Have you ever wondered how to use the particle 是 correctly? Picture this conversation between Alice and Bob.




Nǐ shì zhōngguó rén ma?

Are you Chinese?




Wǒ bùshì zhōngguó rén!

I’m not Chinese!




Bùshì zhōngguó rén! Nà nǐ zài nǎlǐ chūshēng?

Not Chinese! So where are you born then?



() 在美国出生!

shì zài měiguó chūshēng!

I was born in the States!


Whoops! Something doesn't sound right. If you said 我是在美国出生, you’d be using the particle incorrectly.


The correct sentence is 我在美国出生, or () 在美国出生 ().


So, how do you learn the correct way of using it? In today’s article, I want to discuss some of the ways in which the particle is used. I will provide a few examples along the way, and more importantly, discuss how the meanings of certain sentences change when including and omitting . Let’s dive straight in.


Basics: 是 + Noun


This is probably the most common construction, so I’ll start with this one. In this rule, transliterating from English to Chinese works.


For example, if you want to say something like, “I am American” or, “this is a fact”, in Chinese, you can say:



Wǒ shì měiguó rén.



Zhè shì shìshí.


Conversely, to negate these, you simply add in front of the particle, to get:


() 是美国人。

shì měiguó rén.


() 是事实。

Zhè shì shìshí.


And, if you want to make these sentences a bit more colourful, you can add adjectival clauses. However, beware of the placement, as unlike in English, adjectival clauses come before the noun, not after.


For instance, if you want to say, “I am an American who was born in Taiwan”, in Chinese you can say:


我是 (在台湾出生的) 美国人。

Wǒ shì zài táiwān chūshēng dì měiguó rén.


在台湾出生的 (who was born in) is used to describe 美国人 (American), which is what I casually refer to as an adjectival clause.


If you aren’t familiar with some grammar lingo (terms), a clause is simply a phrase that makes sense standing alone. For example, 我是在台湾出生的 can be a standalone clause.


But in this standalone clause (我是在台湾出生的), the isn’t followed by a noun. Instead, it is followed by a verbal phrase: 在台湾出生的 (born in Taiwan).


What’s going on? This leads us to the second and more common use:


Emphasis: …是...的


If you want to simply say “I was born in Taiwan”, then 我在台湾出生 would suffice, as in the conversation below:




Duì ó, Bob, nǐ zài nǎlǐ chūshēng?

Hey Bob, where were you born? (Casual question)




Wǒ zài táiwān chūshēng.

I was born in Taiwan. (Casual answer)


However, if you wanted to add emphasis to your statement, an additional particle must be added. Imagine the following dialogue:



对哦,Bob, () 在加州出生,是吧?

Duì ó, Bob, nǐ shì zài jiāzhōu chūshēng de, shì ba?

Hey Bob, you were born in California, right? (Unsure if she is correct)



不是,我 () 在台湾出生 ()

Bùshì, wǒ shì zài táiwān chūshēng de.

No, I was born in Taiwan.  (To emphasize that she got it wrong)


The construction is usually ..., where the particle also serves to emphasise the statement.


To make this even clearer, let’s have a look at a couple more examples to get a better feel of what exactly is being emphasized within sentences:


这个瓶子是 (半空) 的。

Zhège píngzi shì bànkōng de.

This bottle is half empty.


不是,这个瓶子是 (半满) 的。

Bùshì, zhège píngzi shì bànmǎn de.

No, this bottle is half full.


In both sentences, the concepts being emphasised are the 半空 and 半满 states of the bottle. So here, it’s very obvious that the subject of emphasis is whatever comes right after the particle.


Let’s look at another example.



Tā shì zuótiān huílái de.

She came back yesterday.


So, what is being emphasised here? 昨天, or 回来?


Here, it’s 昨天, because one can easily imagine extrapolating this into:


她是 (昨天) 回来的,不是前天。

Tā shì zuótiān huílái de, bùshì qiántiān.

She returned yesterday, not the day before.


Changing the placement of 是 to shift the focus of emphasis


In addition, please note that the placement of the particle can vary in a sentence, where the shift in emphasis will change according to the placement.


For instance, compare these sentences:



Wǒ shì zuótiān qù nánjīng kàn bǐsài de.



Wǒ zuótiān shì qù nánjīng kàn bǐsài de.



Wǒ zuótiān qù nánjīng shì qù kàn bǐsài de.


