Modal particles can be used by itself or with different tones and parts of speech to indicate different moods. Compared to some languages (i.e. Indo-European languages), modal particles are one of the unique components of the Chinese language. For people who are learning Mandarin Chinese, modal particles present a number of obstacles.

Below are some features of the particles:

  1. The majority of the modal particles are placed at the end of a sentence. When two modal particles are used, they can sometimes be combined and become one syllable:
    了 (le) + 啊 (a) → 啦 (la)
    呢 (ne) + 啊 (a) → 哪 (na)
    了 (le) + 喔 (ou) → 囉 (lou), etc…

  2. Normally, modal particles are pronounced in the neutral tone. The intonation of the sentence depends on the syllable before the modal particle.

  3. Another difficult point is that several modal particles used together can sometimes convey a single mood, whereas a single modal particle may convey several different moods. Therefore, in order to determine what mood a certain particle is indicating, you have to look at the intonation and a few other factors as well.

How To Use Modal Particles To Indicate Moods?

Below are the four main categories of the usage of modal particles to help you see the differences between each of them: Interrogative, Imperative, Exclamatory, Affirmative.

The Interrogative Mood

  1. 嗎 (ma)
  • Placing 嗎 at the end of a declarative sentence turns it into a yes-no question. The question can either be positive or negative.

Positive:

Chinese Pinyin English
你 看到 張 老師 了 嗎 ? nǐ kàndào zhāng lǎoshī le ma Have you seen teacher Zhang?

Negative:

Chinese Pinyin English
他 不會 說 台語 嗎 ? tā búhuì shuō táiyǔ ma Can he not speak Taiwanese?
  • 嗎 can also be found in rhetorical questions. Sometimes, it is used to indicate a suspicious or blaming mood. When 嗎 is used in a rhetorical question, affirmative sentences then have negative meanings and negative sentences have positive meanings.
Chinese Pinyin English
你 這 是 幫助 人 的 態度 嗎 ? nǐ zhè shì bāngzhù rén de tàidu ma Is this your attitude when it comes to helping others?
我 不是 去 過 了 嗎 ! wǒ búshi qù guò le ma I already went!
  1. 呢 (ne or nē in Taiwan)

Questioning:

  • When 呢 is used, interrogative pronouns such as who, what, how, etc... will also be in the sentences. The pronouns are responsible for indicating the interrogative mood, and 呢 is not necessary. When 呢 is used, the sentence often shows that the speaker is confused.
Chinese Pinyin English
這 是 怎麼回事 呢 ? zhè shì zěnmehuíshì ne What is going on here...?
  • In some situations, interrogative pronouns can be omitted when 呢 is used. These kinds of questions are usually asking for the location of a person or an object.
Chinese Pinyin English
你的 媽媽 呢 ? (你的媽媽在哪裡?) nǐde māma ne Where is your mom?
  • It can also be used in rhetorical questions to make the mood more moderate.
Chinese Pinyin English
他 沒 去 過 法國 , 怎麼 會 去 過 巴黎 鐵塔 呢 ? tā méi qù guò fǎguó zěnme huì qù guò Bālí Tiětǎ ne He hasn’t been to France. So how could he have been to the Eiffel Tower?

Consulting & Asking for Permission:

  • Another main use of 呢 is to negotiate or consult. The mood of the sentence is less harsh when 呢 is placed at the end of an alternative question.
Chinese Pinyin English
我們 是 去 新宿 , 還是 去 銀座 呢 ? wǒmen shì qù xīnsù háishi qù yínzuò ne [What do you think...] should we go to Shinjuku or Ginza?
  • When you add 呢 after a noun or a pronoun, you can omit the predicates.
Chinese Pinyin English
明天 他們 要 去 參觀 博物館 , 你們 呢 ? míngtiān tāmen yào qù cānguān bówùguǎn, nǐmen ne They are visiting the museum tomorrow, how about you guys?

In this sentence, “你們呢?” is actually asking them “你們去不去參觀?" (nǐmen qùbúqù cānguān / you guys go visit). “去不去參觀” has been replaced by “呢”.

