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I have been confused about when to use 나요 for polite questions, as opposed to just (어/아/여)요. Is there certain situations where 나요 is more appropriate to use, or is it just kind of random?

Someone I know was just telling me, and I quote, "-나요 is used for questions where the speaker does not mind the answer to be 'No' or 'I don't know': 이 기차가 어디로 가나요? - Would you happen to know where this train is going?"

Does this sound like an accurate summation, or is it wrong, or only part of the story here?

Thanks for any help! :)

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Korean: A Comprehensive Grammar links -나(요) to -ㄴ가(요)/-은가(요), with -나(요) being slightly more common for action (or as they call them, "processive") verbs. It is given the name "dubitative questions" there, which gives a hint as to how they are used. By making the speaker's attitude doubtful or dubious, it is softened (부드럽다) and so more amenable to all sorts of "polite", "professional", even "feminine" situations.

Hence I wouldn't disagree with the statement that -나(요) is used situations where there is high likelihood of a negative answer or an answer of "don't know". But I don't think it's a complete description.

There's another factor, where it is a question with a hint of "rumination", often but not exclusively used in self-directed questions. This fits neatly with its use in exclamations.

Hence in both these senses, it is quite like the English "I wonder" / "I was wondering" / "I've been wondering" appended to the end, despite the fact that in English people would rarely use such a phrase used in advertising.

I've noticed a tendency for -나(요) to be used for yes/no questions, possibly because it is definitely a interrogative as opposed to the standard -아/어(요) which relies a lot on intonation. However this is just a tendency, and definitely not set in stone. I surmise that it might be related to the fact that in 경상도 사투리 Gyeongsang-do dialect, -나 is one of the usual 반말 yes/no question markers, whilst -노 is its equivalent for open-ended questions. However I don't posit that there's been significant Gyeongsang-do dialect influence on standard Korean; rather they're both from Middle Korean roots.

  • I hate to have to choose just one answer here, my friends, but Michaelyus's succinct and clear style with scholarly references kind of takes the cake. – B. Alvn Feb 22 '17 at 16:05
  • Would you say, that if it is "dubitative," asking a personal question could come off rude if you aren't careful? Or at least could it be used that way? Something like "대학교에서 졸업했나요?" maybe shouldn't asked in a "dubitative" way because wouldn't that imply you think the person is uneducated...?? See what I mean? – B. Alvn Feb 22 '17 at 16:28
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    This is a very good answer, and I've upvoted it. However I believe both the contributor and @B.Alvn are drawing rather too much from the label 'dubitative.' If 하나요 carries 'I wonder' it could only do so by the tone. / As for 대학 졸업했나요 I don't see how in today's Korea this question can fail to offend (unless the person in question is 22 and may or may not have graduated yet). So taking 어제 부탁드린 일 끝냈나요? This will no more imply you doubt it than 끝냈어요? if the two are spoken in the same tone of straightforward inquiry. (If it helps you to evaluate the comment, this is native speaker intuition.) – Catomic Feb 23 '17 at 3:38
  • @Catomic Well the meaning of the word is "expressing or inclined to doubt or hesitation." so, umm, I'm trying to dig a bit deeper here. Perhaps that term isn't the best term. I should also add that "in today's Korea" there are still plenty of people well above 70 years of age from rural areas that certainly wouldn't have gone to a university, if even high school, or for that matter, a Confucian academy that still existed when they were young........so ummm....let's not forgot the older generation here, ok? :-D – B. Alvn Feb 23 '17 at 11:03
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Thing about Korean is that, besides the formality stuff, your desired tone and nuances can also determine what ending you use. For instance, if I were to ask where the train is going:

기차가 어디로 가요?
기차가 어디로 가나요?
기차가 어디로 갈까요?

All three forms are technically possible (I'll explain the 3rd one in a bit).

