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.

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:

  • 怎么 来 (Emphasizing "how" or "in what manner") How did you come?
  • 怎么 做 (Emphasizing "how" or "in what manner") How did you do it?
  • 谁 告诉 你 (Emphasizing "who") Who was it that told you?
  • 什么时候 来 (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.

Other Examples

Some examples where time is emphasized:

  • 我们 昨天("Yesterday" is emphasized.)We came yesterday.
  • 去年 到 北京 去 ("Last year is emphasized.)He went to Beijing last year.

Some examples where manner is emphasized:

  • 坐 飞机 去 美国 ("By plane" is emphasized.)She went to America by plane.
  • 从 香港 转机 到 上海 ("from Hong Kong" is emphasized") I'm coming to Shanghai from Hong Kong.

Some examples where place is emphasized:

  • 在 英国 学 英文 ("In Britain" is emphasized.)I studied English in Britain.
  • 在 中国 出生 ("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 上 周六 在 饭馆 吃 饭。("last Saturday" is emphasized.)
  • 我 上 周六 在饭馆 跟 我 家人 饭。("with my family" is emphasized.)
  • 我 上 周六 跟 我 家人 在 饭馆 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.

Completed action

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.

Some examples:

  • 我们 是 坐 火车 来 的。We didn't come by train.
  • 这个 电话 是 打给他的。This phone call isn't to him.
  • 我们 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:

Some examples:

  • 你 是 用 手枪 杀害 他 的 Did you use a pistol to murder him?
  • 他 是 坐 飞机 去 意大利 的 Did you take a plane to Italy?
  • 你 是 跟 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.

Some examples:

  • 他 (是) 昨天 来 He came yesterday.
  • 我们 (是) 两 个 月 以前 认识 We met two months ago.
  • 我 (是) 用 中文 问路 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.

For example:

  • 在 加拿大 学 英语(the 的 comes before the object 英语)I studied English in Canada.
  • 在 加拿大 学 英语 (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.

  • 在 法国 认识 (the 的 cannot come before the object 她)I met her in France.
  • 在 法国 认识 (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

  • 上 个 星期五("last Friday" is emphasized.)I came last Friday.
  • 他们 婚后 一年 离婚 ("one year after they got married" is emphasized.)They got divorced one year after they got married.
  • 我们 十 年 以前 认识 ("ten years ago" is emphasized.)We met each other ten years ago.

Focusing on place

  • 在 美国 学习 英文 ("in America" is emphasized.)She studied English in America.
  • 他们 在 图书馆 认识 ("in the library" is emphasized.)They met each other in the library.
  • 我们 在 家里 喝醉 ("in the house" is emphasized.)We got drunk in the house.

Focusing on manner

  • 跟 我 朋友 出去 玩 ("with my friends" is emphasized.)I went out to hang with my friends.
  • 开车 回家 ("by car" is emphasized.)I came home by car.
  • 花 了 半 个 小时 才 到 他 家 ("took him half an hour" is emphasized.)It took him half an hour to get to his home.

Focusing on instrument

  • 用 法文 信。("used French" is emphasized.)I used French to write the letter.
  • 他 小 的时候 用 筷子 吃饭 ("used chopsticks" is emphasized.)When he was younger, he used chopsticks to eat.
  • 用 电脑 学习 汉语 ("used the computer" is emphasized.)She used a computer to study Chinese.

Focusing on agent

  • 被 谁 杀害 ("by whom" is emphasized.)Who was he killed by?
  • 我的 钱包 被 一个男人 偷走 ("by a man" is emphasized.)My wallet was stolen by a man.
  • 你的 杯子 被 服务员 打 破("by the waiter" is emphasized.)Your cup got broken by the waitor.
  • 我 弟弟 被 他同学 打伤 ("by his classmate" is emphasized.)My younger brother was hit and got injured by his classmates.
  • 爸爸 的 手机 被 他同事 弄 坏 ("by his coworker" is emphasized.)Dad's cellphone was broken by his coworker.
See also: 被 sentence

Focusing on target

  • 给 谁 饭?("who" is emphasized.)Who did you make food for?
  • 为 你 回来 ("for you" is emphasized.)I came back for you.
  • 向 你 钱?("from you" is emphasized.)He borrowed the money from you?

See also

Sources and further reading