Choice-type questions

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No, I am not talking about multiple choice questions.  I'm talking about the kind of choice questions that language teachers introduce as one of the many ways to ask a question in Chinese.

This subject has come up in connection with the following post that went up the day before yesterday:

"Yes-no questions in mathematics and in Chinese" (2/10/17)

Yes-no questions are questions that may be answered with a "yes" or a "no" (or their equivalents in Chinese).  That's what the day before yesterday's post was about.  In the discussion, however, the matter of choice-type questions arose, centered on the use of words for "or" in Chinese:  háishì 还是, huò 或, and huòzhě 或者.  For this type of question, the respondent is expected to choose between two alternatives.

Here's a brief introduction to choice-type questions in Mandarin.

The most efficient way to illustrate how they work is to provide example sentences from native speakers:

N.B.:  The translations are rather literal, so as to make the Chinese grammatical structure more evident in the English

1.

Nǐ xǐhuan qíngtiān háishì yǔtiān? 你喜欢晴天还是雨天? ("Do you like sunny days or rainy days?")

Nǐ jīntiān chī Zhōngcān háishì xīcān? 你今天吃中餐还是西餐?("Are you eating Chinese food or Western food today?")

Nǐ qímò zhǔnbèi gěi Yīxuě A háishì B? 你期末准备给一雪A还是B? ("Will you give Yixue an A or a B at the end of the semester?")

2.

I think "háishì 还是" ("or") is used more often in this type of question. Here are some examples I can think of:

Nǐ jīntiān qù shàngbān háishì xiūxí? 你今天去上班还是休息?("Do you go to work today or rest?")

I think "huò 或" ("or") or "huòzhě 或者" ("or") could be used to replace "háishì 还是" ("or") in the above examples and imply the same meaning. But it still sounds "unnatural" to me. If I use "huòzhě 或者" or "huò 或", I would say:

Zúqiú huò lánqiú, nǐ xǐhuan nǎge? 足球或篮球,你喜欢哪个? ("Football or basketball, which do you like?")

Xióngzhǎng huòzhě yú, nǐ xuǎn nǎge? 熊掌或者鱼,你选哪个? ("Bear's paw or fish, which will you choose?")

3.

I think the most common way to ask a choice question is to use "shì… háishì… 是…, 还是…" ("is…, or…") and the most common question word is "呢", rather than “ma 吗”, but "ne 呢" can be omitted.

Here are some examples:

Nǐ jīntiān shì qù shàngbān, háishì zàijiā xiūxí ne? 你今天是去上班,还是在家休息呢? ("Are you going to work today, or will you rest at home?")

Nǐ shì chī mǐfàn, háishì chī miàntiáo? 你是吃米饭,还是吃面条? ("Are you eating rice or eating noodles?")

Zhè jiàn dàyī hǎokàn, háishì nà jiàn hǎokàn? 这件大衣好看,还是那件好看?("Does this coat look good, or does that one look good?")

“Huò 或 ” and “huòzhě 或者” are less common. For example:

Nǐ shì chī mǐfàn, háishì chī miàntiáo, huòzhě chī miànbāo? 你是吃米饭,还是吃面条,或者吃面包?("Are you eating rice, eating noodles, or eating bread?")

Nǐ chī píngguǒ ma? Huòzhě chī lí? 你吃苹果吗?或者吃梨? ("Are you eating an apple?  Or are you eating a pear?")

(In this case, “háishì 还是” sounds better: Nǐ chī píngguǒ ma? Háishì chī lí? 你吃苹果吗?还是吃梨? ["Are you eating an apple?  Or are you eating a pear?"])

“Yìhuò 抑或” is used more often in literature. I found some examples on the internet:

Xīntóu bùzhī yǒngqǐ yī gǔ shénme zīwèi, shì wèi nàgè niándài bēi'āi? Háishì duì jīntiān shàonán shàonǚ de xiànmù? Yìhuò shì wèi dāngnián de “jīnguó” qìgài zìyōng? 心头不知涌起一股什么滋味,是为那个年代悲哀?还是对今天少男少女的羡慕?抑或是为当年的“巾帼”气概自雍?("Unknowingly a certain feeling welled up in my heart.  Was it from grief over that era?  Or from envy toward the young men and women of today?  Or still was it from pride for the lofty spirit of the women of those years?") N.B. zìyōng 自雍 might be a mistake for zìháo 自豪.

