The "shi... de" construction for emphasizing details
- 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 details about the past or telling details about the past.
- 1 Basic 是... 的 structure
- 2 Simple Question Examples
- 3 Other Examples
- 4 Singling out details for emphasis with 是... 的
- 5 When to use 是... 的
- 6 Negating 是... 的
- 7 是... 的 and questions
- 8 是 is often optional
- 9 Where to put 的 in a 是... 的 construction
- 10 More 是... 的 emphasis examples
- 11 See also
- 12 Sources and further reading
Basic 是... 的 structure
A 是... 的 sentence is formed with this structure:
Subject + 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!
Simple Question Examples
These are some of the most common questions asked using the 是... 的 construction and some possible answers:
- 你 是 怎么 来 的 ？ (Emphasizing "how" or "in what manner") How did you come?
- 你 是 怎么 做 的 ？ (Emphasizing "how" or "in what manner") How did you do it?
- 是 谁 告诉 你 的 ？ (Emphasizing "who") Who was it that told you?
- 你 是 什么时候 来 的 ？ (Emphasizing "when") When did you come?
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.
Some examples where time is emphasized:
- 我们 是 昨天 来 的。 ("Yesterday" is emphasized.)We came yesterday.
- 他 是 去年 到 北京 去 的。 ("Last year is emphasized.)He went to Beijing last year.
Some examples where manner is emphasized:
- 她 是 坐 飞机 去 美国 的。 ("By plane" is emphasized.)She went to America by plane.
- 我 是 从 香港 转机 到 上海 的。 ("from Hong Kong" is emphasized") I'm coming to Shanghai from Hong Kong.
Some examples where place is emphasized:
- 我 是 在 英国 学 英文 的。 ("In Britain" is emphasized.)I studied English in Britain.
- 你 是 在 中国 出生 的。 ("In China" is emphasized.)You were born in China.
Singling out details for emphasis with 是... 的
As mentioned above, a 是... 的 construction can pick out any detail in a sentence. Whatever comes immediately after 是 is emphasized. So in the sentence below:
- 我 上 周六 跟 我 家人 在 饭馆 吃饭。I ate with my family in a restaurant last Saturday.
We can pick out any one of the details by putting 是 in front of it:
- 我 跟 我家人是 上 周六 在 饭馆 吃 的 饭。("last Saturday" is emphasized.)
- 我 上 周六 在饭馆 是 跟 我 家人 吃 的 饭。("with my family" is emphasized.)
- 我 上 周六 跟 我 家人 是 在 饭馆 吃 的 饭。("in a restaurant" is emphasized.)
When to use 是... 的
As described above, the 是... 的 construction is used to draw attention to particular information in a sentence. Whereas a sentence without a 是... 的 construction might describe a situation, a sentence with a 是... 的 construction explains it. 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 ..."
If the sentence could be formed with one of those phrases in English, it can probably use a 是... 的 construction in Chinese. Usually the topic of a 是... 的 sentence has already been established.
It's important to note that a 是... 的 construction also indicates that an action has been completed. However, this is not the purpose of a 是... 的 construction. The association with a completed action is more like a side effect of 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 particular features of the action.
Negating 是... 的
是... 的 sentences can only be negated with 不, as 没 can not be used to negate 是. Place 不 before 是 as you would in a standard sentence.
- 我们 不 是 坐 火车 来 的。We didn't come by train.
- 这个 电话 不 是 打给他的。This phone call isn't to him.
- 我们 不 是 去 看她 的。We didn't go to see her.
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 last sentence, the implication is that 你 didn't go out with 她, but did go out with someone. So negative 是... 的 constructions would work nicely in the final scenes of detective dramas.
是... 的 and questions
是... 的 constructions can be made into questions in the usual three ways to form questions in Chinese:
- 你 是 用 手枪 杀害 他 的 吗？Did you use a pistol to murder him?
- 他 是 坐 飞机 去 意大利 的 吗？Did you take a plane to Italy?
