The 是…的 (shì…de) construction in Chinese grammar
是…的is a very common and important structure in Mandarin Chinese grammar. It’s essential for any student of Chinese to learn and be familiar with, and comes up constantly in written and spoken Chinese.
There are two key things to note about the 是…的 construction:
- It’s used to emphasize a detail in a sentence.
- 是…的 sentences are usually about past events.
Most beginner’s Chinese textbooks and courses place a lot of emphasis on the 是…的 construction because it’s so common. This is good as everyone should learn it.
As with all grammar, though, remember not to get lost in memorising ‘rules’ and set structures. The more Chinese you read and listen to, and the more you practice, the more natural these structures will become. That’s always the best way to learn.
As you can see in the name of this structure, something goes in between 是 and 的! Whatever goes in between those two words is the thing that will be emphasized or focused on in the sentence. So in the most basic way, the 是…的 structure is simply this:
是[thing to be emphasized] 的
But how do you use that in a sentence? The full structure is as follows (pay most attention to where 是 and 的 are):
As you can see, we actually get the verb in between 是 and 的 as well as the thing we want to emphasize. The thing we emphasize is some detail about the action of the verb. This detail is often described as being time, manner or place, but really it can be anything.
Let’s have a look at some initial example sentences for this structure:
你是什么时候来的？_When_ did you get here?
她是坐火车去上海的。She went to Shanghai _by train_.
他是在德国长大的。He grew up _in Germany_.
Notice how there is some detail about the action of the verb included in the 是…的 structure. Also notice how these sentences are all about things in the past.
An equivalent structure in English might be “it was … that”. So the above sentences could also be translated as:
- “When was it that you got here?”
- “It was by train that she went to Shanghai.”
- “It was in Germany that he grew up.”
Notice how those sentences draw attention to particular details about the action of the verb. That structure is a little bit unusual in English, though, whereas 是…的 is super common and normal in Chinese.
How 是…的 is used
As mentioned above, the 是…的 construction is used to give focus to a specific detail in a sentence (as well as indicating that it’s about the past). Whatever is placed right after 是 is emphasized.
The detail that gets emphasized is often described as being about the time, manner or place of the verb. Whilst the detail might actually be anything, these make nice categories to focus on. Let’s look at each one in turn.
Emphasizing time with 是…的
You can use 是…的 to emphasize the time that the action took place. Have a look at some example sentences:
他们是昨天来的。They got here _yesterday_. ⇒ It was yesterday that they got here.
我们是去年搬的家。*We moved house _last year_. ⇒ It was last year that we moved house.
她是1996年毕业的。She graduated _in 1996_. ⇒ It was in 1996 that she graduated.
Notice how the time the action took place comes immediately after 是. That’s how the 是…的 construction works: you put the thing you want to emphasize after 是, then the verb, then finish it with 的.
English translations that emphasize the detail more heavily have been given underneath. Remember, though, that the 是…的 structure in Chinese is much more natural and commonly used than that English structure might suggest.
- Notice the slightly different word order, with 的 before the object? Don’t worry, we’ll explain that below! We’ve just introduced it here to help you get used to it from the start.
Emphasizing manner with 是…的
You can also use 是…的 to emphasize the manner of an action, i.e. how it was done. Again, you put the way the action was done right after 是 to emphasize it. Have a look at some examples:
她是跟她朋友一起去旅行的。She went travelling _with her friend_. ⇒ It was with her friend that she went travelling.
我们是坐飞机去韩国的。We went to Korea _by plane_. ⇒ It was by plane that we went to Korea.
我是用刀切蛋糕的。I cut the cake _with a knife_. ⇒ It was with a knife that I cut the cake.
她是偷偷去的。She went _secretly_. ⇒ It was secretly that she went.
There are endless ways you could use 是…的 to emphasize the manner in which an action was done. Again, note that all of the events described took place in the past.
Emphasizing place with 是…的
The final category of things you can emphasize with 是…的 is place - where the action happened. As you might have guessed, you put the place right after 是 to emphasize it. Some examples:
我是在日本上的中学。*I went to middle school _in Japan_. ⇒ It was in Japan that I went to middle school.
我们是在西安认识的。We met _in Xi'an_. ⇒ It was in Xi'an that we met.
我是在报纸看到的。I saw it _in the newspaper_. ⇒ It was in the newspaper that I saw it.
Hopefully that has given you a general idea of what the 是…的 structure is and how it’s used. Read on for more usage scenarios and details!
- That pesky alternate word order is back again! We’ve put it in a couple of times here to make you aware of it before we explain it in more detail below.
Emphasizing other details with 是…的
Besides time, manner and place, there are all sorts of other things you can talk about with 是…的. Here are a few examples:
我是来学中文的。I've come _to study Chinese_.
那台电脑是三千块买的。That computer cost _3000 kuai_.
这个项链是我奶奶送给我的。This necklace was given to me _by my grandma_.
这个故事是老张给我讲的。_Lao Zhang_ told me this story.
Hopefully you can now see how versatile and useful the 是…的 construction is.
Negating 是…的 is super easy: just put 不 in front of 是 and that’s it! You can use this to emphasize what was not true about an action. Some examples:
我不是坐飞机去香港的。I didn't go to Hong Kong _by plane_. ⇒ It wasn't by plane that I went to Hong Kong.
