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The Different Meanings Behind “What do you mean?” in Chinese

Jan. 22, 2021

The Different Meanings Behind “What do you mean?” in Chinese (pt. 1)

As with English, there are a few different ways you could express this phrase, depending on the situation, your intention, how familiar/formal you want to be, etc. Here are some common ways, most of which are variations on a common theme. Also note that the majority of these, as in English, can convey quite different feelings, depending on the intonation or tone of voice you use.

First an important vocabulary word:

意思(yìsi):n. meaning

Example:

nǐ shuō zhè huà shì shénme yìsi?
你说这话是什么意思
What do you mean by this?

zhè jù shī de yìsi shì zhǐ yǒu zhàn de gāo cái néng kàn de yuǎn
句诗的意思是只有站得高才能看得远
This poem means that you can see far only by standing tall.

1.你的意思是什么?

Let’s start with the most basic one way to ask someone “What do you mean?”

你的意思是什么(nǐ de yìsi shì shénme)?

HSK 3测验

This is probably the most direct translation of the question from English to Chinese. As with the English expression, “你的意思是什么 (nǐ de yìsi shì shénme)?” can be used in a wide range of situations, which also means that it’s hard to imbue this sentence with any special emotion.

Example:

A: nǐ zhīdào wǒ de yìsi ma ?
A:你知道我的意思吗?
A: Do you know what I mean?

B: bù zhīdào , nǐ de yìsi shì shénme ?
B:不知道,你的意思是什么?
B: I don’t know, what do you mean?

A: méi yìsi .
A:没意思。
A: It’s boring.

2. 你这是什么意思?(nǐ zhè shì shénme yìsi?)

HSK 3测验

Next up, the “这 (zhè)” in this sentence brings some focus into the question, as it asks pointedly “What do you mean by THIS?” You might find this expression in the margin comments of a piece of writing that’s been edited, but in spoken Chinese it’s used to ask the person to address the question directly. Depending on your own temperament, you can add an edge, or some aggression, to it (if that’s your thing).

Example:

A: nǐ gěi wǒ zǒu kāi .
A:你给我走开。
A: Go away.

B: nǐ zhè shì shénme yìsi ?
B:你这是什么意思?
B: What do you mean?

A: wǒ xiàn zài bù xiǎng kàn jiàn nǐ 。
A: 我现在不想看见你。
A: I don’t want to see you now.

3. 你什么意思?(nǐ shénme yìsi?)

HSK 3测验

This is sort of the equivalent of “What do you mean?” Unless you have a neutral facial expression and tone in your voice, this will probably be taken as slightly aggressive. It’s a sharper retort, telling the other person to clarify what they mean (“Like, right now!”).

It’s possible they weren’t clearly expressing themselves, or maybe you want to make sure whether or not they’re insulting you — this meaning will vary slightly depend on the context and content of the conversation.

Example:

A: zhè gè shìqíng nǐ jiù bāng wǒ zuò le ba , jǐnguǎn yǐjīng máfán nǐ wǔ cì le .
A:这个事情你就帮我做了吧,尽管已经麻烦你五次了。
A: Do this for me, even though I have already bothered you five times.

B: shénme yìsi? wǒ méi tīng cuò ba! yòu yào wǒ zuò shénme?
B:什么意思?我没听错吧!又要我做什么?
B: What do you mean? I heard it right! What do you want me to do again?

4. 什么意思?(shénme yìsi?)

HSK 3测验

An even sharper, more colloquial version of the previous expression. Don’t believe it? Well, note the fact that the “你() you” has been dropped. Again, depending on your tone or context, this can show emotions ranging from pure confusion to a more threatening-questioning vibe.
An English translation might be, “What’s that?” with an edge to your voice; on the other end of the spectrum, it can also convey a, “Huh?” feeling, meaning that you totally don’t get what the other person is saying.
Example 1:
wǒ bù míngbái zhè gè dāncí shì shénme yìsi.
我不明白这个单词是什么意思。
I don’t understand what this word means.

Example 2:
A: zúqiú tài wúliáo le , bú yào kàn zhè chǎng bǐsài le .
A: 足球太无聊了,不要看这场比赛了。
A: Football is so boring, don’t watch this game.

nǐ shì shénme yìsi? nǐ dǒng zú qiú ma ?
B: 你是什么意思?你懂足球吗?
B: What do you mean? Do you understand football?

All of these not enough for you? Well, how about you test your knowledge with the quiz below, and keep an eye out for Part 2 of The Different Meanings Behind “What do you mean?” in Chinese!

Make sure to leave you answers and comments below!

HSK 3测验
What of the expressions you learned today is the most neutral, straightforward way to ask someone what they mean?
A. 你什么意思?
B. 你这是什么意思?
C. 什么意思?
D. 你的意思是什么?

You May Want to Learn More:
“An “Interesting” Explanation of “有趣(yǒuqù)” and “有意思(yǒuyìsi)””,
“How to Use Chinese Interrogatives – Take This HSK Quiz”
A Chinese Idiom of Triviality Everyone Needs to Know”

HSK 1测验

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