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How to use the Chinese Interjection 嗯

Written by Liz老师 from GoEast Mandarin.

What are Chinese Interjections?

You may have heard Chinese people talking on the phone. Interjections are often used during a call, with different tones of voice to imply different meanings. Interjections play a vital role in Chinese.

Usually, an interjection is a word that expresses an exclamation, call someone, or indicate a response. 

Today we’ll introduce the most commonly used word: 嗯 (en).

The Interjection 嗯 (en)

嗯 (en) is a pictophonetic character composed of a radical that suggests meaning and a sound element. On the left side of 嗯 (en) is the Chinese radical 口 (kǒu), which means mouth. In most cases, words with the 口 radical are related to the mouth, such as a sound. As an interjection word, 嗯 also follows this rule. On the right side of 嗯 is the Chinese character 恩 (ēn), whose pronunciation is the same as 嗯. Therefore, you can remember this Chinese character easily, whether from its pronunciation or its shape.

How is the Interjection 嗯 used?

Each interjection expresses a certain feeling or imitates a certain sound, so it shouldn’t be used indiscriminately. So, how do we use 嗯? Although 嗯 has different meanings in different situations, the difference in tones can also help us distinguish its meaning. There are three different tones and meanings of 嗯: 

1. 嗯 (èn), indicating a response or reaching an agreement

The tone of 嗯 is not as strong as “of course,” but it is more commonly used in daily life. Responding to others with “en” is effective feedback because it means you understand and agree with what they said.

Example sentences: 

(1) 嗯,没问题,我会努力学汉语。(èn , méi wèntí, wǒ huì nǔlì xué hànyǔ.) Ok, no problem, I will try my best to learn Chinese.

(2) 嗯,那我们明天就开始这么做吧。(èn, nà wǒmen míngtiān jiù kāishǐ zhème zuò ba.) OK, let’s start doing this tomorrow.

2. 嗯 (én), indicating curiosity or astonishment

When you question something, adding ‘嗯?’ before your question makes your question sound less aggressive, and you are more likely to receive an answer instead of “It’s none of your business.”

Example sentences:

(1) 嗯?你的房间为什么这么冷?(én? Nǐ de fángjiān wèishéme zhème lěng?) Why is your room so cold?

(2) 嗯?你怎么还在这儿?(én? Nǐ zěnme hái zài zhèr?) Why are you still here?

3. The third type of 嗯 (ěng) is rarely used

The 嗯 with the third tone (ěng) to show surprise or something unexpected exists in textbooks but is no longer used in real life. Chinese people don’t really use this 嗯; instead, we use the second tone: 嗯 (én).

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嗯 is a straightforward word, but it is so useful that it can help you deal with many different conversations. Try to use it in your daily life! 

This guide is written by Liz老师 from GoEast Mandarin. GoEast is an online Chinese language school that combines online self-learning materials with live classes from professional Chinese teachers.

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