April 11, 2024

When to Use なん and なに for 何 (What?!)

When 何 is なに and when it is なん

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One of the most useful questions words is なに or なん.



Both are pronunciations of the kanji 何 and both mean "what". So, how do you know which pronunciation to use?

Quick and Dirty Tip for なん

Remembering Tip:

That Darn Nan

Pronounce (なん) as なん if it comes before counters and any word beginning with T, D, or N (Hence the “That Darn Nan”). For the most part, everything else is pronounced なに. If this sounds too complicated to bother with it, just learn examples and you'll eventually get it.  



What is it?

[It is なん because it is before a "D" sound.]


How do you say that in English?              

[It is なん because it is before a "T" sound.]

This is a good rule, but here are a few other "なん rules" that come into play.

■ なん: Pronounce (なん) as なん before counters and when asking the day of the week.


how many times [Before a counter.]


how many pages (of paper) [Before a counter.]


what time [Before a counter (() is the counter for time)]


what day of the week [The exception before a noun.]

In general, なん is easier to pronounce than なに before certain sounds due to phonetic ease.

■ なに

Pronounce (なに) as なに if it is by itself or before a particle (except which would be (なん)で). Also pronounce it as なに if before a noun (except when asking what day of the week).


What?! [By itself.]


What do you like? [Before a particle.]


What color do you like? [Before a noun that doesn’t begin with a T, D, or N.]


(I) don't want anything. [Before a particle.]

While these rules will get you most of the way, you will encounter exceptions and variations, especially in less formal speech or regional dialects.

Other Forms:


nothing; not any [Takes a negative verb.]

(なに)()かりません。I don't understand anything.



(なに)()みますか? Would you like something to drink?


anything; whatever; any

(なん)でもいいです。Anything is fine.


Why? What for?

 (なん)()なかったの? Why didn't you come?


  • (なん) what  
  • です be; is
  • か (question marker)
  • 英語(えいご)では in English [英語(えいご) (English (language)); で (in); は (adds emphasis)]
  • (なん)という how do (you) say; what [(なん) (what); という (called; named; that says)]
  • のですか (question marker) [gives more emphasis on the wh-question and is used to request a clearer or more precise answer]
  • (なに) what
  • が (expresses the subject of the predicate)
  • ()き liking; being fond of; to one's liking; to one's taste; preferred; favourite
  • (なに)(いろ) what color
  • (なに)もほしくない (I) don't want anything [(なに)も ((not) anything; (nothing) at all; (not) any); ほしくない (don't want; plain negative form of ほしい (wanting (to have); desiring))]
  • ()かりません (I) don't understand [polite negative form of ()かる (to understand; to comprehend; to grasp)]
  • (なに)か something; some; any
  • ()みます to drink [ます-form is the polite form of Japanese verbs]
  • (なん)でもいい anything is fine; it doesn't matter what [an expression; (なん)でも (any; anything; whatever); いい (good; fine)]
  • ()なかった didn't come [plain negative past form of ()る (to come)]
  • の (question marker)

Practice Exercises

Finally, take a short quiz to see if you can separate these core counters.

Sharing is caring!

  • There is one use of 何 that follows the rule but always catches me, and I often see in polite email, but wish I had been told about many years ago, so I would remember it: 何どうぞ (何卒) , and it is just a polite version of どうぞ!

    • Ah, you found an exception! It is followed by a “D” sound which should make it なん. Thanks for mentioning that.

  • I do this intuitively but it was really nice to have the general rule laid out. Thank you for this delightful little lesson.

    • Yes! I did the same thing. After memorizing and using words for a time it becomes natural but being familiar with the “rules” might help solidify things.

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