Using the "shi... de" construction
- Also known as: 是⋯⋯的结构 (shì... de jiégòu), 是⋯⋯的 sentence and 是⋯⋯的 pattern.
The 是⋯⋯的 (shì... de) construction is used to draw particular attention to certain information in a sentence. It's often used to ask questions that seek specific information, or to explain a situation by emphasizing a particular detail. While not strictly tied to any "tense," the 是⋯⋯的 construction is frequently used when asking or telling details about the past.
When to use it
Even if you understand that 了 is not used to mark "past tense" in Chinese, it's possible that you incorrectly use it that way sometimes. For example, what if you want to ask a question about something that happened in the past? Would you ever say one of the following sentences?
- 你 昨天 几点 到 了 ？What time did you arrive yesterday?
- 你 跟 谁 去 了 ？Who did you go with?
- 他 用 什么 打 你 了 ？What did he use to hit you?
In each of these sentences above, 了 is not the right choice, because you're not asking if an event happened or not. You're asking about details of past events. When you are singling out details for emphasis--in a question or a statement--you need to use the 是⋯⋯的 construction.
A 是⋯⋯的 construction can pick out any detail that's related to a past event. Whatever comes immediately after 是 is emphasized. Check out this example:
- A: 昨天 我 去 杭州 了。I went to Hangzhou yesterday.
- B: 你 是 怎么 去 的 ？How did you get there?
- A: 我 是 坐 火车 去 的 。I went by train.
Now let's revisit those other three sentences and ask the questions correctly with 是⋯⋯的:
- 你 昨天 是 几点 到 的 ？What time did you arrive yesterday?
- 你 是 跟 谁 去 的 ？Who did you go with?
- 他 是 用 什么 打 你 的 ？What did he use to hit you?
是⋯⋯的 is not generally used for reporting new information, but for adding important details that make the information clearer. You could think of 是⋯⋯的 as being equivalent to saying one of the following in English:
- "The situation is that"
- "It's that... "
- "It was... that... "
Subj. + 是 + [Information to be Emphasized] + Verb + 的
This structure can be used to emphasize any detail, but most commonly it emphasizes time, manner, or place. Don't worry if this still seems a little confusing; lots of helpful examples are coming up!
- A: 你们 是 什么 时候 到 的 ？Emphasizing "when"When did you arrive?
- B: 我们 是 昨天 到 的 。"Yesterday" is emphasized.We arrived yesterday.
- A: 你 是 在 哪儿 出生 的 ？"Where" is emphasized.Where were you born?
- B: 我 是 在 香港 出生 的 。"In Hong Kong" is emphasized.I was born in Hong Kong.
Although this structure is called the 是⋯⋯的 construction, the 是 is nearly always optional. You will often hear this structure with 是 omitted, so be aware. The only time 是 is required in this construction is when it's being negated. Other than that, 是 is commonly omitted.
- A: 你 骑 自行车 来 的 吗 ？Emphasizing "by bike"Did you come by bike?
- B: 我 走 来 的 。Emphasizing "by foot"I came by foot.
- A: 谁 告诉 你 的 ？Emphasizing "who"Who was it that told you?
- B: 一 个 同事 告诉 我 的 。Emphasizing "a colleague"It was a colleague that told me.
You might be wondering, "can I still say the same thing without the 是 and the 的?" The answer is that in most cases, no, not really. While the 是 can sometimes be dropped, these examples sound weird without the 的. It's just a part of learning to ask questions naturally in Mandarin. You don't have to learn a "past tense," but you do have to learn this way of asking for details about the past sooner or later.
是⋯⋯的 sentences can only be negated with 不, as 没 can not be used to negate 是.
- 他们 不是 在 网上 认识 的 。They didn't meet online.
- 他 不是 跟 我们 一起 去 的 。He didn't go together with us.
- 我 不 坐 地铁 来 的 。I didn't come by metro.
- 我 不 在 中国 出生 的 。I wasn't born in China.