The difference between first and second is in your tone/nuance, not the meaning or setting. The first one is just an informal 존댓말 - you are asking someone who seems of your age but is a stranger. The second one means the same thing and can be used in identical situations, but delivers a "kinder" tone. The ending has a bit of feminine touch to it; I personally picture a kindergarten teacher talking to her students in this manner. (Adults sometimes use 존댓말 to babies for, I guess, educational purposes).

So there is no definite distinction between the first and second ending. There's no such situation in which you have to use 나요.

I added the third one there just to show how endings can carry more utilities than just "formal/informal settings." When you ask a question using ~까요, you're essentially assuming either of you don't know the question and is stirring up a discussion.

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    +1 for extending the comparison with 갈까요? – Catomic Feb 21 '17 at 1:45
  • My understanding of interrogatives in (으)ㄹ까(요) are that you are asking someone's "opinion" more or less, isn't that right? So that definitely seems very non-confrontational and soft..."In your opinion" or "Do you think" but would this really be typically used for a simple data request about a train? Seems more appropriate (I've long thought) for opinions with deeper answers, as you say, to start a discussion perhaps.. – B. Alvn Feb 22 '17 at 16:17
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    @B.Alvn No, typically one wouldn't start a discussion on the destination of the train he is in. I was just trying to stay within the same topic lol Though I guess it could be used in like a math problem per se. – spicypumpkin Feb 22 '17 at 17:53
  • @Posh_Pumpkin a math problem? huh? – B. Alvn Feb 23 '17 at 10:59
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    @B.Alvn Like ~까(요) could be used when asking about a train's destination in the context of a math problem. – spicypumpkin Feb 23 '17 at 17:56
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I reworked the answer. Deleted anything doubtful, confusing or not on point. Added a segment on 'generality.'


Doubt.

Upshot:

  • Both '하나요?' and '해요?' can be straightforward inquiry implying no expectation of the answer going one way or the other.
  • '해요?' is suitable for signaling an expectation or desire to confirm. (Note: This is nothing special about '해요?' Most forms of question are.) '하나요?' much less.
  • Thus, '해요?' would have a better claim to be called 'confirmatory' than '하나요?' has to 'dubitative.' (On this term of grammar, see the answer by Michaelyus.)

Example. In reference to some event you did not attend, either of

끝났어요? (Has it ended?)
끝났나요?

can be straightforward inquiry that signals nothing but your desire to know. You don't appear to think the answer would go one way or the other.

However, if people are streaming out of the conference room, and you are asking someone merely to confirm, you would say the first of:

끝났어요?
끝났나요?

Yes, you can force '끝났나요?' into that job by giving it the right tone, but it would not sound as good.

Therefore if '끝났나요?' is 'dubitative', it is not in always signaling doubt, but in being unsuitable for an expression of expectation or desire to confirm.


Another example on doubt.

Suppose you were somewhere and your sister was to join you shortly. You want to tell her to bring the car, but your mom answering the phone says she already left. Here, which of

차 갖고 갔어요? (Did she take the car?)
차 갖고 갔나요?

will come out may be 'random' for most people (barring e.g. subtle aesthetic preferences). In any event, neither would imply more doubt or expectation than the other.

But suppose your sister was in the habit of taking your car, and you suspect this has happened again. Barging in at the door you say to your mother:

걔 또 차 갖고 갔어요?
걔 또 차 갖고 갔나요?

Here you are far more likely to say the first.

(I have scrapped the bus driver example as raising unrelated questions.)


Generality.

Upshot:

  • Both '해요?' and '하나요? may refer to a particular person and event.
  • For generalities, '하나요?' is more likely.

Example. Either of

할아버지는 언제 결혼하셨어요? (Grandpa, when did you get married?)
할아버지는 언제 결혼하셨나요?

will be OK.

But of

조선시대에는 보통 몇 살에 결혼했어요?
조선시대에는 보통 몇 살에 결혼했나요? (In the Josun era, at what age did people generally marry?)

the latter sounds much better.

