“何 (What)” – “なに” vs “なん”

“何 (What)” – “なに” vs “なん”

The English question word “what” is usually written as 何 in Kanji but sometimes it is pronounced as “なに” and other times as “なん”. Many people seem to think it’s random but there is a pattern, so today I will explain when it is “なに” and when it is “なん.”

Rule #1: When 何 is used on its own (i.e. followed by a particle or an auxiliary verb)

When it is used by itself, the default is “なに,” but when it is followed by one of the following 2, it changes to “なん”.

  • ~です
  • ~の
  • ~と
JapaneseひらがなEnglish Translation
何を食べますかなにをたべますか    What would you eat?
何が好きですかなにがすきですかWhat do you like?
何ですか。なんですか (followed by です)What is it?
何の本ですか。なんほんですか (followed by の)What book is it?
何といいますかなんいいますか (followed by と)What is it called?

Rule #2: When 何 is part of a word (i.e. followed by another kanji character)

Apart from 何月, 何日 and 何曜日 mentioned below, if what is being asked is

  • about the nature of the item (i.e. “what colour, what flavour, etc”) it is pronounced as “なに,”
  • about the number of the items (“how many …)” it is read as “なん”.
Japaneseひらがな    English Translation
何味のアイスクリームが好きですか。なにあじのあいすくりーむがすきですか。What flavour icecream do you like? – asking about the nature
何歳ですか。なんさいですか。How old are you? – asking about the number

There are some tricky phrases like 何人.

There are some tricky phrases where depending on the context, the pronunciation and its meaning change like below.

JapaneseひらがなEnglish Translation
ジョンさんは何人ですか。じょんさんはなにじんですか。What nationality is John?
何人いますか。なんにんいますか。How many people are there?
ジョンさんは何語を話しますか。じょんさんはなにごをはなしますか。What language does John speak?
何語ありますか。なんごありますか。How many words are there?
何色が好きですか。なにいろがすきですか。What colour do you like?
何色使いましたか。なんしょくつかいましたか。How many colours did you use?

Exceptions to the Rule #2

The following words are exception to Rule #2. Even though they are not asking the quantity, 何 is pronounced なん.

JapaneseひらがなEnglish Translation
何月ですか。なんがつですか。What month is it?
何日ですか。なんにちですか。What date is it?
何曜日ですか。なんようびですか。What day (of the week) is it?

For more beginners’ study material, please visit JLPT N5 Grammar and JLPT N5 Kanji pages.

4 thoughts on ““何 (What)” – “なに” vs “なん”

  1. Reply
    Nancy Wood
    2 May 2022 at 12:33 am

    This was very helpful and concise. Thank you!

    1. Reply
      2 May 2022 at 10:02 am

      Thank you for taking time to leave a comment!

      1. Reply
        30 May 2022 at 5:29 pm

        Thank you for explaining it so well!

  2. Reply
    Question words | EasyJapaneseE
    3 August 2021 at 6:40 pm

    […] *For the difference between なん and なに, see this post. […]

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