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Where are you? What are you doing?

I translated this to:

Ni zai nar? Ni zuo shenme?

But I found

Ni zai zuo shenme?

online. How is it zai zuo (in + to do)? Is it correct if I just say zuo (to do)?? Does it express the right meaning?

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  • zai in "Ni zai nar?" is a preposition, meaning "in; at". zai+Verb in "Ni zai zuo shenme?" is an adverb, expressing continuation of an action, in other words: V-ing. It's okay to omit zai and just say "Ni zuo shenme?" – Reynaldi Jun 20 '18 at 8:01
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    在 refers to progressive tense explicitly. – user4072 Jun 20 '18 at 8:10
  • usually called "progressive aspect" 动作的进行 most recently discussed in chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/30209/… – user6065 Jun 20 '18 at 9:21
  • You're all good at grammar. What I want to say is: "zai" can also be "zhengzai"(正在). You may say "Ni zhengzai zuo shenme?", but this would be more formal than "Ni zai zuo shenme?" – Bruce Huang Jun 28 '18 at 19:27
  • I say Ni zai zuo shenme? only when I want to know what you are doing right now, like when I call someone on the phone and want to know that. The "zai" is actually short for 现在, (Xiàn zài) – Wayne Cheah Feb 23 '20 at 14:07
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We usually don't say "你做什么(ni zuo shen me)". We only say it when we are shocked, like when you just meet a man trying to robber you, you'll say that to him.

If you're asking someone what are you doing, you should use "你在做什么(ni zai zuo shen me)".

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There is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to express oneself. Here a couple of suggestions which may fit in certain circumstances. You can listen and read the words.

Listen here(张国荣) Where are you? 你在何地

Listen here Where are you all now? 你们如今在何方

What are you doing?!

你在干什么? What are you doing?

What the hell are you doing? (a little angry) 你到底在干吗?

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The first sentence is perfectly fine:

Where are you?
你在哪儿?
Nǐ zài nǎr?

The usage of 在 (zài) = "to be located at" here is different to its usage in the second part.

With regards to the second sentence, the 在 (zài) indicates an action in progress, in this case it modifies the verb 做 (zuò) = "to do".

What are you doing?
做什么?
zài zuò shénme?

I don't believe it's grammatically incorrect without the 在 (zài), but it's ambiguous and unusual. Typically we would hear it in:

What's your job?
你做什么工作?
Nǐ zuò shénme gōngzuò?

What should I do?
我应该做什么?
Wǒ yīnggāi zuò shénme?


The distinction may be clearer if we replace 做 (zuò) = "to do" with 吃 (chī) = "to eat".

What are you eating?
吃什么?
zài chī shénme?

What do you eat?
你吃什么?
Nǐ chī shénme?

The first question is about what you are currently eating ("I'm currently eating M&M's"). The second question is about what you generally eat ("I eat vegetarian food").

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I would add 在 to make 你做什么?

In this case, 在 would make the equivalent of the English present progressive VERBing ending.

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