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In a Chinese lesson, I came across these sentences:

  1. 你有什么事吗?

    Nǐ yǒu shénme shì mɑ?

  2. 你有什么事?

    Nǐ yǒu shénme shì?

And both were translated as:

What's the matter?

I don't understand 1. Without 吗, I understand it literally as: You have what matter?. From Advanced yes-no questions in resources.allsetlearning, I know you can add 吗 to a sentence with another question word to convert it to a confirmation question. However, I don't see how 1. becomes a yes-no question. Which yes-no question that would be?

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In Chinese grammar, words as 什么 are commonly known as interrogative substitutes, they substitute the word that should be found in the answer.

Therefore, they have inherent interrogative semantics, and don't require interrogative particles at the end of the sentence.

For example:

你在吃什么?What are you eating?

我在吃麻婆豆腐 I'm eating "mapo" tofu.

As you can see, the interrogative substitute and the noun phrase that answers the question are in the same place, and there's no 吗。

When you do place an interrogative particle at the end of the sentence, the interrogative substitute plays the role of an indefinite pronoun. We can summarize this in the following table:

什么,什么东西 -- what? -- anything -- (thing)

哪里,什么地方 -- where?-- anywhere -- (place)

谁,什么人 -- who? -- anyone -- (person)

A couple examples more:

你包里有什么东西?What's in your bag?

你包里有什么东西吗?Is there anything in your bag?

这个周末你准备去什么地方?Where do you plan to go this weekend?

这个周末你准备去什么地方吗? Do you plan to go anywhere this weekend?

谁认识他?Who knows him?

谁认识他吗?Does anyone know him?


So your sentence:

你有什么事吗 (interrogative + particle = indefinite) do you have anything? (= is there something wrong?)

你有什么事 (interrogative) what do you have? (= what's the matter)

At the end of the day, in this particular example both sentences can actually be translated as "what's the matter", since in Chinese 有事 has an idiomatic meaning, but in general:

interrogative substitute + 吗 = indefinite pronoun.

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  • I can't come up with a good example for 谁 / 什么人 though – blackgreen Jun 29 at 21:05
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    How about: 誰認識他? (who knows him?); 誰認識他吗? (do someone knows him?) – Tang Ho Jun 29 at 21:36
  • You can use it in your answer – Tang Ho Jun 29 at 21:39
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    As a Chinese speaker, I did not study grammar from books. Therefore, I don't know a lot of grammar lingo. This means I often need to describe a simple term with a detailed explanation. I learn a lot by reading your posts. Would you join Cantonese Plus forums at reddit.com/r/CantonesePlus ? I believe you can be a great contributor to the dictionary we are working on .The dictionary is here cantoneseplus.com – Tang Ho Jun 29 at 22:11
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Tang Ho Jun 29 at 22:15
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你有什么事吗?

你有什么事?

The other answer already addressed it from a general grammar point of view. I'd also like to point out the nuance between the two sentences.

When we say "你有什么事吗?", the speaker is not really sure whether you have anything or not, whilst with "你有什么事" the speaker has an assumption that you have something but don't know what.

And the reason why both end up to be translated to the same English sentence "What's the matter?" is that in practice those two questions probably get the same answer, such as 我想找个人.

So, the distinction here is the assumption, but the assumption is implied.

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你有什么事吗?:在猜测对方是否需要帮助。
你有什么事? : 他想知道具体是什么事,提问的人大概率希望提供帮助

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