When I first moved to the south of China, I was surprised to hear the phrase "什么来的" used to mean "what," as in

 这是什么来的?: "What is this?"

As far as I could tell, in many cases there was no question of motion or origin. (I.e., the question was not "where did this come from?"). The "来的" had been completely grammaticalized and did not carry its original meaning. At the time, I (probably wrongly) assumed that this was due to the influence of the Cantonese construction "係乜嘢嚟嘅" ("what is it?").

Fast forward several years, when I was speaking to a friend from the North who is studying to get his degree in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. He said that the phrase "什么来的" does not exist, and that the correct phrase is "什么来着." He even intimated that I may have been mishearing 来着 as 来的 all this time.

Nevertheless, a Google search gives ample evidence for both phrases, and even seems to indicate that 来的 is more prevalent!

So, my questions: (and here I'm looking especially for responses from native speakers)

  1. Do you personally say "什么来的"? "什么来着"? Both? Neither?
  2. Which of these phrases strikes you as more standard? Does either one evoke Chinese spoken in a particular region?
  3. If you use both phrases (or have heard both phrases used), do you maintain a distinction in meaning between the two?
  4. Are there analogous phrases in your native dialect? Do those phrases influence your usage in Mandarin?
  • 1
    Learnt from my wife, I use "什么搞的" which has the same use and meaning.
    – going
    Jan 11, 2012 at 5:14
  • @xiaohouzi79: whoa, that's great. What part of China is your wife from?
    – Alf
    Jan 11, 2012 at 5:15
  • 1
    I would also like to argue that 这是什么来的 has not been grammaticalized. I think a good literal translation is "How did this come to be?" and 这是什么来着? as "What is this (thing) coming?"
    – going
    Jan 11, 2012 at 5:20
  • She is from SuZhou 苏州
    – going
    Jan 11, 2012 at 5:20
  • @xiaohouzi79: hmm, I'm not sure. Those seem like slight over-translations to me. But as you can see I'm very hazy on all of this, and our native speakers may very well agree with you.
    – Alf
    Jan 11, 2012 at 5:27

7 Answers 7


Your supposition about the "来的" is undoubtedly right! I am a native living in Guangzhou. It's very "normal" to say "这 是 什么 来的" to mean "What is it" in the Cantonese-speaking area due to the influence of the Cantonese construction "呢個 係 乜嘢 嚟嘅".You could say "来的" is a Cantonese-Mandarin粤式普通话.

"来着" is a northern colloquial functional word to imply old information. It usually occurs when the speaker couldn't recall the old information. Cf. WKS's answer 他叫什么来着?我昨天说什么来着?

Both "来的" and "来着" are colloquial.

  1. I agree with your friend. I think the correct version is "什么来着". You can find the word"来着",but you can't find the word"来的“ in the dictionary.

  2. I think it's popular in northern area(such as 北京,天津,河北,辽宁). I have heard of "什么来着" on the TV and I can understand it, though I have never used "什么来着", either in mandarin or in my dialect.

  3. (Not applicable)

  4. Of course the dialect will influce the way you speak mandarin Chinese, both in pronunciation and words. Examples from one of my roommates when I was in the university, he came from 浙江 province(in south China), and his mother tongue is a subclass of 吴 dialect.He likes to use words below and confused me at the first time when I met him, though he speaks in mandarin(not very standard).

纸头 paper In mandarin, we use 纸 or 纸张
烧饭 to cook In mandarin, we use 做饭
A structure "不要太[an adj]". He means "very, quite [adj]", but in mandarin, it means "don't be so [adj]".

At last, I want to make a clarification that, when I searched "什么来着" as keyword with Google, on the first page, I saw 10 results, each of which contains the complete "什么来着";however,when I searched "什么来的”, I saw 11 results on the first page, only 4 of which contains the complete "什么来的“. Also, you could see "什么来的" as in "他是冲什么来的?(what does he come for?)”,but that's another story.

  • Good point about the Google search -- I didn't look too closely at the results. And in response to your point 4: yes, of course I know that dialect influences your choices in Mandarin; I was inquiring about whether it influences your choice in this case in particular.
    – Alf
    Jan 11, 2012 at 6:04
  • @Jon Because I don't use either of them,as I said, I can't answer you.
    – Huang
    Jan 11, 2012 at 6:08
  • Oh, yes, I know. I was just clarifying so you didn't think that I intended to slip a big, unrelated question into my post at the very end. Thanks for the helpful information!
    – Alf
    Jan 11, 2012 at 6:10
  • 不要太 = very... I love Chinese dialects.
    – magnetar
    Jan 11, 2012 at 21:35

I am from the south and I only use 什么来着 (never heard of 什么来的). My friends use 什么来着 all the time, usually in the following situation:

你给上次来我们公司的律师打个电话。Call the lawyer that came to our company last time.

那个人叫什么来着?What's his name?

I think there are two reasons you might have seen misleading search results regarding 什么来的.

  1. Some have asked questions like "人是什么来的" on the Internet, where "什么来的" means "come from where". The answer to "人是什么来的" (where did men come from) should be "apes". The Google results might have mistakenly included these questions.
  2. I also see results like "[桌子]是用什么来做的", where "用什么来做的" is one phrase, meaning "made of/from what". The answer to the question should be "wood". Similar questions include the classic "拿什么来拯救你" (literally "what can I use to save you"). The Google results might have mistakenly included these, too.

A Singaporean blog uses 什么来的, though. You might want to ask someone from Singapore, as I have never heard of the phrase in mandarin or my local dialect.

  1. I only use "什么来着".

  2. I cannot recall whether I have heard of "什么来的" before. So that should probably be no.

  3. ...

  4. My hometown is near Beijing, and the dialect is already very much like Mandarin.


I started to use "来着" after I came to Beijing from Henan.

I use "来着" when

  1. I should know something, but I cannot remember. e.g. 他叫什么来着?让我想想。 "I should know who he is, but I just cannot recall his name. Let me think for a while."

  2. Ask when the listener seems to have forgotten something. e.g. 昨天我说什么来着?我说了xxxx "You must have forgotten what I said yesterday. I said xxxx"

But neither of them are actual questions. They only indicate the state of being forgotten and they are not supposed to be answered. So 他叫什么来着? actually means "I forgot his name." rather than "What's his name?"

I cannot distinguish "来着" and "来的". I use them interchangably because they sounds similar. I even doubted whether "来着" or "来的" can be actually written since they are only used in spoken languages.

  • I never thought about your second example! This is great! "昨天我说什么来着" is like "I told you".
    – gonnastop
    Mar 22, 2012 at 1:35

"What is this?"

"这是什么?"is enough, no need to say 来着or 来的.

That's only the influence of their dialect.

这是什么来着? in spoken Chinese may shows intimacy. Like talked between friends or the elder to the young. Or just to show a big curiosity.


"来的" = "来着"

if u want to understand anything you didn't know , u can use "這是什麼?".

What is this = 這是什麼(來的)

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