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Everything You Need To Know about The Usage of 什么 and 怎么

Usage of 什么 and 怎么

Everything You Need To Know about The Usage of 什么 and 怎么

Venturing on the Mandarin Chinese learning path, students encounter a diverse spectrum of characters, each with its unique nuances and contextual depth. Among these, 什么 (shénme-what) and 怎么 (zěnme-how) stick out for their subtle differences and frequent usage. While both play crucial roles in question formation, their distinct applications highlight the language's intricate complexity. This blog aims to clarify these subtleties, providing insights into the effective use and contexts of "什么" and "怎么".



Used to ask questions

At its core, it translates closely to "what" in English. It is the fundamental word of inquiries, probing into the nature or identity of something. "什么" could be used in various scenarios, fitting seamlessly into questions that seek to uncover specifics or clarify uncertainties.


你喜欢吃什么?(Nǐ xǐhuān chī shénme?- What do you like to eat?)

你在做什么?(Nǐ zài zuò shénme?- What are you doing?)

什么能让你开心?(Shénme néng ràng nǐ kāixīn?- What can make you happy?)


Indicates an uncertain thing

It can also refer to something unspecified or unknown, often used when the speaker is indifferent to the options.

Examples: 随便吃点什么。(Suíbiàn chī diǎn shénme。- Just eat whatever we can.)

This sentence is used as the speaker has no specific preference for food.


Expresses no exceptions

In a more abstract sense, the word 什么is utilized to emphasize the inclusivity of a statement, meaning there are no exceptions.

Examples: 妈妈做的菜比什么都好吃!(Māmā zuò de cài bǐ shénme dōu hǎochī!- The dishes that Mom makes are tastier than anything else!)

This sentence suggests that the speaker finds their mother's cooking to be the most delicious of all without exception.


Expresses Surprise

It captures the speaker's astonishment or shock.

Example: 什么!都8点了?( Shénme! Dōu bā diǎn le?-What! It's already 8 o'clock?)

This sentence shows the speaker's surprise at the time.



Inquiries about method, reason, or characteristic

On the other side of the linguistic spectrum lies怎么, which embodies the essence of "how" in English. Questions about methods, conditions, reasons, characteristics or processes are built based on that. Here’s some examples for you to learn.


怎么去火车站?(Zěnme qù huǒchē zhàn?- How do I get to the railway station?)- method

你怎么没写完作业啊?(Nǐ zěnme méi xiě wán zuòyè a?- Why didn’t you finish your homework?)-reason

你身体怎么样啊?(Nǐ shēntǐ zěnme yàng a?- How are you feeling?)-condition


Used to indicate an indeterminate manner

When it is used in this way, it conveys that the exact method or cause is unknown or unspecified. It's often used when an outcome is unexpected or when the speaker is perplexed about how something has occurred, such as falling ill suddenly.

Example: 不知道怎么一来就病倒了。(Bù zhī dào zěnme yī lái jiù bìng dǎo le。- Somehow felt ill upon arrival.)


Used to express an indefinite reference

It is utilized to suggest that, despite various attempts or methods, a desired outcome—such as fixing something—is not achievable. It implies an undefined number of attempts have been made without success.

Example: 这块表怎么修也修不好。(Zhè kuài biǎo zěnme xiū yě xiū bù hǎo。- No matter how it's repaired, this watch can't be fixed.)


Used to convey a rhetorical question or exclamation

When posed as a rhetorical question, the word doesn't expect an actual answer but rather is used to express disbelief or objection. It's also a way to emphasize the speaker's opinion that something is unreasonable or unacceptable.

Example: 这怎么行呢? (Zhè zěnme xíng ne? -How can this be acceptable?)


Used in negative sentences to express a certain extent or degree

In negative constructions, it is used to quantify the extent of something, usually indicating a minimal degree or lack of something, such as familiarity with a subject.


这里的情况,我不怎么了解。(Zhèlǐ de qíngkuàng, wǒ bù zěnme liǎojiě。- I'm not very familiar with the situation here.)


Acts as a predicate in a question about someone's condition.

Functioning as a predicate, it leads to a question concerning someone's condition or situation. It's a common conversational phrase used to inquire about a person's well-being or emotional state.


你怎么了?(Nǐ zěnme le?- What's the matter with you?)



怎么 is a multifunctional word that can be used to ask about the state or condition of things, express uncertainty or indefinite situations, indicate a degree in negative contexts, and even convey surprise or rhetorical questions.


The Interplay and Contrast

While "什么" and "怎么" both craft questions, their paths diverge in the nature of inquiry. "什么" seeks the "what" – the substance or identity, whereas "怎么" probes the "how" – the manner or method. This distinction is crucial for learners to grasp in order to navigate conversations with precision.


Moreover, the context in which these terms are used can dramatically alter their meaning.

For example,

"你怎么知道的?" (Nǐ zěnme zhīdào de?) asks "How did you know?" focusing on the method of obtaining knowledge, whereas changing "怎么" to "什么" would transform the question entirely, possibly to "What do you know?"

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