What & When

第144課: What & When

In this lesson, we will take a second yet closer look at the words for “what” and “when.” This time, we will look at how to express these words outside of polite speech, in which case some variation will have to be taken into consideration.


When looking up “what” in plain speech, most people will be find that the expression is なんだ. As you can see, なに becomes なん. This is because /ni/ becomes /n/ to make pronunciation easier. This causes some problems, but for now, let’s see how なんだ is used.

1. なんだ?
What (do you want/is it)?

Sentence Note: Ex. 1 would most likely be said by a male speaker. All by itself, なんだ shows irritation at someone.

2. なんだよ!
What the heck!

Sentence Note: Ex. 2 also shows irritation, which is amplified with the use of the particle よ. With that being the case, this isn’t a literal question.

Of course, we already know that なん is the form you use in polite speech. This is simply because です also starts with /d/. 

3. 趣味しゅみなんですか。
What are your hobbies?

4. お仕事しごとなんですか。
What is your job?

5. かみ王国おうこくとはなんですか。
What is “God’s kingdom”?

Grammar Note: The use of とは is mean to seek a definition of what precedes it.

When not used in isolation, なんだ isn’t limited to irritated responses. Rather, the question tends to be philosophical. They also tend to be more commonly stated this way in the written language, but you can imagine sentences like Ex. 4 being spoken in slightly dramatic soliloquies.

6. 人間にんげんとはなんだ。
What is mankind?

Another neat phrase that utilizes なん instead of なに is なんぞや. This utilizes pretty old grammar, which means most people typically only use it when they’re purposely trying to sound old-fashioned, but it can also be seen in things like textbooks to draw attention to a topic. For instance, if you see a heading that says “What is biochemical engineering?” you might see this used.

7. われとはなんぞや。
What am I?

Word Note: Keep in mind that 我 is the original word meaning “I” in Japanese and is still occasionally used in purposely old-fashioned expressions such as in Ex. 7.

In isolation, 何 is how “what” is usually expressed in casual expressions. Kids and female speakers tend to drag out the /a/, resulting in な~に, but this isn’t common in male speech. なんなの, however, tends to show up as well. This adds more emphasis to getting an explanation for “what” something is.

Of course, as a regular noun that can take on any case particles, you use なに. At the end of a sentence, it is rarely followed by the particle か. When it is, the question sounds as if it is a part of narration or the title of some discussion in some form of presentation/writing.

8. お土産みやげなにがいいですか。
What would be good for souvenirs?

9. あれってなに
What is that?

10. 津波つなみとはなにか。
What is a tsunami?

With some particles, なに may emphatically alternatively become なんに with certain particles, particularly も. However, it’s also important to note that the combination にでも causes なに to become なん most of the time (as seen in Ex. 12). 

11. いや、な(ん)にもない。
Oh, no, it’s nothing.

12. なんにでもれるよ。
You can become anything.

In compounds, なん and なに are used in fundamentally different situations. なん is used with counter phrases to mean “how many…” なに is used to mean “what kind…” There is one exception in particular that must be noted, which is何曜日 (what day of the week?). Although its traditional reading is なにようび, it is most frequently pronounced asなんようび. This is because most speakers find this reading easier to pronounce. Now, let’s return to the main difference between these two readings with the following examples.

13. 全部ぜんぶ何色なんしょくありますか。
In total, how many colors are there?

14. デンマークの国旗こっきは、2色使しょくつかわれている。
As for the national flag of Denmark, two colors are used.

15. 何色なにいろのペンキをったらいいですか。
What color paint should I buy?

16. 何色なにいろえますか。
What color does it look like?

17. 日本にほんには全部ぜんぶ何県なんけんありますか。
In total, how many prefectures are there in Japan?

Phrase Note: Most people will answer this question by giving the number of prefectures that are actual 県, not those that are 都道府.

18. 竹島たけしま何県なにけんにありますか。
What prefecture is Takeshima in?

19. 何部なにぶ所属しょぞくしてるの?
What club/department do you belong to?

20. 何部なんぶくらいつくればいいですか。
About how many copies should I make?

21. かれ何人なにじんですか。
What nationality is he?

