In English, you say

What are you laughing at?
I'm laughing at this situation.

Here, the preposition "at" refers to "this situation" and "what", respectively. In German it's more clear, since the preposition "über" is always before its target:

Über was lachst du?
Ich lache über die Situation.

Same in French:

De quoi ris-tu?
Je ris de la situation.

In Chinese, the same question would be (according to Duolingo and Google Translate):


To me, this sounds like

You about laugh what?
Du über lachst was?
Tu de ris quoi?

instead of

You laugh about what?
Du lachst über was?
Tu ris de quoi?

Why is the 在 before the 笑, instead of before the 什么? Is that just "because it is", or am I missing an important point here?

  • 1
    Because Chinese doesn't need European grammar. Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 0:01
  • 1
    @神秘德里克 So you're saying that my first suggested answer is correct: "It is so because it is." But as you can see from the accepted answer, it was my misunderstanding of the meaning of 在 that was the problem. Not really a grammar issue. Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 8:42
  • 为什么英语里要说What are you laughing at?而不是What you're laughing at?
    – Zhang
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 8:30
  • 2
    "在" is not "at" here. "在" is "ing" here.
    – Zhang
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 8:33

2 Answers 2


「在」in「你在笑什麽」is not equivalent to English at in what are you laughing at?. To demonstrate by analogy:

  • 你在吃什麽 - what are you eating?
  • 你在做什麽 - what are you doing?

「在」is actually equivalent to the suffix -ing in laughing, eating, doing. It is English which grammatically requires something as a target for the verb laughing; this requirement is redundant in Chinese.


Literally: You (你) [action in progress / -ing] (在) laugh (笑) what (什麽)?

Perhaps it is easier to see what's being omitted in English.

  • 你在笑什麽 - about/at what are you laughing?
  • 你在吃什麽 - what [food] are you eating?
  • 你在做什麽 - what [action] are you doing?

在笑: He is laughing.
在笑 : He is laughing at you.
在笑 : You are laughing at who? (Who are you laughing at?)
在笑 什么: You are laughing at what? (What are you laughing at?)
The word at is needed in English but not in Chinese.

  • Intuitive explanation by example. Focuses on patterns rather than on language theory.
    – hc_dev
    Commented Apr 23, 2020 at 8:12

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