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The Complete Guide to Chinese Modal Particles

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Chinese Modal Particles

Modal particle (yǔ qì zhù cí) 语气助词 are used in the Chinese language to express a certain ‘mood’. Modal Particles are always used at either the end of a sentence or during a pause in the middle of a sentence.

In this article we will look at the following six modal particles:

 (a)

 (ma)

 (ne)

 (ba)

 (le)

 (de)

We will look in closer detail about how to use each modal particle shortly.

How is a Modal Particle Used?

One modal particle can be used in a different sentence to express a completely different mood. In the following examples,  (ne) can be used to express both a statement and a question:

Statement: 她还没来呢。 (tā hái méi lái ne) She has not come.

Question: 我的钥匙呢? (wǒ de yào shi ne?) Where is my key?

The four modal particles, “吗”, “吧”, “呢” and “啊” are all used to express questions, but there are some slight differences in the level of strength and the focus of the question.

Most of the time, a modal particle will be used on its own at the end of a sentence and sometimes in the middle of a sentence. However, they can also be used with other modal particles:

你听见我刚才说的话了吧? (nǐ tīng jiàn wǒ gāng cái shuō de huà le ba?) Did you hear what I just said?

Each modal particle expresses their particular ‘mood’, but the focus is on the last modal particle.

When two modal particles work together, if the second one begins with a vowel, then it can be combined with the first particle to become one:

了啊 → 啦 (le a → la)

呢啊 → 哪 (ne a → na)

了哟 → 喽 (le yo → luo)

According to their position in the sentence, modal particles can be divided into two categories: end of the sentence modal particles and middle of the sentence modal particles. Some Modal particles can be used in both the end and middle of the sentence, such as 啊, 吧 and 呢. Some can only be used in the middle of the sentence: 也好 (yě hǎo), 也罢 (yě bà), 罢了 (bà le), 而已 (ér yǐ) and 的话 (de huà).

Modal particles in the middle of a sentence: 现在说说也好,免得以后误会。 (xiàn zài shuō shuo yě hǎo, miǎn de yǐ hòu wù huì.) Better to talk about it now instead of having any misunderstandings in the future.

Modal particles at the end of a sentence: 恐怕他已经离开了吧。(kǒng pà tā yǐ jīng lí kāi le ba.) I am afraid that he may has left already.

The 6 Modal Particles of Chinese

啊, 吗, 呢, 吧, 了 and 的 are the 6 most basic modal particles of Chinese. The usage of other modal particles is generated from these 6.

Here are more details on how to use each of the six modal particles.

啊 (a)

“啊” is affected by the previous syllable in the sentence and can be written as 呀 (ya), such as in 来呀 (lái ya), 哇 (wa), like in 好哇 (hǎo wā) and 哪 (na) like in 看哪 (kàn na).

Here are some examples of how to use 啊 (a) correctly.

1) In a Yes-No sentence, it is used to express that something cannot be confirmed and needs to ask the other side for confirmation:

昨天是你给我打电话呀? (zuó tiān shì nǐ gěi wǒ dǎ diàn huà ya?) Was it you that called me yesterday?

这是你们学校的图书馆哪? (zhè shì nǐ men xué xiào de tú shū guǎn na? Is this the library of your school?

2) Used at the end of a question, to make the tone less harsh:

你明天去哪儿啊? (nǐ míng tiān qù nǎr a?) Where are you going tomorrow?

你到底想不想去呀? (nǐ dào dǐ xiǎng bù xiǎng qù ya?) Would you like to go or not?

3) Used in an imperative sentence to express an impatient or urgent mood:

快走啊,时间不早了。 (kuài zǒu a, shí jiān bù zǎo le) Go quickly, it is late now.

你怎么不说了,说呀! (nǐ zěn me bù shuō le, shuō ya!) Why do you keep silent? Speak!

4) Used in a declarative sentence to express affirmation or a reminder:

这件事你得好好想想啊。 (zhè jiàn shì nǐ de hǎo hǎo xiǎng xiang a.) You’d better think about this issue carefully.

5) Used in an exclamatory sentence to express exclamation or praise:

学汉语真不容易啊! (xué hàn yǔ zhēn bù róng yì a!) It’s so difficult to learn Chinese!

这里真美啊! (zhè lǐ zhēn měi a!) Here is so beautiful!

