Emphasizing Details in Chinese

Today’s article is going to discuss three ways to use the 是…的 (shì…de) construction in Chinese. Put simply, this construction emphasizes details in Chinese. The speaker wishes to draw the listener’s focus to a particular point, and so they put those details after 是 (shì) and before 的 (de). 

Similar to how you can’t assume 了(le) indicates past tense, this construction also does not necessarily indicate any particular tense. However, most of the time, the speaker is referring to details about the past.

In the Mandarin Blueprint Method course (MBM), we use three tags to distinguish separate ways to emphasize details in a sentence.

Let’s go through them one at a time:

The Shì…de Construction for Descriptions

A speaker will often emphasize a description in Chinese, for example:

这只羊是白的。MBM Level 15
Zhè zhī yáng shì bái de.
This sheep is a white (sheep).

As you can see from this MBM Level 15 example sentence, the speaker chooses to emphasize that the sheep is white. Not how furry it is, or how loud it goes “baaaaa,” but that it is white.  

我的妈妈是最美的。MBM Level 16
Wǒde māma shì zuì měi de.
My mom is the most beautiful. 

I like to imagine that the speaker is in a back & forth argument with someone about who is the most beautiful person. The speaker needs to emphasize that his/her mom is ‘the most beautiful.’ He/she could theoretically say, “My mom is beautiful” (我的妈妈很美。Wǒde māmā hěn měi.), but that wouldn’t emphasize the point as emphatically.

十个人以内是免费的。MBM Level 17
Shíge rén yǐnèi shì miǎnfèi de.
Ten people or fewer are free of charge.

十个人以内 (Shíge rén yǐnèi) means “within ten people,” but the speaker clearly thinks the more important detail is “free.” A marketing guru, indeed! 

The Grammar Structure for Person, Place or Thing

Sometimes, it’s a noun (aka, Person Place or Thing – PPT) that needs to be emphasized in Chinese and, therefore, go-between 是 (shì) & 的 (de). For example:

桌子上的勺子是你的吗?MBM Level 13
Zhuōzi shàng de sháozi shì nǐde ma?
Is the spoon on the table yours?

The first part of the sentence establishes the subject of 勺子 (sháozi) (more specifically 桌子上的勺子 (zhuōzi shàng de sháozi)) and then emphasizes that they want to get to the bottom of whether or not it belongs to YOU.

我爱你!我的心是你一个人的。MBM Level 13
Wǒ ài nǐ! wǒde xīn shì nǐ yíge rén de.
I love you! My heart is yours and yours only.

***The translation of this sentence isn’t a direct one, but it gets across how to understand adding “一个人 (yīgè rén)” going after “你 (nǐ)”. In this heartwarming exchange, the speaker is attempting to be romantic by not only saying that their heart “是你的 (shì nǐ de)” but also “是你一个人的 (shì nǐ yīgè rén de)”. It’s a double emphasis of love! <3***

中国人的名字差不多都是三个字的。MBM Level 22
Zhōngguó rén de míngzi chàbuduō dōu shì sān ge zì de.
Almost all Chinese people’s names are three characters long.

Here the speaker wants to create a teachable moment by putting the main point of the sentence between 是 (shì) & 的 (de). If you didn’t know that most Chinese names are made up of three characters, this sentence makes it easy to understand.

The Shì…de Construction for Verbs

This type of structure contains a mini-sentence between 是 (shì) & 的 (de). It helps specify not only who was involved or a description, but how or where something happened. Let’s take a look at the first sentence:

桌子上哪个苹果是你买的? MBM Level 20
Zhuōzi shàng něige píngguǒ shì nǐ mǎi de?
Which of the apples on the table are the ones you bought?

Note that we have an action, or a “Does What” (买 (mǎi) – to buy) along with a “Guest” (你 (nǐ) – you), in between 是 (shì) & 的 (de). If you take away the 买 (mǎi), the sentence would fall into the above category and would only be asking about possession. Adding 买 (mǎi) dives deeper into not merely which apples belong to you, but specifically which ones belong to you because you bought them.

我和我的女朋友就是在某个公园认识的。MBM Level 23
Wǒ hé wǒde nǚ péngyǒu jiùshì zài mǒuge gōngyuán rènshi de.
It was at a particular/certain park that I met my girlfriend.

你是几岁成为司机的?MBM Level 25
Nǐ shì jǐ suì chéngwéi sījī de?
How old were you when you became a driver?

If I want to know someone’s age when they did something, this sentence provides the perfect template. 你是几岁 (Nǐ shì jǐ suì) [INSERT THING THEY DID] 的 (de)? 

As you can see, the 是…的 (shì…de) construction provides a simple but powerful structure to determine the details of a situation. 

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