I understand 怎么 generally means "how".

However, I came across the following translated example:

你怎么了? 说话声音这么小!

Nǐ zěnme le ? Shuōhuà shēnɡyīn zhème xiǎo!

What happened to you? You are speaking in such a low voice!

Why does 你怎么了 mean this? Literally, I understand it as "You (are) how?". Is 样 implied? Like in:


Nǐ zěnme yàng?

Literally: You how is it?, meaning How is it going?

Although the translation seems a bit different.

  • 2
    Depending on the tone it could also mean "What's wrong with you ?!?"
    – iBug
    Jul 27, 2020 at 5:22
  • This answer about the sentence-final 了 or modal 了 might be relevant here.
    – Puco4
    Sep 8, 2020 at 10:46

6 Answers 6


It's one of those fixed expressions whose otherwise regular meaning is significantly and conspicuously altered by the modal 了, that introduces change semantics.

The phrase 「你怎么(样)~」 in itself means "How do you...?". If you add a modal 了 signifying change, it becomes:

"How do you... now" (as opposed to before)

...which in an idiomatic translation becomes: "What happened to you?". The English version precisely conveys change semantics, as it implies that you had no issue earlier, but you might have some now.

A similar result happens with this other expression:

我知道 I know

我知道了 I know now = I got it

And also this one, though I must admit this is my own interpretation, and I have no scientific evidence to support it:

算 to count, to consider as

算了 counted (as in, not counted before, but counted now) = forget about it

  • Very clear explanation, as always! Though I got lost a bit with 算了.
    – Puco4
    Jul 26, 2020 at 11:31
  • 1
    @Puco4 TBH I'm not 100% sure that 算了 belongs to this category, it's a trick I used back in the days to explain its usage to myself. I will do some more research to see if I can find linguistics papers that support this.
    – blackgreen
    Jul 26, 2020 at 11:33
  • I haven't come it across yet, maybe then I will understand. Does 算 means like "to calculate / to figure"? So you mean 算了 means "calculated now / figured it now" so "don't need to worry and can forget about it"?
    – Puco4
    Jul 26, 2020 at 11:37
  • 2
    @Puco4: I'd say "算了" means "considered already (implying don't want to consider again)". In itself it does not necessarily imply "don't need to worry" or "forget about it", even if in many contexts it may end up doing so.
    – user21820
    Jul 27, 2020 at 3:33
  • 1
    In Cantonese we also have Shuan Shu (calculated math), which has similar meaning. Although Shuan Le is also used. Shuan Shu, has a more aggressive meaning, while Shuan Le is more lamenting, i.e letting go.
    – A. L
    Jul 27, 2020 at 6:01


Interjection: What happened?; What's wrong?

你看起来很沮丧,怎么了? (You look depressed, what's up?)

Depend on context '你怎么了?' could mean 'What happened to you?' or 'What's wrong with you?'


你怎么了?第三节才到学校。 - What happened to you? Came to school only when it was already the third period.

半天也找不到你,你怎么了? - I can't find you for half a day, what happened to you?

面色这样差, 你怎么了? - Such a pale face. What's wrong with you?

你怎么了?问什么你都不答。 - what's wrong with you? You don't answer anything.

More examples with 怎么了:

学校怎么了?为什么你今天不用上课? - What happened to the school? Why don't you have to go to class today?

我做的饭怎么了?你们还不快吃? - What's wrong with my cooking? Hurry up and eat already!


你怎么了? 说话声音这么小!

Here, the person who asks infers that the person has some problems, such as sickness, sadness, etc., through some special behaviors of the person being asked (low voice). In other words, the first person already thinks that something bad has happened to the second person. He wants to know what is bad and cares about him. The response of "How are you" should be something like "I'm ill" or "I'm sad" here.


It can has two different meaning:

  1. "How are you?"

("你"受伤了) "你怎么样?痛吗?"

  1. "How about you?"

("我""你""他"想去公园,结果"他"去不了) "你怎么样?你去得了吗?"


This dictionary definition addresses this use of 怎么:


你怎么啦? / 今天怎么了,那么多人迟到?

Basically, it's used as predicate, denoting what's going on with someone or something.


We use 怎麼了 to express "what happened?" This happened when people find something wrong or expect something happened and want to know whether or not there is something wrong or something happened, or what wrong or what happened. For example, 怎麼了 妳累了 in this Mandarin song 說好的幸福呢. In this example there was something expected to happened or something wrong.


In English, “你怎么了” means

what's going on?


what happened to you?

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