4

几 has two meanings: "several" and "how many?" But I have no clear understanding of separation one from another. E.g.:

后面有几个人笑起来了. - declarative

你家有几口人? - interrogative

I know that the first sentence is declarative and the second one is interrogative but I don't know why. There is no difference in 几 usage here so why is the first sentence declarative?

A few people laughed behind [us].

And not interrogative: How many people laughed behind [us]?

"几个人" could be as well "a few people" and "how many people?", how to distinguish which one is used? (An example of interrogative sentence with "几个人" would be useful)

P.S.: please do not give explanation like "后面有几个人笑起来了." is declarative because "后面有多少人笑起来了?" is interrogative. I also can say that in the case "你家有几口人" is declarative ("There are some people in your family") because there is no "多少人".


Another example, you are speaking to a person and he says:

上海有几个火车站(。/?)

Only context can help you to understand whether it is a question or a declaration, right?

(on the street)

请问, 上海有几个火车站(?) - defenetely interrogative

And:

- 到火车站要10分钟, 不要着急。

- 上海有几个火车站(。)我去上海南站, 到那儿要半个小时。 - declarative

  • 1
    users note that 呢 often occurs at the end of certain types of interrogative sentences (alternative questions or those with interrogative pronouns (e.g. 几)),as a test search web with 几 呢: 孩子移民的黄金时间是几岁呢?会计账户分为几类呢?会计账户分为几类呢? – user6065 Jan 16 '18 at 22:26
3

I think all the sentences with 几 above can turn into interrogative sentences. For example:

后面有几个人笑起来了?

你家有几口人?

上海有几个火车站?

In the mainland mandarin, we usually put 好 in front of 几 in the declarative sentence to indicate that there are more than one. For example:

后面有(好)几个人笑起来了。// 好 can be omitted without changing the meaning.

你家有好几口人。// 好 can not be omitted

上海有好几个火车站。// 好 can not be omitted

With 好,you can differentiate if it's a declarative or interrogative sentence. In some sentences (like the first one above), 好 is omissible. You'd better not omit 好 in the sentence 2 and 3, otherwise they would sound like interrogative sentences.

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1

'' in '你家有个人?' means '几多个人'(how many people?)

'' in '后面有个人笑起来了' just means 'few'

几 is 'declarative' (few/ several) when the sentence ends with a period; and it is 'interrogative' (how many) when the sentence ends with a question mark

去了几次. (went there a few times.)

去了几次? (went there how many times?)

'interrogative' sentence is always in question form, end with a question mark, including rhetorical question.

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  • What about speach? No one says "后面有几个人笑起来了问号" – Ivan Gerasimenko Jan 16 '18 at 11:02
  • It should be "后面有几(多)个人笑起来了?" Some people might choose to omit '多' but that make it less colloquial and more literary. Let me give you a literary sentence example , '知己有几(多个)人?' should always ends with a question mark. and (多个) is always omitted – Tang Ho Jan 16 '18 at 11:11
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    wikipedia:the concept of modern standard punctuation was adapted in the written language during the 20th century from Western punctuation marks,also Chinese subtitles have none – user6065 Jan 16 '18 at 13:17
  • Would it be safe to say that in ambiguous situations you can add clarity either by including '?' or 多? – Josh Gagnon Jan 16 '18 at 14:28
  • 知己有几多个人 sounds very odd to my ear. I'd say 知己有几(个)人. – dan Jan 17 '18 at 11:33
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There is a way for distinction: intonation

As stated by the OP, the meaning is clear once we know whether the sentence is declarative or a question. The key point about identifying the sentence type in a conversation, other than the context, is intonation.

Example:

I asked a friend who is a native speaker of mandarin (from Shanghai) to pronounce the following sentences:

  1. 那里有几个人? (How many people is there?)

https://soundcloud.com/user-169031882/k0n1e11edws0?in=user-169031882/sets/chinese-intonation-difference

  1. 那里有几个人. (There are a few people.)

https://soundcloud.com/user-169031882/kc4x4i2w6psc?in=user-169031882/sets/chinese-intonation-difference

He argued in the interrogative sentence he stressed the question word , while in the declarative sentence, he stressed the object .


General discussion: declarative vs question intonation

Apart from lexical tones, mandarin chinese like most languages has a sentence intonation. Sentence intonation can be thought of the overlaying tune of the sentence, with fluctuations given by the lexical tones [1]. Surprisingly, the study of sentence intonation and its interaction with the lexical tones is a complex topic, which is still active in linguistics research.

Wh-words, the interrogative words such as shénme 什么, shéi 谁 or 几 can sometimes be ambiguous between a declarative and question interpretation. This is precisely the topic of study of an article from last month [2]. Considering sentences like the example I gave above for wh-words, they studied the intonation of the interrogative vs declarative sentences, and found the following results:

  • Questions are spoken faster than declarations.
  • Questions have more 'focus' in the wh-words (as my friend said): with a longer duration, a steep pitch rise and a stronger volume change (what is called intensity range).
  • Questions usually maintain the pitch raised at the wh-word until the end of the sentence.
  • Declarations have more focus at the verb and wh-words are instead largely suppressed with an almost flat pitch, a short duration and a small volume change.

[1] Crosswhite, K. M., & McDonough, J. (2000). Comparison of intonation patters in Mandarine and English for a particular Speaker. University of Rochester Working Papers in the Language Science, 1, 24-55.

[2] Yang, Y., Gryllia, S., & Cheng, L. L. S. (2020). Wh-question or wh-declarative? Prosody makes the difference. Speech Communication, 118, 21-32 (see link).

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  • I asked myself this question a while ago and asked some native speakers to read two sentences aloud. They were: 1) 出去了几个人。2)出去了几个人?I came to similar conclusions as in this answer. However I didn't notice a difference in speed. For the 'focus' observation (points #2, #4 in the answer) I think it could be useful to think of it as the neutral tone (轻声) being used for the "declarative" case, and not being used in the "question" case. – goPlayerJuggler May 18 at 17:48
  • @goPlayerJuggler Actually you are right, the difference in speed they found in the article is not much, around 1.5% of the duration. For a sentence of 12 syllables, the declarative sentence took around 2,05 s and the question around 2,02 s. If you check the article they also have very nice plots, they were quite informative (though by copyright reasons I couldn't use them on the answer). – Puco4 May 18 at 18:18

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