(《Běijīng wǎnbào 北京晚报》(Beijing Evening News) 1994年11月5日)

Rénshēng guǒ rú mèng hu? Yìhuò méngsǒu zhī yùyán hu, wú bùnéng zhī. 人生果如梦乎?抑或蒙叟之寓言乎,吾不能知。” ("Is human life really like a dream?  Or is that just the parable of an old man [i.e., Zhuang Zi]?  I cannot know.")

(Liú È 刘鹗《Lǎocán yóujì xùjí 老残游记续集》 (The Continuation of Travels of Old Derelict), zìxù 自序 ["Preface"])

In a word, “ 还是” is the most common conjunction used in an alternative interrogative. “Huòzhě 或者” is less common. It also introduces the third choice in a sequence. “Yìhuò 抑或” is used only in literature.

4.

Huò 或 is an abbreviation for huòzhě 或者 and the usages are the same. Though huò 或 / huòzhě 或者 and háishì 还是 are both translated as "or" in English, there is a difference between them.  Huò 或 / huòzhě 或者  is usually used in a statement while háishì 还是 is used in a question. Below are some examples:

Nǐ yào chī mǐfàn háishì tǔdòu? 你要吃米饭还是土豆? Will you have / eat rice or potatoes?

Mǐfàn huòzhě tǔdòu dōu kěyǐ. 米饭或者土豆都可以。 (Either) Rice or potatoes is okay with me.

Nǐ jīntiān huì qù shàngbān háishì huì dài zàijiā? 你今天会去上班还是会待在家? Will you go to work today or stay home?

Wǒ kěnéng huì dài zàijiā huòzhě qù wǒ jiejie jiā. Wǒ bù huì qù shàngbān. 我可能会待在家或者去我姐姐家。我不会去上班。 I may stay home or go to my sister's place. I won't go to work.

However, there is one exception. When the word "or" is in a Yes/No question, it's actually translated as huòzhě 或者 instead of háishì 还是. For example:

Nǐ yào chī mǐfàn huòzhě tǔdòu ma? 你要吃米饭或者土豆吗?  Do you want some rice or potatoes?

Yào, wǒ yào chī diǎnr mǐfàn. 要,我要吃点儿米饭。 Yes, I'd like to have some rice.

So we can compare the following two sentences and see the differences:

Nǐ yào chī mǐfàn háishì tǔdòu? 你要吃米饭还是土豆? Will you have / eat rice or potatoes?  (choice question)

Nǐ yào chī mǐfàn huòzhě tǔdòu ma? 你要吃米饭或者土豆吗?  Do you want some rice or potatoes? (Yes-No question)

Below are more examples for reference:

Tā māmā shì yīshēng háishì hùshì? 她妈妈是医生还是护士? Is her mom a doctor or nurse?

Wǒ yǐhòu xiǎng zài yīyuàn gōngzuò. Wǒ xiǎng dāng yīshēng huòzhě hùshì. 我以后想在医院工作。我想当医生或者护士。I want to work in the hospital in the future. I want to be a doctor or nurse.

Nǐ rènshi nà jiā yīyuàn de yīshēng huòzhě hùshì ma? 你认识那家医院的医生或者护士吗?Do you know any doctors or nurses at that hospital?

5.

In standard Mandarin, only háishì 还是 is used for questions, huò 或 or huòzhě 或者 is used for statements. Below are a few examples:

1)      Nǐ xǐhuan chī Zhōngcān háishì xīcān? 你喜欢吃中餐还是西餐?("Do you like Chinese food or Western food?")

2)      Nǐ nǎ tiān shàngkè? Xīngqí yī háishì xīngqí'èr? 你哪天上课?星期一还是星期二?("Which day will you have class?  Monday or Tuesday?")

3)      Wǒ sānyuè huòzhě sìyuè huì qù Zhōngguó. 我三月或者四月会去中国。("I will go to China in March or April.")

4)     Wǒ xiǎng mǎi jiàn bái de huòzhě hēi de chènshān pèi zhè tiáo kùzi. 我想买件白的或者黑的衬衫配这条裤子。("I'd like to buy a white or black shirt to go with these pants.")

An “or” clause may also be inserted into a yes-no question as shown below, in this case huòzhě 或者 is used:

5)     Nǐ zhōuyī huòzhě zhōu'èr yǒu kòng ma? 你周一或者周二有空吗?("Are you free on Monday or Tuesday?")

6.

The key is whether the 'or' is used in a real question or an alternative form.

In a real question, 'or' is translated into 'háishì 还是'. For example:

Nǐ xǐhuan chī tǔdòu háishì mǐfàn? 你喜欢吃土豆还是米饭?("Do you like to eat potatoes or rice?")

