第???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?

28. 憲法(けんぽう)はどう勉強(べんきょう)すればいい?
How should I study the constitution?

Technically, however, なんで is a valid pronunciation for this purpose, and there are speakers who use it to mean as such. It is not the case, though, that most speakers use it this way. This is because なんで usually means “why?” Yet, this is still covered in most materials directed at foreigners, erroneously as a ubiquitous usage with this exact reading.

As to why なんで seldom replaces なにで, the reason can simply be explained by the simpler pronunciation. As to when this replacement happens, means of transportation is the usual circumstance. Its use is meant to simply and innocently ask by what means of transportation the listener travels from Point A to Point B.


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.

Again, though, なにで would be most common. 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.

30. なにで()たの?
How’d you get here?

31. どうやって()たの?
How did you come?

Sentence Note. In Ex. 31, 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. 30.

32. なにを使(つか)って()たの?
What did you use to come here?

Sentence Note: In Ex. 32, 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-aleck 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.

33. 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?).

34. いつ()ますか。
When do you go to sleep?

35. 何時間寝(なんじかんね)ますか。
How many hours do you sleep?

36. 何時(なんじ)()ますか。
What time do you go to sleep?

37. 会議(かいぎ)はいつ()わりますか。
When does the meeting end?

38. 今日(きょう)何時(なんじ)(かえ)るの?
What time will you return home today?

39. 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?

40. 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.

41. 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?

42. (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 a very old ramen commercial which would air on TV. As you can see, when なんどき is used not to literally ask for the time, but to ask “what time is it” as in what’s supposed to be going on. This, in normally conversation, would be conveyed with the phrase どの時.

43. 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.

44. (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…”

45. 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.