6) Used during a pause of a sentence to express hesitation or to draw attention to others:

你呀,下回可要小心了。 (nǐ ya, xià huí kě yào xiǎo xīn le.) You‘d better take care next time.

我呀,还没准备好。 (wǒ ya, hái méi zhǔn bèi hǎo.) I am not ready yet.

7) Used after an appellation, to express sincerity or kindness:

你呀,一定要好好努力。 (nǐ ya, yī dìng yào hǎo hǎo nǔ lì.)  You should work hard.

8) Used when listing items:

衣服呀、鞋子呀、包呀,我买了许多。 (yī fu ya, xié zi ya, bāo ya, wǒ mǎi le xǔ duō) I bought  lots of clothes, shoes and bags.

吧 (ba)

“吧” is mainly used to express something that is not certain.

恐怕他已经到了吧。 (kǒng pà tā yǐ jīng dào le ba) I’m afraid that he has already arrived.

Here are some examples of how to use 吧 (ba) correctly:

1) Used in Yes-No sentence to express speculation and the hope that the other will confirm it. It can also express affirmative statements.

您就是校长吧? (nín jiù shì xiào zhǎng ba?) You’re the headmaster?

这些道理,我想你不会不懂吧? (zhè xiē dào lǐ, wǒ xiǎng nǐ bù huì bù dǒng ba?) I presume that you understand these principles?

2) Used in A-not-A questions which asks the others to define the answer or attitude:

你到底同意不同意吧? (nǐ dào dǐ tóng yì bù tóng yì ba?) Do you agree or not?

你说这事该怎么解决吧? (nǐ shuō zhè shì gāi zěn me jiě jué ba?) How do you think we can solve this problem?

3) Used in imperative sentences to express a request or to give advice.

请帮帮我的忙吧。 (qǐng bāng bāng wǒ de máng ba.) Please help me.

晚点走吧,现在下雨了。 (wǎn diǎn zǒu ba, xiàn zài xià yǔ le.) Stay for a bit longer, it’s raining now.

4) Used in declarative sentences to express the mood of determination or reluctance.

那我就再去一趟吧。 (nà wǒ jiù zài qù yī tàng ba) Then, I will go there again.

随你的便吧。 (suí nǐ de biàn ba.) Have it your own way.

5) Used in the pause of a sentence to give an example or to express the mood in a quandary.

就说喝茶吧,里面也有许多讲究。 (jiù shuō hē chá ba, lǐ miàn yě yǒu xǔ duō jiǎng jiu.)

Take drinking tea as an example, there are many elements to pay attention to.

去吧,又没有时间,不去吧,我又有点不甘心。 (qù ba, yòu méi yǒu shí jiān, bù qù ba, wǒ yòu yǒu diǎn bù gān xīn.) I want to go there, but there is not enough time. I can’t reconcile with myself that I will miss out.

呢 (ne)

“呢” can be used in both question sentences (except Yes-No question) and declarative sentences. The position of the modal particle can be in the end and middle of a sentence.

Here are some examples of how to use 呢 (ne) correctly:

1) Used in specific interrogation sentences to express confusion.

我该怎么对她说呢? (wǒ gāi zěn me duì tā shuō ne?) How can I tell her?

2) Used in an alternative question to show discussion or to ask the other for advice:

你去呢,还是他去呢? (nǐ qù ne, hái shì tā qù ne?) Will you go, or will he?

3) Used in A-not-A questions to make the tone less harsh:

明天你来不来呢? (míng tiān nǐ lái bù lái ne?) Will you go tomorrow?

4) Used in rhetorical questions to express that the answer is obvious with a soothing tone:

你怎么能不来呢? (nǐ zěn me néng bù lái ne?) How can you not come?

5) Used directly after a phrase to make up a specific question:

你们老师呢? (nǐ men lǎo shī ne?) Where is your teacher?

我们都去,你呢? (wǒ men dōu qù, nǐ ne?)  All of us will go, how about you?

6) Used in a declarative sentence to express emphasis or to overstate:

我一直工作到晚上呢。 (wǒ yī zhí gōng zuò dào wǎn shang ne.) I will work till evening.

7) Used in the pause of a sentence to express that the speaker is unsure or hesitant:

我呢,并不同意你的观点。 (wǒ ne, bìng bù tóng yì nǐ de guān diǎn.) I, um, can’t agree with your opinion.

