‘Shì’ in Chinese

How to use 是 (shì) in Chinese sentences without any mistakes

是 (shì) is used to mean ‘to be’ in Chinese. You are going to see that this word is very commonly used in Chinese sentences. But, ‘Shì’ in Chinese differs from how the verb is used in English and that is where Chinese learners get confused.

Many Chinese learners find the shi Chinese character as one of the most confusing ones. But, this post will surely minimize your confusion as we are going to highlight how the Chinese ‘shi’ works and the situations where you should use it.

Stick to this guide till the end and you will end up learning how to use ‘shi’ in your speech. This guide is divided into two portions. First, we will explore when we need to use ‘Shì’ in Chinese and in the second portion we will highlight when should avoid using it.

When to use 是 ‘shi’ in Chinese

1.    To attach two nouns

是 ‘shi’ in Chinese is used in the same way as the English verb “to be” to connect two nouns (or pronouns) in a sentence to explain what something or someone is. For example:

  • 我是美国人。(wǒ shì měi guó rén — I am an American.)
  • 我是一个老师。(wǒ shì yí gè lǎo shī. — I am a teacher.)
  • 这是手机。(zhè shì shǒu jī. — This is a cell phone.)
  • 苹果是一种水果。(píng guǒ shì yī zhǒng shuǐ guǒ. — Apples are a kind of fruit.)

2.    To ask a question

If you want to make a question out of a sentence that has 是 (shì) as its verb, you can do it by substituting 是 (shì) with 是不是 (shì bú shì) “be not be”. This means that the phrase 是不是 (shì bú shì) is one way of asking a question in Chinese.

Let us look at it with the help of a few examples:

  • 这是不是手机?(zhè shì bú shì shǒu jī. — Is this a cell phone?)
  • 那是不是沙发?(nà shì bú shì shā fā. — Is that a sofa?)
  • 苹果是不是一种水果?(píng guǒ shì bú shì yī zhǒng shuǐ guǒ? — Are apples a kind of fruit?)

3. To make a confirmation of any information

If you find it difficult to learn Mandarin, try looking at different situations and scenarios where you can use different nouns and verbs in Chinese. For example, there is another situation where you can use 是 ‘shi’ in Chinese i.e. to make confirmation to any particular thing or a piece of information.

You can simply add the 是不是 (shì bú shì) at the end of a sentence to confirm something as true. By just using this phrase you can confirm any type of information. Now let’s look at some examples:

  • 你是台湾人,是不是?(nǐ shì Táiwān rén, shì bú shì. — You are Taiwanese, aren’t you?)
  • 你在吃饭,是不是?(Nǐ zài chī fàn, shì bú shì. — You are eating, aren’t you?)

To answer, you can either use (shì), if the answer is “yes,” or 不是 (bú shì), if the answer is “no.”

4. To continue a conversation

If you want to continue your conversation with the other person or you want the other person to talk more, try saying 是吗? (shì ma). It is the Chinese way of saying “Oh, really?” or “Yeah?”

It will let other people express themselves more. As long as you don’t sound overly doubtful, the other person will interpret it as a sign that you are interested in what they are saying and will continue.

A large number of people among us wonder that is Chinese grammar easy or difficult. Before exploring this answer for yourself, try understanding that getting a command of Chinese grammar is necessary for you to have long and effortless conversations in Chinese.

You cannot continue a conversation if you do not know about to structure your sentences that are grammatically correct.

5.    To agree with someone in a conversation

Another way to express that you are paying attention to a conversation is to agree with the person you are listening to. It is surely not about agreeing to a false statement, though!

To show your agreement, you can use the following phrases:

是的 (shì de) is for mild agreement. It is the same as using ‘yeah’ in English. This is mostly used to show the speaker that you are paying attention, empathizing with them, or wanting to hear more from them.

是啊 (shì a) is for a little stronger agreement. It means you are agreeing and really excited to hear what the other person is saying.

就是 (jiù shì) is the highest level of being empathetic among all the phrases. It is like saying “Of course!” or “I know!” in English. It is used to show firm agreement.

These were some of the situations where you can use ‘Shì’ in Chinese. Now let’s look at the situations where you should not use ‘shi’.

When not to use 是 ‘shi’ in Chinese

1. To attach a noun and an adjective

In English, we say “The child is tall” or “The toy is soft.” Chinese people do not say “孩子是高” (hái zi shì gāo) or “玩具是软” (wán jù shì ruǎn) to link these ideas. Instead, use 很 (hěn).

These types of Chinese sentences do not require verbs. Instead, they say 很 (hěn) “very” between the subject and the adjective. For example:

  • 孩子很高 (hái zi hěn gāo. — The child is tall.)
  • 玩具很软 (wán jù hěn ruǎn. — The toy is soft.)

2. To attach a noun and a prepositional phrase

In English, we say “My friend is in the library” or “The cat is on the table.” In Chinese, we use 在 (zài).

The formula for this is Subject + 在 (zài) + Location (+ Preposition)

  • 我的朋友在图书馆 (wǒ de péng yǒu zài tú shū guǎn. — My friend is at the library.)
  • 我的朋友在图书馆里 (wǒ de péng yǒu zài tú shū guǎn lǐ. — My friend is in the library.)
  • 猫在桌子上 (māo zài zhuō zi shàng. — The cat is on the table.)

3. To say “there is/there are”

We use “to be” when we talk about the presence of an object. But, in Chinese we need to use 有 (yǒu), meaning “to have.”

For example:

  • 有猫在桌子上 (yǒu māo zài zhuō zi shàng. — There is a cat on the table.)
  • 有蚂蚁在厨房里 (yǒu mǎyǐ zài chú fáng lǐ. — There are ants in the kitchen.)

If you are confused about the difference between the appropriate use of words between Chinese and English, you can seek guidance from an italki Chinese teacher to remove your confusion. With italki, you can learn Chinese online from the comfort of your home. Book your lessons with your preferred teacher and start speaking Chinese like native speakers.

4. As a helping verb

English speakers use the verb “be” as part of the present or past continuous verb tenses. But in Chinese, the speakers use 在 (zài) to emphasize the continuous nature of the event they are talking about.

So the writing formula becomes: Subject + 在 (zài) + Verb (+ Object).

For instance:

  • 我在吃苹果 (wǒ zài chī píng guǒ. — I am eating an apple.)
  • 他在跑步 (tā zài pǎo bù. — He is running.)


These were the uses of Shi in Chinese. Know that, you will understand it over time. Try having conversations with native Chinese speakers to see how they structure their sentences and the verbs that they use.

Observing the talking patterns of native speakers is one of the most effective strategies to learn any foreign language. For example, there are several ways to say thank you in Chinese and you can learn all of them by observing how native speakers thank one another. 

Now that you know how to use 是 (shì) in Chinese, you are one step closer to sounding like a native speaker.

Related Posts