  • An interesting fact about 呢 is that it can't be used in a question without any forms of background and information.
Chinese Pinyin English
(發現 媽媽 光著 一 隻 腳) 媽媽 , 你的 鞋子 呢 ? (fāxiàn māma guāngzhe yì zhī jiǎo) māma nǐde xiézi ne (Realizing mom is only wearing a shoe) Mom, where's your shoe? (What about / What happened to your shoe?)

In the sentence above, the question is asking where the shoe is (你的鞋子在哪裡?). We can only use 呢 when we have the information that the speaker realized his/her mom is missing a shoe.

When 呢 is used to indicate an ongoing action, the question doesn’t need any further information. However, when 呢 is only used to indicate the mood, you need more background information in the sentence.

  1. 啊 (a)
  • It can be used in yes-no questions to show the speaker is a bit doubtful or even surprised.
Chinese Pinyin English
小李 不 去 上海 啊? Xiǎo Lǐ bú qù Shànghǎi ā Isn't Li going to Shanghai?
  • It can be used in an interrogative sentence, the intonation is usually higher at the end of the sentence. Sentences usually sound mellower with the use of 啊. The second example is a rhetorical question formed with 啊.
Chinese Pinyin English
你 為什麼 不高興 啊? nǐ wèishénme bùgāoxìng ā Why are you upset?
幹嘛 不 說 啊? 要是 我 就 說。 gànmá bù shuō ā? yàoshi wǒ jiù shuō Why don’t you say it? If I were you, I would!
  • It’s also used in alternative questions, the intonation is higher. The question is usually trying to get to the bottom of something.
Chinese Pinyin English
你 到底 來 不 來 啊? nǐ dàodǐ lái bù lái ā Are you coming or not?
  1. 吧 (ba)
  • When you add 吧 to the end of a declarative sentence, the sentence turns into a yes-no question. 吧 is used instead of 嗎 (ma) because we are not simply raising a question. We are also guessing; therefore, you can often see Chinese words such as maybe, possibly, etc. being used in the sentence. Coincidentally, these kinds of adverbs aren’t used in sentences that end with 嗎.
Chinese Pinyin English
參加 派對 的 人 一定 很多 吧? cānjiā pàiduì de rén yídìng hěnduō ba There must be a lot of people at the party, right?
  • Sometimes, 吧 can be seen at the end of declarative sentences. The interrogative mood isn’t obvious. Here, it’s not a yes-no question, it is actually an affirmative sentence. 吧 is used to make the mood mellower.
Chinese Pinyin English
這 點 常識,你 不會 不 懂 吧? zhè diǎn chángshí (TW: chángshì), nǐ búhuì bù dǒng ba Don't tell me that you don't [even] have this common knowledge.
我 跟 你 說 過 吧,但 你 就是 不 相信。 wǒ gēn nǐ shuō guò ba, dàn nǐ jiùshì bù xiāngxìn I told you [about it], but you didn't believe me!

The Imperative Mood

Moods: Demanding, commanding, urging, and advising.
Commonly Used Modal Particles: 吧 (ba) and 啊 (a)

  1. 吧 (ba)
  • To ask for something, and verbs like please, let, and ask are sometimes used in the sentences.
Chinese Pinyin English
爸爸,你 就 答應 了 吧! bàba, nǐ jiù dāying (TW: dāyìng) le ba Dad, please say yes!
  • To give commands or orders. Normally, orders and commands aren’t given with any modal particles. When 吧 is used in the sentence, it eases up the command and makes it sound more like an advice.
Chinese Pinyin English
你 好好 聽聽 大家 意見 吧! nǐ hǎohǎo tīngtīng dàjiā yìjiàn ba Listen to everyone's advice!
  1. 啊 (ā)
  • When giving orders or commands, having 啊 at the end of a sentence makes it sound like a reminder. Sometimes, it has the urging tone and the intonation is higher at the end of a sentence.
Chinese Pinyin English
注意 啊,電影 馬上 開始 了。 zhùyì ā, diànyǐng mǎshàng kāishǐ le Pay attention, the movie's about to start!
明天 你 早點 來 啊! míngtiān nǐ zǎodiǎn lái ā [Try and] get here earlier tomorrow!
你 怎麼 不 出聲,說 啊!! nǐ zěnme bù chūshēng, shuō ā Why don’t you say something? Speak up!