It can also be used when giving a list of examples:

他呢,喜欢足球,他弟弟呢,喜欢篮球,我呢,喜欢羽毛球。 (tā ne, xǐ huan zú qiú, tā dì di ne, xǐ huan lán qiú , wǒ ne, xǐ huan yǔ máo qiú.) He likes football, his brother likes basketball, and I like badminton.

吗 ma

“吗” is always used in question sentences, the basic function is to highlight the focal point of the question and emphasize the question mood.

Here are some examples of how to use 吗 (ma) correctly:

1) Used in a Yes-No question to express a query:

你会来吗? (nǐ huì lái ma?) Will you come?

已经准备好了吗? (yǐ jīng zhǔn bèi hǎo le ma?) Is it ready?

2) Used in rhetorical questions to strengthen the confirmation of the fact. Sometimes it can be used to suggest lack of satisfaction:

这难道是我的错吗? (zhè nán dào shì wǒ de cuò ma?) Is it my fault?

一切不是已经很清楚了吗? (yī qiè bú shì yǐ jīng hěn qīng chu le ma?) Isn’t it already very clear?

的 (de)

“的” is used to express an affirmative mood, which is mainly to strengthen the confirmation of the fact.

放心,明天我一定会来的。 (fàng xīn, míng tiān wǒ yī dìng huì lái de) Do not worry, I am certain to come tomorrow.

1) “的” is always used with “是”:

这种办法是可以的。 (zhè zhǒng bàn fǎ shì kě yǐ de) This way is OK.

2) When “的” is used in the end of the question and exclamatory sentence, it is to strengthen the question or confirmation of the fact:

你是怎么搞的?这么重要的事也会忘记。 (nǐ shì zěn me gǎo de? zhè me zhòng yào de shì yě huì wàng jì.) How did you do that? How can you forget such an important thing?

就是你亲口说的! (jiù shì nǐ qīn kǒu shuō de!) You said that yourself!

3) “的” can be used, not only as a mood particle, but also as a structural particle.

The easiest method is to see if the sentence can have the same meaning without “的”. If yes, then “的”  is a mood particle, if not, it should be a structural particle:

我明天会去的。= 明天我会去。(wǒ míng tiān huì qù de. = míng tiān wǒ huì qù) I will go tomorrow(√)

这本书是图书馆的。 (zhè běn shū shì tú shū guǎn de) This book is from the library.  

这本书是图书馆。  (zhè běn shū shì tú shū guǎn) This book is library.(×)

If you want to learn more about the different uses of the 的 particle and its ‘de’ sounding brothers 得 and 地 take a look at our previous article How to use the ‘de’ particles 的, 得 and 地 in Chinese.

了 (le)

“了” can be used at the end of a declarative sentence to express affirmative mood. The meaning is “it has been done” or “it will be that”.

我看了今天的报纸了。 (wǒ kàn le jīn tiān de bào zhǐ le) I have read today‘s newspaper.

要下雨了。 (yào xià yǔ le) It is going to rain.

1) “了”  can be also used in a question or exclamatory sentence to strengthen the speaker’s question or exclamation:

你多大了? (nǐ duō dà le?) How old are you?

他太过分了! (tā tài guò fèn le!) He was out of line!

2) The mood particle “了” is different from the aspect particle “了”:

The mood particle “了” can only be used at the end of a sentence, whereas an aspect particle “了” is used after predicate words, meaning that the action has been completed.

我看了两遍了。 (wǒ kàn le liǎng biàn le) I have looked everywhere twice.

Aspect particle: 我看了 (wǒ kàn le) 

Mood particle: 两遍了 (liǎng biàn le)

Aspect particle: 我已经吃了  (wǒ yǐ jīng chī le)

Mood particle: 饭了 (fàn le)

I have eaten.

罢了 (bà le) and 而已 (ér yǐ)

“罢了” and “而已” are syllable mood particles, which can lighten the meaning of a sentence. They are often used with an adverb such as “不过” and “只好”.  

他不过说说罢了。 (tā bù guò shuō shuo bà le)

He was just talking.

我只是想想而已。 (wǒ zhǐ shì xiǎng xiang ér yǐ.)

I was just thinking.

If you’re interested in learning more about Chinese grammar, take a look at our two articles about Chinese sentences: Chinese Sentence Structure and Chinese Sentence Types.

If you have any questions or comments about using Chinese modal particles please leave them in the comment section below!

 

 
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Download The Complete Guide to Chinese Modal Particles PDF

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