The "shi... de" patterns: an overview

An intermediate student of Chinese should be aware of the classic "shi... de" construction. It's important to learn and use. But don't be tempted to think that the "official" 是⋯⋯的 (shì... de) pattern is the only way that 是 and 的 can work together in a sentence! There are multiple ways to use 是 and 的 together, and they can be used for different purposes. This article helps break down the various uses of 是⋯⋯的 and tackle the confusion head-on.

Omitting a Noun with 的

This is the most simple way to use 是 with 的: you drop the noun and let 的 represent it. This usage requires context; otherwise the other person won't know what noun you are referring to. Having the 的 take the place of the noun is sort of like the way we say "one" or "it" in English. It's a basic substitution, but it's one that is very common and very helpful in everyday Chinese.

  • A: 你 也 是 大学生 ?你 什么 专业 Nǐ yě shì dàxuéshēng? Nǐ shì shénme zhuānyè de?Are you also a college student? What's your major?
  • B: 中文 专业 shì Zhōngwén zhuānyè de.My major is Chinese.

Used with Distinguishing Words

If you're a good student, you learned the classic pattern for simple sentences using adjectives long ago (you know, the 你很漂亮 type), and you know that you're not supposed to use 是 in these sentences. But then you may have later come across some sentence patterns--apparently using adjectives--where you have to use 是 (and also 的). These are sentences that use a special type of word (you might think of it as a special class of adjectives, if that helps) called distinguishing words.


Subj. + 是 + [Distinguishing Words] + 的


Pay attention to the "distinguishing words" between 是 and 的.

  • 这个 苹果 Zhège píngguǒ shì huài de.This apple is bad.
  • 你 错 了 ,那个 人 Nǐ cuò le, nàge rén shì de.You are mistaken. That person is a woman.
  • 他 家 的 家具 都 中式Tā jiā de jiājù dōu shì Zhōng shì de.The furniture in his house is all in Chinese style.

Other "distinguishing words" include colors, materials, sexes, and other categories that can have no degree.

The Classic Construction


Subj. + 是 + [Information to be Emphasized] + Verb + 的

This classic pattern is the one for emphasizing certain details about events in the past. It's often used to ask pointed questions about past events, and then to answer those questions. Usually, the situation is already established, and the speakers are trying to get more specific clarification, such as when, where, or how the action took place. When this is the case, the phrase that follows the 是 is the part of the situation that is being emphasized.

It is also important to know that you can't use 了 in this type of sentence. 了 only tells you that the action is completed, not any of the other details that this construction is looking for. Since it is already understood that the action took place, the 了 is unhelpful and inappropriate. A more complete explanation of this particular usage can be found in the article on 是……的 for emphasizing details.


The examples below share the theme: 我在上海学了两年中文. Each sentence has a different aspect of the situation being emphasized.

  • A: 什么 时候 开始 学 中文 shì shénme shíhou kāishǐ xué Zhōngwén de?A: When was it that you started studying Chinese?
  • B: 两 年 前 开始 学 中文 shì liǎng nián qián kāishǐ xué Zhōngwén de.It was two years ago that I started studying Chinese.
  • A: 在 哪里 中文?shì zài nǎlǐ xué de Zhōngwén?Where is it that you study Chinese?
  • B: 在 上海 中文。shì zài Shànghǎi xué de Zhōngwén.It's in Shanghai that I study Chinese.

In the example above, you might have noticed something funny with the object of the verb. In this construction, if the verb is transitive (it takes an object), then the object can be placed either before or after the 的 without affecting the meaning. Take a look at the example below:

  • A: 昨天 你 怎么 家 ?Zuótiān nǐ shì zěnme huí de jiā?How did you come back yesterday?
  • B: 昨天 我 打车 回 家 Zuótiān wǒ shì dǎchē huíjiā de.I went home by taxi yesterday.

It's correct to put the 的 before or after the 家 in both of those sentences.

Used for Indicating Purpose or Intent


When explaining "what you came for" or "what you want to do," it's common to use yet another type of 是⋯⋯的 construction.

Person + 是 + 来 / 去 + Verb + 的

When expressing a purpose, 是 and 的 are often used together with 用来, especially when the subject is a thing.

Thing + 是 + 用来 + Verb + 的


  • 实习 shì lái shíxí de.I came here to do an internship.
  • 用来 ,不 用来Qián shì yònglái huā de, bù shì yònglái shěng de.Money is for spending, not for saving.

Used for Talking about What People Do

This pattern can also be used to talk about what kind of work people do:

  • A: 教 汉语 。你 做 什么 shì jiāo Hànyǔ de. Nǐ shì zuò shénme de?I teach Chinese. What kind of work do you do?
  • B: 送 外卖 shì sòng wàimài de.I'm a take-out delivery guy.

Used for a Tone of Strong Affirmation

Sometimes you can use 的 to really add a kick to your responses, making them stronger. You might even hear Chinese people reply with just 是的 which means "That's right." This usage is similar to the way that English speakers might stress the word "is" in sentences like "It is my food." When used to express affirmation, 会, 能, and 可以 are often used as well. Again, the 是 is optional.

  • 这个 东西 可以Zhège dōngxi shì kěyǐ chī de.This thing is edible.
  • huìde.I will go.
  • 我们 做到 Wǒmen néng zuòdào de.We can do it.

See also

Sources and Further Reading