In Chinese, we use informal interjections in many situations before we start a sentence: to show surprise or to get someone's attention, or we even use them to make an answer.

Some words may be confusing to non-native Chinese speakers. For example, if a boss asks a staff member: “Do you understand what I just said?” They may reply: “Mmm” (嗯 en), which is interpreted as “Yes, most certainly” in Chinese.

To non-native speakers though, it may be interpreted as an overly casual and therefore disrespectful answer. Let's look at some more examples here to help you better understand something of both the unique nuances in the Chinese language and of our people.

Before we continue, please note:

1. The informal interjections don’t have any practical meanings.

2. The tone of informal interjections changes according to the situation.

3. The tone of each character is shown in the pinyin. The tone of voice you should use is described in brackets, for example: [NEUTRAL (NEITHER POSITIVE NOR NEGATIVE) TONE]


1. 啊(a)

a. 啊(á) To question and remind someone to repeat what one just said. 


e.g.: 啊?刚才你说什么?我没听见。

á? Gāngcái nǐ shuō shénme? Wǒ méi tīngjiàn.

(What? What did you say? I didn't hear you.)

This situation may be for hard-of-hearing individuals or for those who did not pay attention to the dialogue.


b. 啊(á~) To express surprise and communicate disbelief.


e.g.: 啊?不可能吧?李庆怎么可能没及格呢?


á~? Bù kěnéng ba? Li qìng zěnme kěnéng méi jígé ne?

(What? That can't be possible! How could Lee Qing have failed his exam?)

We say á here when we are shocked by some incredible news.


c. 啊(a~) To praise, especially in poem.


e.g.: 啊,我美丽的祖国!


a~, wǒ měilì de zǔguó!

(Oh, my beautiful homeland!)

It appears a lot in poems, to praise our homeland or the beautiful scenery.


2. 哎(ai)

a. 哎(ái) To express being surprised to see somebody.


e.g.: 哎,你怎么来了?


ái, nǐ zěnme láile?

(Hey, what a surprise you came!)

When we meet someone we didn’t expect to see, we communicate surprise or excitement by exclaiming ái to demonstrate this emotion.


b. 哎(ài) To command someone’s attention.


e.g.: 哎,你看那人,真有意思!


ài, Nǐ kàn nà rén, zhēn yǒu yìsi!

(Hey, look at that guy, he is so interesting!)

When we see something/somebody interesting, or we want to attract someone’s attention, we say ài. Sometimes, we even use ài instead of calling someone known to us by name. Finally, we may use ài to let a stranger know we are speaking to them. While non-native speakers may interpret this as a somewhat rude, “Hey you!”, it is actually not regarded as such, and is acceptable among native speakers.


3. 唉(ai)

a. 唉(ài~) To answer someone’s call.


e.g.: 唉,我这就来!等等我!


ài~, wǒ zhè jiù lái! Děng děng wǒ!

(Yes, I’m coming right now! Wait for me!)

When it’s time to go, because we are in a rush, or parents are calling their children for lunch, we might answer with ài in a loud voice.


b. 唉(ai~) To sigh.


e.g.: 唉,你说我该怎么办呢?家里没钱供三个孩子读书。


ai~, nǐ shuō wǒ gāi zěnme bàn ne? Jiālǐ méi qián gōng sān gè háizi dúshū.

(Alas, tell me what I can do? I can’t afford to put three kids through school.)

When we’re in big trouble like a large loss from economic crisis, or when children don’t follow their parents’ wishes and keep getting in trouble in school, and we can’t do anything to solve it, we say ai to express the feeling that we really want to change the situation, but there is really no solution.


4. 哎呀/哎哟(ai ya/ai yo)

a. 哎呀 / 哎哟 (āi ya / āi yo) To express anxiety or astonishment.


e.g.: 哎呀/哎呦,我外套忘家里了,怎么办?
āi ya/āi yo, Wǒ wàitào wàng jiālǐ le, Zěnme bàn?
(Gosh, I left my coat at home, what am I gonna do?)

When we forget something or see something in harm’s way, we exclaim 哎呀! or 哎呦! to tell others what is going on.


b. 哎呀 / 哎哟 (ài ya / ài yo) To express impatience.


e.g.: 哎呀/哎呦,你烦死了。走远点。


ài ya/ài yo, nǐ fán sǐle. Zǒu yuǎn diǎn.

(Hey, you bother me. Go away.)

When we are bothered by something or somebody, we say ài ya or ài you, trying to make annoying people or things go away and leave us alone.


5. 噢(ao)

噢(ao) To show comprehension and to respond.


e.g.: 噢,我下次不会再犯这样的错了。


ao, Wǒ xià cì bù huì zàifàn zhèyàng de cuòle.

(All right, I won’t make such a mistake again.)

When we are scolded by our seniors: teachers, parents or boss, or people who are trying to tell us it’s not the right way to do something, we answer with ao.

Image by Tetsumo (CC by 2.0)