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Question Marker

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Questions in polite form

The question marker is covered here because it is primarily used to clearly indicate a question in polite sentences. While it is entirely possible to express a question even in polite form using just intonation, the question marker is often attached to the very end of the sentence to indicate a question. The question marker is simply the hiragana character 「か」 and you don't need to add a question mark. For previously explained reasons, you must not use the declarative 「だ」 with the question marker.

Example 1

田中さん: お母さんどこです。- Where is (your) mother?
鈴木さん: 買い物行きました。- (My) mother went shopping.

Example 2

キムさん: イタリア料理食べ行きません。 - Go to eat Italian food?
鈴木さん: すみませんちょっとお腹いっぱいです。- Sorry. (My) stomach is a little full.

Here the question is actually being used as an invitation just like how in English we say, "Won't you come in for a drink?" 「すみません」 is a polite way of apologizing. Slightly less formal is 「ごめんなさい」 while the casual version is simply 「ごめん」.

The question marker in casual speech

It makes sense to conclude that the question marker would work in exactly the same way in casual speech as it does in polite speech. However, this is not the case. The question marker 「か」 is usually not used with casual speech to make actual questions. It is often used to consider whether something is true or not. Depending on the context and intonation, it can also be used to make rhetorical questions or to express sarcasm. It can sound quite rough so you might want to be careful about using 「か」 for questions in the plain casual form.


(1) こんなのを本当食べる
- Do you think [he/she] will really eat this type of thing?

(2) そんなのは、あるよ!
- Do I look like I would have something like that?!

Instead of 「か」, real questions in casual speech are usually asked with the explanatory の particle or nothing at all except for a rise in intonation, as we have already seen in previous sections.

(1) こんなのを本当食べる
- Are you really going to eat something like this?

(2) そんなのは、ある
- Do you have something like that?

「か」 used in subordinate clauses

Another use of the question marker is simply grammatical and has nothing to do with the politeness. A question marker attached to the end of a subordinate clause makes a mini-question inside a larger sentence. This allows the speaker to talk about the question. For example, you can talk about the question, "What did I eat today?" In the following examples, the question that is being considered is in red.

(1) 昨日食べた忘れた。- Forgot what I ate yesterday.
(2) 言ったわからない。- Don't understand what he said.
(3) 先生学校行った教えない? - Won't you inform me whether teacher went to school?

In sentences like (3) where the question being considered has a yes/no answer, it is common (but not necessary) to attach 「どうか」. This is roughly equivalent to saying, "whether or not" in English. You can also include the alternative as well to mean the same thing.

(1) 先生学校行ったどう知らない。- Don't know whether or not teacher went to school.
(2) 先生学校行った行かなかった知らない。- Don't know whether teacher went to school or didn't.

Using question words

While we're on the topic of questions, this is a good time to go over question words (where, who, what, etc.) and what they mean in various contexts. Take a look at what adding the question marker does to the meaning of the words.

Question Words
Word+Question MarkerMeaning
どれA certain one from many

As you can see by the following examples, you can treat these words just like any regular nouns.

(1) 誰かおいしいクッキー全部食べた。- Someone ate all the delicious cookies.
(2) 盗んだのか、誰か知りませんか。- Does anybody know who stole it?
(3) 犯人どこか見ましたか。- Did you see the criminal somewhere?
(4) このからどれか選ぶの。- (Explaining) You are to select a certain one from inside this [selection].

Question words with inclusive meaning

The same question words in the chart above can be combined with 「も」 in a negative sentence to mean "nobody" (誰も), "nothing" (何も), "nowhere" (どこも), etc.

誰も」 and 「何も」 are primarily used only for negative sentences. Curiously, there is no way to say "everybody", and "everything" with question words. Instead, it is conventional to use other words like 「みんなみなさん」、 「全部」.

The remaining three words 「いつも」 (meaning "always") and 「どれも」 (meaning "any and all"), and 「どこも」 (meaning everywhere) can be used in both negative and positive sentences.

Inclusive Words
Nobody (negative only)
Nothing (negative only)
どれAny and all

(1) この質問答えは、誰も知らない。- Nobody knows the answer of this question.
(2) 友達いつも遅れる。 - Friend is always late.
(3) ここあるレストランどれもおいしくない - Any and all restaurants that are here are not tasty.
(4) 今週末は、どこにも行かなかった。- Went nowhere this weekend.

(Grammatically, this 「も」 is the same as the topic particle 「も」 so the target particle 「に」 must go before the topic particle 「も」 in ordering.)

Question words to mean "any"

The same question words combined with 「でも」 can be used to mean "any". One thing to be careful about is that 「何でも」 is read as 「なんでも」 and not 「なにでも」

Words for "Any"

(1) この質問答えは、誰でも分かる。- Anybody understands the answer of this question.
(2) 昼ご飯は、どこでもいいです。- About lunch, anywhere is good.
(3) あのは、本当何でも食べる。- That person really eats anything.

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This page has last been revised on 2005/9/9
Edited exception for いつも and added どれ to question words (2005/6/12)
Corrected どこも to mean everywhere (2005/6/13)
Added more detail about using 「か」 for plain form (2005/9/9)