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Using the "shi... de" construction

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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Nǐ zuótiān jǐ diǎn dào le?What time did you arrive yesterday?
  • 你 跟 Nǐ gēn shéile?Who did you go with?
  • 他 用 什么 打 你 Tā yòng shénme dǎ nǐ le?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。Zuótiān wǒ qù Hángzhōu le.I went to Hangzhou yesterday.
  • B: 怎么shì zěnmede?How did you get there?
  • A: 坐 火车shì zuò huǒchē de.I went by train.

Now let's revisit those other three sentences and ask the questions correctly with 是⋯⋯的:

  • 你 昨天 几点Nǐ zuótiān shì jǐ diǎn dào de?What time did you arrive yesterday?
  • 跟 谁shì gēn shéi qù de?Who did you go with?
  • 什么 打 你 shì yòng shénme dǎ nǐ de?What did he use to hit you?

Affirmative Form

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... "

Structure

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!

Examples

  • A: 你们 什么 时候Emphasizing "when"Nǐmen shì shénme shíhou dào de?When did you arrive?
  • B: 我们 昨天"Yesterday" is emphasized.Wǒmen shì zuótiān dào de.We arrived yesterday.
  • A: 在 哪儿 出生 "Where" is emphasized.shì zài nǎr chūshēng de?Where were you born?
  • B: 在 香港 出生 "In Hong Kong" is emphasized.shì zài Xiānggǎng chūshēng de.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:骑 自行车 吗 ?Emphasizing "by bike"qí zìxíngchē lái de ma?Did you come by bike?
  • B:Emphasizing "by foot"zǒu lái de.I came by foot.
  • A: 告诉 你 Emphasizing "who"Shéi gàosu nǐ de?Who was it that told you?
  • B: 一 个 同事 告诉 我 Emphasizing "a colleague"Yī gè tóngshì gàosu wǒ de.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.

Negative Form

是⋯⋯的 sentences can only be negated with 不, as 没 can not be used to negate 是.

Some examples:

  • 他们 不是 在 网上 认识 Tāmen bù shì zài wǎngshàng rènshi de.They didn't meet online.
  • 不是 跟 我们 一起bù shì gēn wǒmen yīqǐde.He didn't go together with us.
  • 坐 地铁 zuò dìtiě lái de.I didn't come by metro.
  • 在 中国 出生 zài Zhōngguó chūshēng de. 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:

Some examples:

  • 用 邮件 回复 吗 ?yòng yóujiàn huífù de ma?Did she reply by email?
  • 你们 是 不 是 去年 认识 Nǐmen shì bu shì qùnián rènshi de?Did you meet each other last year?
  • 这个 东西 多少钱Zhège dōngxi duōshǎo qián mǎi de?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 吗 ?Nǐ shàng zhōu hé tā qù Běijīng de ma?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.

  • 上周 和 他 去 北京 吗 ?上周 is emphasizedshì shàng zhōu hé tā qù Běijīng de ma?
  • 你 上周 和他 去 北京 吗 ?和他 is emphasizedNǐ shàng zhōu shì hé tā qù Běijīng de ma?Did 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 用 Skype Wǒmen shì yòng Skype kāi huì de.We had a meeting by Skype.
  • 我们 用 Skype Wǒmen shì yòng Skype kāi de huì.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 用 Skype Nà cì wǒmen shì yòng Skype kāi huì de.That time we had the meeting by Skype.
  • 我们 平时 用 Skype Wǒmen píngshí shì yòng Skype kāi huì de.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.

Completed Action

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.

See also

Sources and Further Reading

Books

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