- 你 是 跟 谁 出去 的？Who did you go out with?
- 你 是 怎么 来 北京 的？How did you come to Beijing?
- 你们 是 不是 去年 认识 的？Did you meet each other last year?
- 你的 车 是 不是 你弟弟 开 走 的？Was your car driven away by your brother?
是 is often optional
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.
- 他 （是） 昨天 来 的。He came yesterday.
- 我们 （是） 两 个 月 以前 认识 的。We met two months ago.
- 我 （是） 用 中文 问路 的。I used Chinese to ask the way.
Where to put 的 in a 是... 的 construction
Up till now we've said that 的 appears at the end of the sentence in a 是... 的 construction. This is very often the case. However, if there's an object, 的 can appear before the object.
- 我 是 在 加拿大 学 的 英语。(the 的 comes before the object 英语)I studied English in Canada.
- 我 是 在 加拿大 学 英语 的。(the 的 comes after the object 英语)I studied English in Canada.
Note that if the object is a person, 的 has to go at the end of the sentence. Otherwise it can go before the object or at the end of the sentence.
- 我 是 在 法国 认识 的 她。(the 的 cannot come before the object 她)I met her in France.
- 我 是 在 法国 认识 她 的。(the 的 can only come after the object 她)I met her in France.
More 是... 的 emphasis examples
The 是... 的 construction is very versatile and can be used to pick out a large variety of details in a sentence. Have a look at the examples below to get a stronger grasp of how this structure can be used.
Focusing on time
- 我 是 上 个 星期五 来 的。("last Friday" is emphasized.)I came last Friday.
- 他们 是 婚后 一年 离婚 的。("one year after they got married" is emphasized.)They got divorced one year after they got married.
- 我们 是 十 年 以前 认识 的。("ten years ago" is emphasized.)We met each other ten years ago.
Focusing on place
- 她 是 在 美国 学习 英文 的。("in America" is emphasized.)She studied English in America.
- 他们 是 在 图书馆 认识 的。("in the library" is emphasized.)They met each other in the library.
- 我们 是 在 家里 喝醉 的。("in the house" is emphasized.)We got drunk in the house.
Focusing on manner
- 我 是 跟 我 朋友 出去 玩 的。("with my friends" is emphasized.)I went out to hang with my friends.
- 我 是 开车 回家 的。("by car" is emphasized.)I came home by car.
- 他 是 花 了 半 个 小时 才 到 他 家 的。("took him half an hour" is emphasized.)It took him half an hour to get to his home.
Focusing on instrument
- 我 是 用 法文 写 的 信。("used French" is emphasized.)I used French to write the letter.
- 他 小 的时候 是 用 筷子 吃饭 的。("used chopsticks" is emphasized.)When he was younger, he used chopsticks to eat.
- 她 是 用 电脑 学习 汉语 的。("used the computer" is emphasized.)She used a computer to study Chinese.
Focusing on agent
- 他 是 被 谁 杀害 的？("by whom" is emphasized.)Who was he killed by?
- 我的 钱包 是 被 一个男人 偷走 的。("by a man" is emphasized.)My wallet was stolen by a man.
- 你的 杯子 是 被 服务员 打 破的。("by the waiter" is emphasized.)Your cup got broken by the waitor.
- 我 弟弟 是 被 他同学 打伤 的。("by his classmate" is emphasized.)My younger brother was hit and got injured by his classmates.
- 爸爸 的 手机 是 被 他同事 弄 坏 的。("by his coworker" is emphasized.)Dad's cellphone was broken by his coworker.
- See also: 被 sentence
Focusing on target
- 你 是 给 谁 做 的 饭？("who" is emphasized.)Who did you make food for?
- 我 是 为 你 回来 的。("for you" is emphasized.)I came back for you.
- 他 是 向 你 借 的 钱？("from you" is emphasized.)He borrowed the money from you?
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） (p. 530)→buy
- 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） (p. 205)→buy
- University website: The shi ... de construction
- East Asia Student: The 是 … 的 construction in Mandarin