The Exclamatory Mood

Moods: Complimenting, sighing, praising
Commonly Used Modal Particles: 啊 (a)

Chinese Pinyin English
時間 過 好 快 啊,轉眼 兩年 過去 了! shíjiān guò hǎo kuài ā, zhuǎnyǎn liǎng nián guòqù le Time flies! Two years gone just like that!
這 是 一個 多 美好 的 早晨啊 ! zhè shì yígè duō měihǎo de zǎochén ā What a beautiful morning!

The Affirmative Mood

Moods: Telling the truth and explaining the situation.
(Though not normally used, modal particles strengthen the mood of the sentence.)
Commonly Used Modal Particles: 的 (de), 了 (le), 呢 (ne), 吧 (ba), 啊 (a), etc…

  1. 的 (de)
  • When 的 is added, it strengthens the mood of the sentence.
Chinese Pinyin English
放心 吧,他 會 來 的。 fàngxīn ba, tā huì lái de Don't worry, he will be here.
  1. 吧 (ba)
  • It’s used in declarative sentences, and normally, it is agreeing to requests or comments made by another person.
Chinese Pinyin English
好,明天 出發 吧! hǎo, míngtiān chūfā ba Okay, let's head out tomorrow.
  • It can also indicate the speaker is being forced, and there’s nothing he/she can do to change the decision.
Chinese Pinyin English
既然 我 非 去 不可,我 就 去 吧。
Taiwan:
如果 我 一定 要 去,就 去 吧!
jìrán wǒ fēi qù bùkě, wǒ jiù qù ba
Taiwan:
rúguǒ wǒ yídìng yào qù, jiù qù ba!
Fine, I can't not go, so I'll go. (Fine...! I'll go!)
(The Taiwan version is a more friendly way of speaking, but the first version can also be heard in Taiwan, as putting on airs, if the person is particularly angry about the situation)
  • It can also be used after Chinese words like 'okay' and acknowledgment.
Chinese Pinyin English
好 吧,我們 現在 就 去。 hǎo ba, wǒmen xiànzài jiù qù Okay, let's go right now!
  1. 啊 (a)
  • It has an explaining and reminding meaning when it’s used at the end of a declarative sentence. Usually, the predicate before 啊 is the main part of the sentence.
Chinese Pinyin English
他 不是 不想 做,是 能力 不好 啊。 tā búshi bùxiǎng zuò, shì nénglì bùhǎo ā It's not that he doesn't want to do it; it's because he's not good enough.
  • It can also be used after two or more verbs to show the action is being continued for a period of time.
Chinese Pinyin English
他們 聚在一起,說 啊,笑 啊,總是 很 歡樂。 tāmen jùzàiyìqǐ, shuō ā, xiào ā, zǒngshì hěn huānlè When they are together, they are always chatting and laughing. They are always happy.
  1. 嘛 (ma)
  • When it's used after a declarative sentence, the speaker often thinks things are supposed to go his/her way.
Chinese Pinyin English
你 知道 的 嘛。 nǐ zhīdào de ma Well, you know...
走嘛! 一起去吃飯。 zǒu ma yìqǐ qù chīfàn Come on, let's go get food!

When it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese, one of the biggest misconceptions is that it nearly has any grammar. Despite not having verb conjugation, noun declension, and other complex grammatical structure like other languages, Chinese grammar is still highly structured. Being one of the more complex topics of Chinese grammar, knowing and master these modal particles can be challenging. However, the more you use them, the more clear you will be. Glossika shows you how to use these modal particles in real-life conversations. Our spaced repetition training build up your understanding of the grammar by familiarizing you little by little with various sentence structures and patterns.

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