嘛 (ma or má) is often used to indicate something obvious or self-evident, and there are several different ways of using 嘛 in a sentence
Though the character 嘛 shares the same sound of 吗 (ma), they serve a different purpose. Now, let’s discuss the use of 嘛.
嘛 as a sentence particle
In many cases, 嘛 appears as a sentence particle, which means that it often comes at the end of the sentence, like 吧 and 吗.
1. To say something is obvious
In English, the phrase “of course” has a similar function as 嘛 when it is used to indicate something that is obvious or self-evident.
嘛 is used when the speaker wants to emphasize that the statement is obviously the case, sometimes in response to what others have said. The following examples demonstrate how 嘛 is used in this case. You will see that the second speaker uses 嘛 in response to the first speaker:
Nǐ zěn me hái méi dào ā ？
Why are you still not here?
Sāi chē ma ！
Because there’s a traffic jam!
Nǐ zěn me bù hē kě lè ne ？
Why don’t you drink some Cola?
Duì shēn tǐ bù hǎo ma ！
It’s not good for health!
Tā zěn me zhè me wán pí ne ？
Why is he so naughty?
Hái xiǎo ma ！
He’s still young!
You can also use 嘛 in an independent statement to indicate that something is self-evident,for example:
Nǐ hěn cōng míng ma 。
You are so clever.
Zhè tiān hěn rè ma 。
It’s so hot.
Kǎo dé hái bú cuò ma 。
You did well in the exam.
We can see that it would be hard to find an equivalent of 嘛 in English. Usually, the tone of “stating the obvious” can have the same effect.
2. To expect or request
The word 嘛 can also be used to mark an expectation or request, and has a close relation to stating that something is obvious. 嘛 shows that the speaker considers something to be reasonable or totally expected. For example:
Mǎi gè dàn gāo gěi wǒ ma ！
Buy me a cake
Bié zǒu ma ！
Xiào yī gè ma ！
Bié jí ma ！
Qīn qīn wǒ ma ！
Give me a kiss!
3. 嘛 as a topic marker
嘛 is also used as a topic marke. Mandarin is a topic-prominent language, which often puts the topic first in a sentence, before anything else; the topic of the sentence is first stated, and then come the comments. Now, when 嘛 appears in this case, you will know that the topic is right before it.
If you don’t care to know about the topic or the comment of a sentence, don’t bother; you don’t need to know the terminology to speak a language well.
嘛 could be simply treated as a way of pausing for the speaker to think about what to say next, like using “well” in the sentence: "Well, I mean..."
The structure for this would simply be:
[topic] 嘛 [comment]
Some example sentences might make this clearer:
Tā ma ，yī zhí dōu shì nà yàng de 。
Him, he’s always like that.
Gàn huó ma ，nǎ yǒu bú lèi de 。
Working, is definitely tiring.
Wǒ shuō ma ， zěn me kě néng 。
I say, how is that possible.
4. To mean “what?”
In certain cases, 嘛 can also be used to mean “what?”. Here, we are going to look at some of the most common uses.
干嘛 is among the first phrases to learn when speaking Mandarin Chinese. It can mean, “What are you doing?” or could be used to question certain behaviors or actions. In either case, 干嘛 is rather casual and should not appear in formal situations.
First, let’s look at some examples of when 干嘛 simply asks “doing what?” The speaker is asking a question to get information:
Nǐ děng huì dǎ suàn gàn ma ？
What do you plan to do later?
Tā lái guǎng dōng gàn ma ？
Why did he come to Guangdong province?
Zhè wán yì gàn ma yòng de ？
What is this used for?
In the sentences above, 干嘛 is meant purely as a question rather than making any comment on a behavior or action. However, the following examples might indicate that the speaker finds the action or behavior to be annoying, incorrect or undesirable and wants to express this by using 干嘛:
Nǐ gàn ma lǎo chí dào ā ？
How can you always be late?
Dān xīn zhè xiē gàn ma ？
Why are you worrying about this?
Méi shì lǎo tí zhè gè gàn ma ？
What’s the point of mentioning it all the time?
You can easily tell the negative feeling indicated by these sentences. 干嘛 in these sentences implies an additional meaning of “Why?” or “What’s the point”. 干嘛 can also be used on its own to indicate that the speaker thinks something is not right or is questionable:
What (on earth) are you doing?
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