Don't let the reference to the Josun dynasty make you think this is a case of doubt. The question might be about some procedure. If you are asking some contractor how he handles an engineering situation, either of

이런 경우에는 주로 어떤 자재를 써요? (In this case, usually which material would be used?)
이런 경우에는 주로 어떤 자재를 쓰나요?

may do.

But if the question is about orthodoxy, then the second is more likely:

이런 경우에는 주로 어떤 자재를 써요?
이런 경우에는 주로 어떤 자재를 쓰나요?

Note: I may be condensing many variables into 'generality,' and more examples might bring out further subtleties.


A caveat.

You must not think that '하나?' is related to '하나요?' in the same way '해?' is to '해요?'

Between '해?' and '해요? (e.g. '갔어?' and '갔어요?') there is only the difference of familiarity or respect.

But '하나?' is wholly different from '하나요?'

'하나?' can be one of these three things (possibly others).

  • Expression of moderate respect. A mother-in-law might use it to address her son-in-law, or a professor a graduate student, and in old movies educated men each other.
  • A question spoken as if in soliloquy. Here it means something like (and is probably an elided version of), '하나 봐' or '하나 몰라.'
  • In poetry, something like exclamation.

I.e., just because you know when to say '했나요?' you cannot just drop '요' and get a familiar version.


-나요 and -가요.

These are equivalent, the choice depending only on phonetic considerations. I am placing them among certain possibly related forms for reference.

-나요

답이 맞다. (The answer is right--base form.)
답이 맞아. (The answer is right.)
답이 맞아요. (The answer is right.)
답이 맞아? (Is the answer right?)
답이 맞아요? (Is the answer right?)
답이 맞나 보다. (The answer seems right--base form; this sentence could have other meanings.)
답이 맞나 확인하다. (Null-subject ascertains whether the answer is right--base form.)
답이 맞나? (Is the answer right?)
답이 맞나요? (Is the answer right?)

-가요

개가 어리다. (The dog is young--base form.)
개가 어려. (The dog is young.)
개가 어려요. (The dog is young.)
개가 어려? (Is the dog young?)
개가 어려요? (Is the dog young?)
개가 어린가 보다. (The dog seems young--base form; this sentence could have other meanings.)
개가 어린가 확인하다. (Null-subject ascertains whether the dog is young--base form.)
개가 어린가? (Is the dog young?)
개가 어린가요? (Is the dog young?)

  • Are you theorizing that 나요 may be a contraction of 나 보다 (seems like) with 요 added for politeness? I think this makes sense...Because "does it seem like?" is not so committing of a question to answer. However, if this is the case, why would it have to be a question? In fact, 나 is sometimes used as a declarative ending, isn't it? – B. Alvn Feb 17 '17 at 10:47
  • No. A question and a statement. How can one be a contraction of the other? Notice that there is no 보다 in 했나요? It's more like That/whether the answer is right + 요. But I am not saying that this is what goes on in the mind of a native speaker. He does not have to analyze anything. – Catomic Feb 17 '17 at 10:51
  • Then I don't fully understand what you mean by "derives from" .. By "contraction" I simply mean that the 보다 part is removed, maybe unconsciously or from long-term repeated use, kind of thing... – B. Alvn Feb 17 '17 at 10:53
  • It's a speculation about a common origin from common morphology. This happens all the time. (If some language has similar looking indicative past and subjunctive present you can wonder about their potential common origin.) Maybe you should just forget my commentary, and try to get comfortable with what's in the yellow boxes, which is raw data. – Catomic Feb 17 '17 at 11:00
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    @B.Alvn I just want to comment on "나요" being a contraction of "나보다+요". It's not. "답이 맞나 봐요?" captures the tone and meaning of "답이 맞나 보다" better. It's basically saying, "The answer's correct, right?" On the other hand, "답이 맞나요?" means "Is the answer correct?" Do you see the difference? – spicypumpkin Feb 20 '17 at 23:05

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