Nǐ xǐhuan chī tǔdòu, (háishì) bāozi (,) háishì mǐfàn? 你喜欢吃土豆、(还是)包子(,)还是米饭?("Do you like to eat potatoes, [or] buns[,], or rice?")

Nǐ jīntiān shàngbān háishì xiūjià? 你今天上班还是休假?("Are you on duty or on vacation today?")

Nǐ xǐhuan Jímǔ (Jim) háishì Qiáo (Joe)? 你喜欢吉姆(Jim)还是乔(Joe)?("Do you like Jim or Joe?")

But in non-question sentences, 'or' should be translated into 'huòzhě 或者' to indicate alternativeness. For example,

Q: Nǐ xǐhuan chī tǔdòu háishì mǐfàn? 你喜欢吃土豆还是米饭?("Do you like potatoes or rice?")

A: Tǔdòu huòzhě bāozi dōu xíng. 土豆或者包子都行。("Potatoes or buns are both OK.")

Q: Nǐ xǐhuan chī tǔdòu, (háishì) bāozi (,) háishì mǐfàn? 你喜欢吃土豆、(还是)包子(,)还是米饭?("Do you like potatoes, (or) buns (,) or rice?

A: Tǔdòu huòzhě bāozi/mǐfàn dōu xíng. 土豆或者包子/米饭都行。("Potatoes or buns / rice are both OK.")

Q: Míngtiān shuí yǒu shíjiān dài xiǎoxuéshēng cānguān Bīndà bówùguǎn? 明天谁有时间带小学生参观宾大博物馆?("Tomorrow who has time to take the elementary school students to visit the Penn Museum?")

A: Jímǔ (Jim) huòzhě Qiáo (Joe) yǒu shíjiān. (Qítā rén dōu yǒu kǎoshì.) 吉姆(Jim)或者乔(Joe)有时间。(其他人都有考试。)("Jim or Joe has time. [Everyone else has an exam].]")

A common mistake for learners is that they translate all 'or' into háishì '还是.'

Huòzhě 或者 and huò 或 function the same in the situations where they have been mentioned above. The only difference is style, which is actually very subtle.

"Or" is just a simple two letter conjunction in English, but the complexities of its usage in corresponding Chinese sentences require great care so as not to use the wrong "or" in a particular context.  Taken all together and studied attentively, the example sentences and explanations given here, along with those in the previous post, should serve to solve Daniel Sterman's perplexities.

[Thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, Liwei Jiao, Fangyi Cheng, Yixue Yang, and Jing Wen]



11 Comments »

  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 10:27 pm

    4 part 2 presents the key contrast most clearly. Haishi is interrogative (that is, it asks the respondent to choose between alternatives).* Huozhe is not, but nonetheless can happen to appear in questions.

    * Though via its interrogative use haishi has also developed non-interrogative uses ('better to [X as opposed to some perceived alternative') — perhaps we should analyze this new haishi as a different word.

  2. philip said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 12:52 am

    Dear God! What a complicated language? And I thought Irish grammar was arcane.

  3. Vítor said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 3:11 am

    It'd be interesting to analyze also the possible kinds of *answers* to choice questions, in the context of the previous post.

  4. Edwin Schmitt said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 5:17 am

    Actually what you are demonstrating is something that social science researchers must remember when dealing with survey question designs. The key is to remove ambiguity. Choice-type questions make removing ambiguity difficult or in some cases impossible. This is why we highly discourage the asking of such questions on a survey.

    You make some fairly contradictory statements about whether 或者 can be used when asking a question. Perhaps the trouble lies precisely in whether or not you are asking a question that requires the respondent to make a choice between A or B. There is also the possibility of asking a question where you could choose between the two or giving the respondent the ability to answer "both". It appears there is a paper that addresses these issues in the 中南大学学报 but unfortunately I no longer have access to read the entire argument:
    http://www.airitilibrary.com/Publication/alDetailedMesh?docid=16723104-200610-12-5-634-636-a

    In survey research we try to encourage the use of contingency questions. In other words, by drawing on one of the questions you pose in section 6, you could simply begin with:
    你今天要上班吗? And then if the answer is 我今天不去上班, you can reply with 那你今天有在家休息吗?A possible reply might be 也不会,我今天要去购物。Frankly speaking, in my experience this is how conversations in Chinese tend to take place. If there is a large language corpus of spoken Chinese, I imagine it would be quite easy to note just what the % of choice-questions are in Chinese and my hypothesis is that they make up a very small portion of the questions asked in natural conversation. It is probably for this reason, more than any other, that so much confusion about these questions emerges from both native and non-native speakers of Chinese.

