The Particle Ka か I: Basic Questions

第20課: The Particle Ka か I  「か」を使った疑問文の作り方

Turning a sentence into a question is usually accomplished in English by a slight change in word order as is demonstrated by the following example: 

i. Sam will go to the park.
ii. Will Sam go to the park?

As you can see, the words “Sam” and “will” flip when i. is turned into a question like in ii. 

In Japanese no word order change is necessary to form a question, but the question is marked in some fashion as such. Typically, this is done by adding what is known as a final particle that marks the sentence as a question. 

The most basic way to go about this is by using the particle ka か. This lesson will delve into the most important ways this particle is used in basic grammar.

The Basic Question  疑問文の基礎的な構造

The formula for a basic question in Japanese will be defined as a polite sentence with no deviation in tone from a simple, harmless question. Add anything to the mix and the resulting grammar may not be the same. 

In creating the basic question in Japanese, we will learn about how the particle ka か is used. This particle is known as a “final particle” because it goes at the end of a sentence. 

Part of Speech +ka か Example
Noun N+ですか   高校生ですか
Kōkōsei desu ka?
Is…a high school student?
 Adjective Adj.+ですか   かわいいですか
Kawaii desu ka?
Is it cute?
 Adjectival NounAdj. N +ですか   可能ですか
Kanō desu ka?
 Verb Verb 連用形+ -ますか   変わりますか
Kawarimasu ka?

1. 休憩を取りますか。
Kyūkei wo torimasu ka?
Will you take a break?

2. 山田さんはどこですか。
Yamada-san wa doko desu ka?
Where is Mr./Mr(s). Yamada?

(O)namae wa nan desu ka? 
What is your name?

(O)tanjōbi wa itsu desu ka?
When is your birthday?

5. 試験はいつですか。
Shiken wa itsu desu ka? 
When is the exam(ination)?

6. 結婚式はいつですか。
Kekkonshiki wa itsu desu ka?
When is the wedding?

7. 行きます(か)?
Ikimasu (ka)?
Will you go?/Shall we go?

8. 趣味は何ですか。
Shumi wa nan desu ka?
What are your hobbies?

9. トイレはどこですか。
Toire wa doko desu ka?
Where is the bathroom?

10. 分かりますか。
Wakarimasu ka?
Do you follow/understand?

11. 分かりましたか。
Wakarimashita ka?
Have you got it?/Do you understand?

12. 違いますか。
Chigaimasu ka?
[Is it/Am I] wrong?

13. これは何なんですか。
Kore wa nan desu ka?
What is this?

14. サラダが嫌いですか?
Sarada ga kirai desu ka?
Do you hate salad?

15. あの人は山下さんですか。
Ano hito wa Yamada-san desu ka?
Is that person over there Mr./Mr(s). Yamashita?

16. 「お元気ですか」「はい、元気です」
“Ogenki desu ka” “Hai, genki desu.”
“How are you?” “I’m doing well.”
Literally: “Are you doing well?” “Yes, I’m doing well.”

Question Words 疑問詞

The majority of questions we make on a daily basis revolve around the words “who,” “what,” when,” “where,” “why,” and “how.” Japanese is similar in this regard, but because a lot more complexity is placed on things like politeness, tone, and purpose of the question, things can get tricky very quickly. Putting all that aside, the basic means of expressing these questions in Japanese are as follows:

  • Dare desu ka? だれですか ー Who is it? 
  • Nan desu ka? なんですか ー What is it?
  • Itsu desu ka? いつですか ー When is it?
  • Doko desu ka? どこですか ー Where is it?
  • Dōshite desu ka? どうしてですか ー Why is it?※
  • Dō desu ka? どうですか ー How is it?

In English, these question words can be used more than just to literally create a question. For instance, they may denote a subordinate clause like in “I forgot what I did yesterday.” They may also deviate further such as in “when I go to school” or “use this when you need help.’  These unique circumstances call for particular grammar to be used in Japanese, some of which involves more than the basics we’re going over now. You must first understand what exactly the Japanese words refer to in order to build upon them. 

