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I would like to know if there is a shift in nuance in questions such as these:

誰が参加したんですか。 vs. 誰が参加しましたか。

いつ着いたんですか。 vs. いつ着きましたか。

I wish to limit discussion to only non-yes/no questions (so questions asking Who? When? Where? Why? and so on). I have read a paper (PDF) which states that adding ~のか indicates that the asker's feelings of wanting to know the answer are stronger, and that it puts more of a burden of responding on the askee. Can anyone confirm or contradict this?

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In my undestanding, using 辞書形+んです〜 is more polite than ます形〜, so it could be that the more politely you ask, answerers would probably have some burden or strong feelings. So I would say that's correct. –  YOU Jun 3 '11 at 14:09
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

の/ん often indicate that the speaker is attempting to explain or account for some fact. This can connect the question to a previous statement made by the addressee.

For example:

A: (Wow, some of the people who participated in the tournament were really good!)
B: 誰が参加したんですか。

Here B would like to know which people inspired A to make that statement.

A: (I got to this party so early that the host looked at me funny.)
B: いつ着いたんですか。

B wants to know how early A was to the party, thus explaining why the host looked at her funny.

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This sounds good, but in response I have to ask, "Why not just use the simple ~ます form + か?" Clearly both versions show what you want to know, but I'm trying to get at what (if anything) is added or changed by the んですか form. In your examples, would it be unnatural (or maybe "less fluid" is better?) to revert to しましたか or 着きましたか? How do you know which form to use? –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 20:34
Ah, sorry. Yes, you could use the simple ~ます form + か above, but as you said, it feels less fluid. It sounds like you're changing the subject, or like you're not interested in knowing more about what the addressee just said. –  Amanda S Jun 3 '11 at 20:41
So based on that, you would support the proposition that ~んですか shows a higher level of interest and/or concern on the part of the asker? –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 21:31
In these cases I would say that ~んですか shows a normal level of interest and/or concern, and ~ますか shows an abnormal lack of interest. (Though there are time when that is more polite. Sometimes it might be rude to imply that your question follows from what the other person said, even if it actually does.) –  Amanda S Jun 3 '11 at 21:52
But again, の/ん's main purpose is to connect your question to the previous statement, continuing the conversation. You can interpret that as showing a higher level of interest and/or concern, but I think it's more "showing a minimum level of interest." :) –  Amanda S Jun 3 '11 at 21:57
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I can give four nuances here, from lightest to most severe.


(1) Light feeling of enquiry.


(2) Basically the same as (1), but with more intimacy.


Is a bit remorseful…


A pressing, extorting nuance.

I'll try adding more if I ever find out!

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What I was taught

I was taught that the んです form in statements (not questions) emphasized the preceding predicate as shared information. My interpretation of this is that when you're using んです to make a statement, you're acknowledging that the person you're talking to is in a group for which the information is appropriate.

This can be subtle. A particular example the teacher mentioned was an upper level student commenting to her that the new students were quite good this year. But since he used the んです construction, she felt slightly insulted. In this case, it wasn't shared information. As the teacher, it was her information.

In the case of yes/no questions, this variation implies that the statement is true, and you're just verifying it.

In the case of non-yes/no questions, the construction can be seen as emphasizing the "concreteness" of the question.

My rough translation: "It is [the case] that"

My personal interpretation, that has worked fairly well for me, is to interpret it as some variation on the phrase "it is that".

In statements, "it is the case that..." can carry roughly the same nuance, although that may just be my personal speech pattern in English.

In yes/no questions, "Is it the case that..." works fairly well as a reflection of both the heightened formality and increasing concreteness.

In non-binary questions, "is it that" often works, "itsu tsukimashita" (When did X arrive?) becomes (When is it that X arrived?). "Who joined?" -> "Who is it that joined?".

EDIT: Modified a few things and clarified that one of my statements was at best a guess.

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Thank you for your answer. I don't agree that んです acknowledges that the person you're talking to already knows the information. (I have my own slew of thoughts on the ~のだ construction, but that's best left for another question.) Regarding "is it that", I'm not quite sure I follow you. If you want to place focus on the interrogative word (which is what "is it that" seems to do), would it not sound more natural to say 「着いたのはいつですか。」? –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 17:41
@Derek: Perhaps "already knows" is the wrong way to say it. Maybe "is in the group of people who have a right to know this information" (is in the appropriate group). –  jkerian Jun 3 '11 at 17:47
That's an interesting hypothesis. I'm still not sure I agree with you on ~んです, but what I'm most interested in finding out with this question is the function of ~んですか. I would certainly welcome further details and/or examples for that specific part of your answer. –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 18:19
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のか is an abbreviation for のですか (んですか spoken) It's a rather manly expression very colloquial.

I haven't read the paper, so I'll base my comment on what you got out of it:

-It's doesn't put any burden on the askee other than the lack of respect it shows. (unless you talk to a friend in which case it's just a friendly expression)

I don't see myself asking a japanese colleague (and even less someone I don't know well):

ひるめし食べたのか? (more feminine version using simply の without か)

The use of ~のです instead of ます is not a question of more or less polite. I believe the の insists on the action or result expressed by the preceding verb. It feels natural and still polite in oral conversations

the masu form is simply formal, without any additional feeling to it.

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[ひるめし食べたのか? (more feminine version using simply の without か)] If it were feminine at all, they wouldn't use ひるめし。 –  istrasci Jun 3 '11 at 14:26
oh yeah, I'm old school. ランチ、お昼 if you prefer. (but the point is made) –  repecmps Jun 3 '11 at 14:32
This is off-topic, but I should point out that 食べたの? is not strictly feminine. In yes/no questions, the の often indicates that the asker has reason to believe the answer is yes. For instance, in response to hearing someone say 「大変!窓が…!」, 「割れたの?」 is gender-neutral. The の shows that the asker has surmised, based on the first line, that the likely cause for 「大変!」 is that the window is broken. Without the の, no hint as to what the asker suspects is provided. But I don't see how this transfers (if it does) to non-yes/no questions, which is why I'd like to stick to those. –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 14:41
@Derek: I wholeheartedly disagree. –  repecmps Jun 4 '11 at 1:30
@Derek Schaab: Ok. First, I thought I had deleted my comment seconds after submitting it because it was a little excessive. It somehow reappeared. Second, I wouldn't base my grammar knowledge on a listening practice CD, wherever it came from, because you practice only that: listening. That being said, anyone can use の、 わ、ね、よ or whatever. It doesn't make them a girl. The point is の is considered to be a little more feminine/reserved than のか or nothing at all. Does that make sense? –  repecmps Jun 6 '11 at 2:02
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