All of them mean “I went to Nanjing to watch the competition yesterday.” However, the emphasis is different for each sentence.


Here are the three sentences with the emphasised points highlighted. You can try reading them out loud to see the difference.


我是 (昨天) 去南京看比赛的。

Wǒ shì zuótiān qù nánjīng kàn bǐsài de.


我昨天是去 (南京) 看比赛的。

Wǒ zuótiān shì qù nánjīng kàn bǐsài de.


我昨天去南京是去 (看比赛) 的。

Wǒ zuótiān qù nánjīng shì qù kàn bǐsài de.


I hope this clarifies some issues regarding subject of emphasis and how to position it relative to in sentence.


Using …是...的 in questions


Moving on: how do we use this construction in a question? Consider this example:


那么,这个瓶子到底 () 半空 (还是) 半满 ()

Nàme, zhège píngzi dàodǐ shì bànkōng háishì bàn mǎn de?

So, is the bottle half empty or half full?


Here’s slightly more complicated example:


() 因病而请假 (的吗)

shì yīn bìng ér qǐngjià de ma?

Did you take time off because you were sick?


As you might already know, the particle is often used to turn a declarative sentence into a question. In other words, for uncertain facts, you can’t use the particle. Compare these:


你是一只老虎 ()

Nǐ shì yī zhǐ lǎohǔ ma?

Are you a tiger? (You can use )



Duōshǎo qián?

How much is this? (You cannot use )


Back to the example above ( 是因病而请假的吗? can be used because 你是因病而请假的 is a declarative sentence. Now let’s see what happens when we remove :



Nǐ shì yīn bìng ér qǐngjià de?

Did you take time off because you were sick?


To explain the differences in nuances, the version with the particle hints at more of an accusatory tone, as if saying:


(真的) 是因病 (而不是为了其他原因) 而请假的吗?

zhēn de shì yīn bìng ér bùshì wèile qítā yuányīn ér qǐngjià de ma?

Did you (really) take a leave of absence because you were sick (and not because of another reason)?


However, without the particle , it sounds a lot more casual, as if simply to affirm that the person has, indeed, taken a leave of absence due to illness.


The elongated version would sound something like this:


你是因病而请假的, (是吧)

Nǐ shì yīn bìng ér qǐngjià de, shì ba?

So, you took a leave of absence due to illness, right?


I hope this makes the distinction a bit clearer for readers.


Using 是 at the beginning of a sentence


In a question, the particle can be used at the beginning of a sentence, as such:



Shì shuí zuò de?

Who did it?


In this example, the emphasis is placed on “who” (). Note that the action mentioned must have been completed. You cannot use for emphasis on an action that has yet to take place. For instance, you cannot say:


我下星期 () 去伦敦的,不是巴黎。

Wǒ xià xīngqí shì qù lúndūn de, bùshì bālí.

I’m going to London next week, not Paris.


If you want to express emphasis for a future action, you can say something like:


我下星期去的 (地方) 是伦敦,() 不是巴黎。

Wǒ xià xīngqí qù de dìfāng shì lúndūn, ér bùshì bālí.

I’m going to London next week, not Paris.


An even more simple way would be:



Wǒ xià xīngqí qù lúndūn, bùshì bālí.

I’m going to London next week, not Paris.


The 是...但是 construction


Last but not least, to exemplify the purpose of emphasis when using the particle, I want to introduce one more construction to demonstrate this, which will hopefully serve to cast away any doubts regarding how and when to use in oral conversations or in writing.


The ...但是 construction is used to describe a certain situation, and then to contradict the former clause in the latter. It often sounds like a “reality check”.


这顿饭 () 很便宜,(但是) 一点都不好吃!

Zhè dùn fàn shì hěn piányí, dànshì yīdiǎn dōu bù hào chī!

This meal was indeed cheap, but it was hardly what you’d call “delicious”!


(When you read it out loud, you’d put emphasis on the particle.)


As you can see from this example, the speaker implies that it doesn’t matter if the meal was cheap (这顿饭很便宜) as stated in the former clause, because ultimately, it didn’t taste good (一点都不好吃) as clarified in the latter.




Throughout this article, we’ve discussed some uses of the particle. We started off with its simplest use, transliteration, and then moved on to look at various cases in which it is used in conjunction with the article, to place emphasis on something.


I hope this article has helped you to gain a better feel for how to use correctly, and to build up your confidence in using it!


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