  • Dare だれー “Who” as in an unknown someone.  
  • Nani なに ー “What” as in an unknown something.
  • Itsu いつ ー “When” as in an unknown time.
  • Doko どこ ー “Where” as in an unknown location.
  • Dōshite どうして ー “Why” as in an unknown reason.※
  • Dō どう ー “How” as in an unknown situation/means.

Form Note: The base pronunciation of 何 is nani, but when it is followed by です, its pronunciation changes to nan. 

※Another common word for “why” is naze なぜ. In polite speech, it’s very formal, but in plain speech, it can have a very stern tone. It’s usually best to stick to dōshite どうして until you are more familiar with nuancing your speech.

Languages don’t always exactly match in how question words are used figuratively. For instance, if you were to ask someone what part of your partner’s body do you find attractive, なに would not be used. Instead, どこ would be used because you are talking about a location on the body. Other instances of “what” overreach include the following two examples.

17. 住所はどこですか。
Jūsho wa doko desu ka?
What is your address?

18. どう思おもいますか。
Dō omoimasu ka?
What do you think (of it)?

Another important difference is that these words are ‘question words.’ Meaning, the word itsu いつ cannot be used to mean “when” as in “when I go to school.” In English, “when” happens to be used both as a regular time phrase and as a question word, but this is not the case in Japanese. 

「X+wa は+Y(Question Word)+ga が+ Z」という文型

When question words aren’t used as the predicate of the sentence, the differences between wa は and ga が become most apparent. Instead of seeing the question word at  the end of the sentence preceded by wa は, you see that the question word is now marked by ga が and that the question word is pinpointing information about the topic. Thus, it’s no longer a general question. 

iii. What is a pet?  → Question word at the end
iv. What would be good for a pet?  →  X wa Y (question word) ga Z

iii. and iv. illustrate how this grammatical difference works in English. iii. follows the same line of questioning seen in the previous section whereas iv. is indicative of the sorts of questions that will soon follow.  

All the question words discussed can be used as either nouns or adverbs except dō どう (how), which can only be used as an adverb. 

19. 座席はどこがいいですか。
Zaseki wa doko ga ii desu ka?
What seat(s) is/are good?
Literally: As for seat(s), where at is good?

20. いつ(が)都合がいいですか。
Itsu (ga) tsugō ga ii desu ka?
When will be convenient for you?
Literally: As for you, when is convenient?

Particle Note: Although itsu いつ can be used as a noun, this is not nearly as common, and so ga が is always optional after it. In this example sentence, tsugō ga ii 都合がいい is a set phrase meaning “convenient,” and because it is grammatically treated as a single adjective, two ga が become possible in the same clause.

21. 日本のどこが好きですか?
Nihon no doko ga suki desu ka?
What part of Japan do you like?
Literally: Where of Japan do you like?

22. 足のどこが痛いですか。
Ashi no doko ga itai desu ka?
What part of your leg hurts?/Where on your leg is it that hurts?
Literary: Where of your leg hurts?

23. お土産は何がいいですか。
Omiyage wa nani ga ii desu ka?
What would be good for souvenirs?
Literally: As for souvenirs, what is good?

O-nomimono wa nani ga ii desu ka?
What would you like to drink?

As you can see, the very fundamental pattern “X + wa は + Y + ga が + Z” affects question words the same way as any other words, but this also means you’ll have to pay some attention to nuance. Consider the difference between the two following sentences.

25. 社長は誰ですか。
Shachō wa dare desu ka?
Who is the company president?

The topic of conversation here is clearly the company president. The question is “who is he/she”? This sentence would be used when you are asking someone to identify who someone is, and the person doesn’t have to be there.

26. 誰が社長ですか?

Dare ga shachō desu ka?
Who is the company president?

As a standalone statement, 26. would catch a speaker off-guard as an odd question as more context is needed to justify why the questioner feels it’s necessary to pinpoint who the boss is. 

27. 問題は何ですか。
Mondai wa nan desu ka?
What’s the matter?

28. 何が問題ですか?
Nani ga mondai desu ka?
What is the problem?

Just as in English, the same sternness that this question possesses comes across in Ex. 28. Although both sentences could be translated as “what is the problem,” Ex. 27 is not as direct and is merely innocently asking the question at hand.

