng qǐlái wǒmen jiù huì zài nǎr zhǎodào nǐ.

We'll find you wherever you hide.

怎么 (zěnme): however

Finally, you can talk about actions in this way using 怎么. Some examples:

怎么 做饭 怎么 好吃。

Tā zěnme zuò fàn zěnme hào chī.

However he cooks, it's good.

老板 怎么 说,我们 怎么 做。

Lǎobǎn zěnme shuō, wǒmen zěnme zuò.

We'll do it however the boss says.

你想 怎么 做,我同意 怎么 做。

Nǐ xiǎng zěnme zuò, wǒ tóngyì zěnme zuò.

I'll agree to do it however you think.

Note that we’ve gone through a few question words here, but you can do this with any question word in Chinese - there are loads more possibilities!

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