Note that negating a 是⋯⋯的 construction creates the implication that the action in the sentence was carried out, and only the detail emphasized by 是⋯⋯的 is being denied. So, in the second sentence, the implication is that 他 didn't go with 我们, but did go out with someone. So negative 是⋯⋯的 constructions would work nicely in the final scenes of detective dramas.
Used in a Question
是⋯⋯的 constructions can be made into questions in the usual three ways to form questions in Chinese:
- 她 用 邮件 回复 的 吗 ？Did she reply by email?
- 你们 是 不 是 去年 认识 的 ？Did you meet each other last year?
- 这个 东西 多少钱 买 的 ？How much did you buy this thing for?
Is 是 always optional ?
Generally, 是 can be omitted, and the meaning will not change. However, in a small number of cases, omitting 是 will make it unclear which part of the sentence is being emphasized. In these cases, 是 clearly indicates which words are being emphasized. Take a look at this example:
- 你 上周 和 他 去 北京 的 吗 ？Did you go to Beijing with him last weekend?
This sentence could emphasize 上周 (time), or 和他 (part of the subject). A simple 是 can make clear which one the speaker is emphasizing.
- 你 是 上周 和 他 去 北京 的 吗 ？上周 is emphasized
- 你 上周 是 和他 去 北京 的 吗 ？和他 is emphasizedDid you go to Beijing with him last weekend?
Position of 的
Until now we've said that the 的 appears at the end of the sentence in a 是⋯⋯的 construction. This is very often the case. However, it can actually appear in one of two places. Take a look at the examples below:
- 我们 是 用 Skype 开 会 的 。We had a meeting by Skype.
- 我们 是 用 Skype 开 的 会 。We had a meeting by Skype.
As you can see, when the verb is followed by an object, 的 can go before or after the object. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the first the sentence could be referring to either a specific event in the past or habitual actions.
Take a look at these two sentences which remove the ambiguity by including a bit more information about the timeframe:
- 那次 我们 是 用 Skype 开 会 的 。That time we had the meeting by Skype.
- 我们 平时 是 用 Skype 开 会 的 。We usually have a meetings by Skype.
For the most part, you should be fine regularly putting 的 at the end of your 是……的 sentences. Just be aware that there is some potential for ambiguity in certain situations. If you don't want to move 的 around, then including a bit of extra information about time can keep things clear.
It's important to note that while the 是⋯⋯的 construction also indicates that an action has been completed, this is not the purpose of a 是⋯⋯的 construction. The completed action part is more like a prerequisite for using 是⋯⋯的. This means you shouldn't use 是⋯⋯的 just to indicate that an action is completed. Use the aspect particle 了 for that. Instead, use 是⋯⋯的 to draw attention to certain details of a completed action.
- 的 (modal particle)
- Adding emphasis with "jiushi"
- Uses of "shi" with "de"
- Indicating purpose or intent using "shi...de"
Sources and Further Reading
- A Practical Chinese Grammar For Foreigners (外国人实用汉语语法) (pp. 577-9) →buy
- Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar (pp. 54-5) →buy
- Chinese: An Essential Grammar, Second Edition (pp. 46-7, 173-80) →buy
- Chinese Grammar - Broken down into 100 items - Basic and Intermediate Levels (汉语语法百项讲练 - 初中级) (pp. 319-22) [ →buy]
- Contemporary Chinese 2 (当代中文2) (pp. 46) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 2 (3rd ed) (pp. 119-121) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 2, Part 1 (pp. 14-6) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 2, Part 2 (pp. 152-4) →buy
- Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar (pp. 587-94) →buy
- Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide (pp. 233-5) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 2 (新实用汉语课本2) (pp. 88-9, 153) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 4 (新实用汉语课本4) (pp. 204-5) →buy
- Short-term Spoken Chinese: Threshold Vol. 2 (汉语口语入门篇下) (pp. 66-8) [ →buy]
- 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课下册） (pp. 530) →buy
- 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） (pp. 205) →buy
- University website: %20de%20%20construction The shi... de construction
- East Asia Student: The 是 … 的 construction in Mandarin