Basic Questions in Plain Speech  常体語における疑問文の作り方

The lack of desu です or -masu ます in forming questions in plain speech makes using ka か a little bit more tricky, largely because it’s not used at all. Rather, a phrase usually becomes a question in plain speech by the use of raised intonation.

29. 大丈夫?
Are you okay?

30. それは何?
Sore wa nani?
What is that?

31. あれはクモ?
Are wa kumo?
Is that a spider over there?

32. 上野公園はどこ?
Ueno kōen wa doko?
Where’s Ueno Park? 

When ka か is used, a few words of caution are needed. 

First, it does not attach to da だ like it does with desu です. The only time this is acceptable is when ka か is used to make subordinate clauses, which we’ll study in the next lesson. Therefore, da ka だか is wrong and must be changed to either ka か or dropped entirely. This means it will always attach straight to nouns and adjectival nouns without the copula intervening. 

Secondly, ka か is primarily used in this fashion by male speakers among friends and or toward people of lower status. When it is used out of these arenas, you create a question that shows no reservation/modesty toward the listener. As such, it is typically favored by men in very casual situations among each other or whenever they are speaking to people inferior to themselves. If this pattern is used toward someone who is not one’s friend nor someone who has a lower status that oneself, the question will create a tone that borders on interrogation, making the speaker sound like a pompous brute, to say the least. 

33. 大丈夫か?
Daijōbu ka?
You alright?

34. 君はあほか?
Kimi wa aho ka?
Are you stupid or something?

35. あんた、行くか?
Anta, iku ka?
You coming?

Tone Note: The use of Ex. 35 is largely restricted to men in coarse conversation. 

Say if the question isn’t directed at anyone, but instead, you’re talking to oneself or reacting to something and make a rhetorical question to that effect, then か loses its potency. As the following examples demonstrate, this applies to polite speech as well.

36. もう時間(です)か。
Mō jikan (desu) ka.
It’s already time, huh…

37. さ、行くか。
Sa, iku ka.
Well, time to go.

38. では、行きますか。
De wa, ikimasu ka.
Alright, time to go.

39. 雨、降ったか。
Ame, futta ka.

It rained, huh?

40. ああ、そうか。
Ā, sō ka.
Ah, really?/I see. 

Question Word+Da だ

In plain speech, when a question word is used as the predicate, the predicate/question word cannot be followed by the particle ka か in most sentences※. (exceptions exist in complicated scenarios). The reason for this is because adding か directly to a question word usually creates phrases involving “some…” To get around this, a speaker has two options. 

1. Don’t attach anything to the question word and use a rising intonation to indicate that it is a question.
2. Follow the question word with the copula verb da だ.

Option 2 is preferred by men, especially in casual conversation. It must be noted, though, that the tone created is meant to be stern, and an angry tone can easily make the question sound rude and demanding. 

For both options, speakers often add the particle yo よ to make the tone of the question more emphatic. As it is not what marks the sentence as a question, you can simply visualize it as a tack-on to the sentence. In the case of Option 1, the construction becomes feminized by the addition of yo よ as the sentence looks as if the more masculine da だ is omitted.  

41. 何だ、これ?
Nan da, kore ?
What the heck is this?

Sentence Note: This sentence is inverted, but reversing the predicate and subject like this is common in casual speech, especially with simple questions.

42. えっ、何よ!(Feminine)
Eh, nani yo!
Wh-what the heck?

43. 鍵はどこだ。
Kagi wa doko da? 

Where [is/are] the key(s)?

44. 鍵はどこだよ!
Kagi wa doko da yo!?
Where [is/are] the dang key(s)!? 

45. 君、どうしてだよ! 
Kimi, dōshite da yo!?

※There are highly specific scenarios in which you may find a question word as the predicate followed by ka か, but as the next two examples illustrate, they are always very philosophical and rhetorical and not intended to necessarily be answered directly by the listener.

46. 人生とは何か。

Jinsei to wa nani ka?
What exactly is life as a human?

47. ウクライナが侵攻されたのは何故か?
Ukuraina ga shinkō sareta no wa naze ka?
Why is it that Ukraine got invaded?