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I just saw the phrase "你在吗" for the first time on Discord, I asked how this was grammatically correct (it looks like an incomplete sentence) and they insisted that 在 means "here". I don't agree with that at all, 在 is a coverb and not a single dictionary I've looked in (online or otherwise) lists that as a definition. I could understand if the sentence omits 这里 since it's redundant, I could also understand if the sentence was the equivalent of "Are you in?" in English, but I do not agree with "在 means here"

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  • Did you mean to say 你在吗 instead of 你在马? – Aiden Chow Nov 20 '20 at 8:41
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    你在吗 sounds more like "are you there?" in English. – dan Nov 20 '20 at 10:54
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in 你在吗? means 'is present'

大考时你在这里吗? = Were you here during the final exam?

大考时你在那里吗? = Were you there during the final exam?

大考时你在(学校)吗? = Were you at the school during the final exam?

大考时你在吗? = Were you present during the final exam? (It doesn't mention where the final exam took place, so you can use 'were present' or 'were there')

Similarly:

他犯案时你在現場吗? = Were you at the scene when he committed the crime?

他犯案时你在吗? = Were you present/ there when he committed the crime?

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The first definition in ABC answers this:

be at/in/on

This might be similar to the word around in English because it doesn’t need to be followed by an object.

They give the example:

请问, 老王在吗?
Qǐngwèn, Lǎo Wáng zài ma?
Excuse me, is Old Wang there/here?

Perhaps it helps if you understand it as: Hey, is Wang around?

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  • yes, actually, that is a really nice explanation – 小奥利奥 Nov 20 '20 at 23:45
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As a native Chinese speaker, this is an interesting observation. I have just checked on the dictionary of the Taiwanese Ministry of Education: http://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/cgi-bin/cbdic/gsweb.cgi?ccd=WyBuZ5&o=e0&sec=sec1&op=v&view=0-1

It lists the following definitions which I can briefly explain in English:

Verb:

  • live/alive
  • located at/being at/exist
  • decided by/reliant on
  • observe

Adverb:

  • being in the state of an action

Preposition:

  • at a time
  • at a place
  • at a scope

Noun:

  • place/home
  • the 在 surname

Now that we assume the grammar is correct because most Chinese use this in their daily lives, we can narrow the definition down to being a verb.

Then the second definition (located at) would be the most suitable in my opinion.

The person asking 你在嗎? is interested to know if there was someone on the other end, which can absolutely be explained with the "located at".

I guess it was a matter of mistranslation from those people as they just compared the English phrase with the Chinese phrase without thinking too hard.

在 in fact does not mean "here", but "exist/located at" in the context.


Further more

Also, 這裏 (here) is not a requirement and the sentence is completely fine without adding the object.

In fact, the shortest sentence used on a daily basis can be:

在。 (Present)

which is the answer when a teacher checks for attendances. Here the subject is implied to be the speaker (I), but there is no omission of the location just as the English equivalent: "I'm present" VS "I'm present at school".

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  • This does make sense since coverbs in Mandarin are verbs whose usage has been altered into prepositions, I always consider 在 to be a preposition but never contemplated its original usage as a verb – 小奥利奥 Nov 26 '20 at 23:19
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Yes, you are right. it's an incomplete sentence. The original one should be "你在这吗?" (Are you in here?), but since it's an oral speaking, people usually omit “这", sometimes even “你”.

In this sentence, “在” is a coverb and doesn't have the meaning of "here".

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