22. 兄弟きょうだい何人なんにんいますか。
How many siblings do you have?

なにで vs なんで

One rather difficult challenge presented by “what” that confuses students is the difference between なにで and なんで. The use of the particle で here is used to show means/method/composition. In this sense, なにで is almost always the reading used.

23. 口紅くちべにいろはなにでまる?
What determines the color of lipstick?

24. このジュースってなにでつくったの?
What did you make this juice with?

25. つめなに出来できているの?
What are nails made of?

26. 入試にゅうし漢字かんじは、なにで勉強べんきょうすればいいですか。
What should I use to study with for the Kanji that appear in the entrance exam?

27. 構文こうぶんなに勉強べんきょうすればいいんでしょうか。
What should I use to study with for sentence structure? 

Pronunciation Note: なにで may alternatively be replaced with なんで. However, most speakers avoid this as なんで typically means “why?” Although なんで seldom replaces なにで, it does occasionally happen in contexts regarding transportation.


Sakai: Mr. Sadamura, when will you be going to the Yokohama office?
Sadamura: I’m going on Wednesday.
Sakai: [By what means/how] will you be going?
Sadamura: I’m going by plane.

As for other means to say “how,” there is a caveat to using なにで over the usual どうやって or some other expression. As stated above, it simply asks by what means someone travels. The answer shouldn’t describe manner.

29. なにでたの?
How’d you get here?

30. どうやってたの?
How did you come?

Sentence Note. In Ex. 30, the question is open-ended enough for the listener to respond with something like “by camouflaging myself,” which would be an inappropriate response to Ex. 31.

31. なにを使つかってたの?
What did you use to come here?

Sentence Note: In Ex. 31, the question is out-of-place as a typical question one would ask in Japanese, but if you were to ask this to someone, you would inevitably get a smart-alecky reply on the lines of “by using my legs.” 

In the same vein of thought, even when a verb primarily used for movement is used in a different sense, なにで・なんで can be seen, again, with なにで being most preferred.

32. さて、何できますか。
Alright, what will we go with?


The three expressions that you will need to pay most attention to not confuse are いつ (when?), 何時 (what time?), and 何時間 (how many hours?).

33. いつますか。
When do you go to sleep?

34. 何時間寝なんじかんねますか。
How many hours do you sleep?

35. 何時なんじますか。
What time do you go to sleep?

36. 会議かいぎはいつわりますか。
When does the meeting end?

37. 今日きょう何時なんじかえるの?
What time will you return home today?

38. 人類じんるい火星かせいぎょうけるようになるのはいつだろうか。
When will mankind become able to go to Mars, I wonder?

39. いつのにかねむんでいた。
I had fallen asleep before I knew it.

Phrase Note: いつの間にか is a set phrase meaning “before one knows it.”

Aside from these three basic expressions, there are also the phrases いつ頃 (about when?) and いつなんどき (at any moment). As you can see, the latter comes from an emphatic version of いつ, which isn’t really used in literal questions. However, you may notice that it peculiarly has なんどき in it, which does happen to be an old-fashioned variation of 何時. This is rarely used outside the phrase いつなんどき, but if you do see it elsewhere, the context will be very specialized.

40. いつ頃完成ごろかんせいしますか。
About when will it be completed/you will complete it?

41. いまなんどきですか。はい、ラーメンどきよ!
What time is it? It’s ramen time!

Sentence Note: This was a line to an old ramen commercial on TV. As you can see, when なんどき is used to ask “what time is it” as in what’s supposed to be going on. This, in normal conversation, would be conveyed by どの時.

42. いつなんどき必要ひつようになるかも分からない。
I also have no clue when it’ll become needed.

43. (何時)何時事故じこわないともかぎらない。
It is not necessarily the case that you will never get into an accident.

Spelling Note: When written in 漢字, いつなんどき usually becomes いつ何時, but it may also be written as 何時何時.

Grammar Note: ~とも限らない is a verbal expression that follows adjectives/verbs to indicate “it is not necessarily that…”

44. 水分補給すいぶんほきゅうはいつなんどきでもわすれないでください。
Don’t ever forget to be hydrated.