  5. DWalker07 said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 11:58 am

    I agree with Vitor, I would like to see how these kinds of questions are *answered*.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 8:28 pm

    @Vitor, @DWalker07

    It would take up too much space to answer all of the questions in the o.p., especially since many of them have several possible answers, but if you are interested in particular examples, please choose two or three and I'll answer them for you.

    Note that the items in the second part of section 6 already have answers.

  7. Dave Cragin said,

    February 13, 2017 @ 11:19 pm

    Philip – RE: your comment on Chinese being a complicated language.
    While some aspects of Chinese are complicated, many aspects of its grammar make other languages look too complicated. Notably, Chinese has no word endings, no verb conjugation, and articles. No male/female nouns. Once you learn a word, you know it. It doesn’t change based on its usage.

    Another remarkable thing about Chinese is that for the phrases above, Victor did a literal translation, i.e., word for word into English using the same word order. This isn’t a unique situation; it’s surprising how often a sentence in English has the same or similar order to its Chinese equivalent. As a native English speaker, I’m always amazed that 2 languages with such different origins correlate so well.

  8. Vítor De Araújo said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    @Victor Mair: I think the ones in item 1 would already be enough. I asked about these because of the context of the original post: Chinese people answering choice-type questions with 'yes' or 'no' in English, rather than saying which choice they mean (e.g., "Is it A or B? Yes."). Does this reflect some way of answering them which is natural in Chinese but translates badly into English?

  9. DWalker07 said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

    I agree with Vitor.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    All right. I'll work up some answers for the questions in section 1. But I won't be able to do it until evening because it's a busy teaching day.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

    Here are some sets of sample answers for the questions in section 1 of the o.p.:

    1.
    Qíngtiān 晴天。("Sunny day".)

    Zhōngcān 中餐。("Chinese food".)

    A A。("A".)

    2.
    Wǒ xǐhuan qíngtiān 我喜欢晴天。("I like sunny days".)

    Wǒ jīntiān chī Zhōngcān 我今天吃中餐。("Today I'll eat Chinese food".)

    Wǒ zhǔnbèi gěi tā B 我准备给她B。("I intend to give her a 'B'".)

    3.
    (Wǒ xǐhuan) qíngtiān (我喜欢)晴天。("[I like] sunny days".)

    (Chī) Zhōngcān (吃)中餐。("[I'll eat] Chinese food".)

    (Gěi tā) A (给她)A。("[I'll give her] an A".)

    4.
    Wō xǐhuan qíngtiān. 我喜欢晴天。("I like sunny days.")

    Wō jīntiān chī Zhōngcān. 我今天吃中餐。 ("I'll eat Chinese food today.")

    A+ tīng qǐ lái búcuò, A++gèng hǎo. A+听起来不错,A++更好。("A+ sounds nice, but A++ seems better.")

    5.
    Here are my answers to the questions. These are the answers we would tell our 1st year students to use as they are grammatically straight-forward and easy to understand. However, I also provided the ones in bold as they are the ones I would use in real life situation. They sound more natural and a bit more sophisticated in meaning.

    a.

    Wǒ xǐhuan qíngtiān 我喜欢晴天。("I like sunny days".)

    Wǒ bǐjiào xǐhuan qíngtiān 我比较喜欢晴天。("I prefer sunny days".)

    b.

    Wǒ jīntiān chī Zhōngcān 我今天吃中餐。("I'll eat Chinese food today".)

    Wǒ jīntiān xiǎng chī Zhōngcān 我今天想吃中餐。("I'm thinking of eating Chinese food today".)

    c.

    Wǒ zhǔnbèi gěi tā yīgè A 我准备给她一个A。("I intend to give her an A".)

    Wǒ yīnggāi huì gěi tā yīgè A 我应该会给她一个A。("I ought to give her an A".)

    6.
    Wǒ xǐhuan qíngtiān 我喜欢晴天。("I like sunny days".)

    Wǒ jīntiān wǔfàn chī xīcān, wǎnfàn chī Zhōngcān 我今天午饭吃西餐,晚饭吃中餐。("Today I'll eat Western food for lunch and eat Chinese food for dinner".)

    Gěi B, yīnwèi tā nǔlì bùgòu 给B,因为她努力不够。("[I'll] give [her] a B, because she didn't work hard enough".)

    [Thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Liwei Jiao, Melvin Lee, Yixue Yang, Jing Wen, and Fangyi Cheng]

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