这件事情不是你告诉我的。_You_ didn't tell me about this. ⇒ It wasn't you who told me about this.
我不是在越南学的越南语。*I didn't learn Vietnamese _in Vietnam_. ⇒ It wasn't in Vietnam that I learnt Vietnamese.
As you can see, negating 是…的 is very straightforward, and now you’ve got a whole new set of options in your tool kit!
- That’s the third time you’ve seen the alternate word order, with the object after 的. We’ll explain it soon, we promise!
Asking questions with 是…的
A very common use of 是…的 is to ask questions. You can form question sentences using 是…的 just as you would normally form questions in Chinese. Let’s have a look at a few ways.
是…的 with 吗
The simplest way to ask questions is probably with a tag word (aka question particle) like 吗. You just place this on the end of the sentence as normal to turn it into a yes/no question:
他是上个学期来的吗？Did he get here _last semester_? ⇒ Was it last semester that he got here?
她是跟她爸爸去杭州的吗？Did she got to Hangzhou _with her dad_? ⇒ Was it with her dad that she went to Hangzhou?
你是在公园里看到他的吗？Did you see him _in the park_? ⇒ Was in it in the park that you saw him?
As you can see, it’s very easy to make 是…的 sentences into question by simply adding 吗 at the end. This is a good way to ask questions about particular details of an action, as you can see in the examples.
是…的 in positive-negative questions
The next way you can form questions with 是…的 is to use positive-negative questions. These are the questions where you say the verb then immediately give its negated form. As you might expect, these are formed as 是不是 for 是…的 sentences. Some examples:
你是不是刚到的？Did you _just_ get here? ⇒ Was it just now that you got here?
他是不是用铅笔写的？Did he write it _with a pencil_? ⇒ Was it with a pencil that he wrote it?
你们是不是在首尔认识的？Did you meet _in Seoul_? ⇒ Was it in Seoul that you met?
That’s all there is to it! Forming positive-negative questions with 是…的 is quite easy to get used to.
是…的 with question words
Another way you can form questions with 是…的 is to use question words. As you might know already, Chinese question words tend to be quite straightforward. You just put them in the place of the thing you want to know in the sentence, and that’s it. You don’t need to re-order the sentence or anything like that.
Some example sentences for 是…的 with question words:
她是什么时候去蒙古的？_When_ did she go to Mongolia? ⇒ When was it that she went to Mongolia?
这个菜是怎么做的？_How_ is this dish made? ⇒ What is it that this dish is made with?
你们是在哪里认识的？_Where_ did you meet? ⇒ Where was it that you met?
这件事是谁告诉你的？_Who_ told you about this? ⇒ Who was it that told you about this?
Again, once you know the structure, it’s quite easy to combine it with other things you know. You’ll soon find that your Chinese “tool kit” is full of options in this way.
The object often comes after 的 in 是…的
Here’s that explanation we kept promising of those sentences where the object comes after 的!
When the 是…的 construction is used, the object very often comes after 的, rather than before it as shown in the examples above. This is very common with the 是…的 construction for most objects (pretty much everything except people).
This isn’t a huge change, but it’s another thing you’ve got to take note of with 是…的. Have a look at some example sentences to see how this works:
我是上个月来的北京。I came to Beijing last month.
他是用钢笔写的信。He wrote the letter with a fountain pen.
我是在食堂吃的饭。I ate in the canteen.
If you take away the object, you can see how these sentences work: 我是上个月来的 still makes sense on its own. So all that’s happening is that a complete sentence (with 是…的) is having an object added to it.
The object can come after 的 if it’s a place or a ‘thing’, but not if it’s a person. As usual, we’d say it’s best not to try and memorise any rules about this. Instead, read and listen to as much Chinese as possible, and keep practising! Then you’ll get a natural feel for it all.
Be careful when putting the object after 的!
If you’re on the ball, you might have spotted a little danger with putting the object after 的 in a 是…的 sentence. You could end up saying that the subject is the object, rather than emphasizing something else in the sentence. For example:
That sentence could mean “I bought the pig yesterday”, but it could also be misinterpreted. To make sure you say the right thing, it might be better to phrase such sentences like this:
我是昨天买猪的。I bought the pig yesterday.
Just remember to be careful if you’re putting the object after 的 in a 是…的 sentence.
是 is often dropped from the 是…的 construction
One final thing to note about the 是…的 construction is that 是 is often left out of it. That does make the name a bit silly, but 是…的 is the ‘full’ structure.
Nothing else changes, you just say the same sentence but without 是. Some examples:
我们在上海认识的。We met in Shanghai.
我在食堂吃的饭。I ate in the canteen.
我在报纸看到的。I saw it in the newspaper.
Because of this, you could think of 的 on its own as being a way to talk about past events. Just remember that it works as part of a 是…的, even if the 是 is invisible!
Other names for the 是…的 construction
As it’s so common, there are many different terms for the 是…的 construction. To help avoid any confusion, here’s a list of some of them. These all mean the same thing:
- 是 的 句
- 是…的 sentence
- 是…的 pattern
- Shì…de construction
- Shi de sentence
- “Shi… de” construction - Chinese Grammar Wiki
- ‘Shì … De’ (是 … 的) Construction For Emphasis - Yale Construction For Emphasis”)
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