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What is the difference between 什么,什么呢,什么吗 and 什么了?

For instance:

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up vote 4 down vote accepted


What do you want?


And, as for you, what do you want? (might be used, for example, after saying what you yourself want and then asking into the other person's desires.)


This looks ungrammatical to me. Without the 吗 it would be: What are you doing?


What are you doing now?

The differences between these sentences, however, lie in the verb and the presence of the final particle (呢 or 了) in these cases, or not. There are no special combinations at work with 什么, except in the case of #3, which has a problem because 什么 already signals a question in this case. 你什么也不要吗? might work (= You don't want anything?), but I am not a native speaker, so I can't say for sure if it would sound natural (请教). Or, for another example: 你知道什么吗? (= Do you know something?).

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Particles is really a regional thing. I am from Fujian and 你在做什么吗 reads fine to me and it could be used in the following scenario: You are trying to talk to someone but he is responding slowly or not responding so you are suspecting that he's busy with something else, so you want to ask if he's engaged with something at the moment. But 你在做什么 sounds a bit harsh, adding 吗 makes it softer and 你在做什么吗 conveys the connotation that you're busy, right?. – user58955 Nov 15 '13 at 1:56
你做什么了? is inquisitive and may be harsh (depending on the context). Could be used accusing someone who has probably done something wrong... It should mean What have you done? – user58955 Nov 15 '13 at 1:59
I would have translated 你做了什么? as What did you do? and 你做了什么了? as What have you done? But 了 is so complicated. – user238264 Nov 15 '13 at 2:48
@user58955 That sounds reasonable. – rhughes Jun 24 '14 at 7:52

First I will translate the four sentences in English , you can have a look at the the different information they have:

你要什么? What do you want?

你要什么呢? What do you want?

你在做什么吗? Are you doing something?

你做什么了? What have you done? / What did you do?

So you can see “ 什么=什么呢”, “呢”usually is used in special questions ( those question with special question words, like 什么、谁、哪儿), but usually you can omit it. “ 吗” is usually used in declarative sentences, it can change a declarative sentence into a yes or no question. “ 了” is a structural particle,when 了 is used at the end of a sentence, that means a new situation is about to happen, or has happened, or something changed.

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了and吗, in Chinese, are called助词(maybe I should call it helper words in english? not sure). 助词have no actual meaning, but describe the state, or tense, or even attitude of the whole sentense, but not just to什么.

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