Grammar notes: 是…的 construction mysteries

I decided it was time to emerge from flashcard misery and keep this blog going.  So without further ado, a question from a reader that got buried in a comment section:

I’ve noticed that Taiwanese speakers (and maybe others) tack “de”s onto the ends of random sentences. I asked a Chinese friend what the rule for that was and she couldn’t say. So I thought “meh. I’ll just use it when it sounds right.” But according to her, my knowledge of a sentence sounding “right” is about as limited as the Royal Family’s gene pool. So is there a rule to this?

So I have a guess about what’s going on here.  It’s probably not a random sentence–at least, so far as I know, there’s not a particle that’s pronounced ‘de’, though my knowledge of such things is pretty limited.  I think what you’ll probably find is that somewhere in the sentence, there is also a ‘shì’ that appears to be random.  They go together.  However, while I’ve noticed that this is pretty common, I too am a bit puzzled about when to use it. Here’s an example of 是 … 的 (shì … de) in action:

周二 回来
shì zhōu’èr huílái de
I am Tuesday return de

What you wouldn’t say (but might think you should say if you’re anything like me in your Mandarin proficiency, or lack thereof) is:

周二 回来
zhōu’èr huílái le
I Tuesday return le

Now there might be one other important bit of data here–when I was discussing these two sentences with some friends, the context we were talking about was an answer to a question–When did you come back? So what I can’t tell you is whether, if you were just talking about your week, whether the second one might be acceptable.

I actually looked it up in a book (!) and am told that this construction is used for focus when talking about past events. In other words, I have to use the first sentence because I’m answering a question that specifically inquired about the time I came back, so I put the focus on the day. Apparently, if I understand the book correctly, I can put the focus on pretty much anything except the verb this way.  It’s sort of like saying in English “It’s Tuesday that I came back” or “It’s me who came back on Tuesday”, except it’s far more common in Chinese than English.  (Don’t even try to convince me that you’d say “It’s I who came back on Tuesday” in anything approaching a normal conversation.)

Those of you who speak better Chinese: Is this the answer to all mysteries? Or is there more to it than this?

And as long as we’re on the topic, here are a few other questions I have no answers to:

  1. My book also says the 是 (shì) can be omitted–which makes me a little bit skeptical. If the whole point of the 是 (shì) is to tell you, by its placement in the sentence, what’s being focused, then how can you get away with deleting it?  Or would this actually just happen in speech where you use some sort of stress to show where the focus is?
  2. Why the 的(de), anyway?  This 的 is normally used to show that something is modifying a noun–it follows possessives, relative clauses, and adjectives.  I fail to see the connection.  Is there one?

8 Responses to “Grammar notes: 是…的 construction mysteries”

  1. 1 JP Villanueva June 5, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    wow, when i saw the examples in this post, I immediately thought, “the answer must be focus.”

    And then I made a plate of spaghetti and grumbled to myself about how it’s impossible to get something with explanatory accuracy for Mandarin, how people are perfectly content to ad hoc some colorful, descriptive rational that allows the speaker to keep face, rather than saying, “I don’t know.”

    (sorry for that frustrating culturally biased digression)

    Then I scrolled down and read the rest of the post, and saw the focus explanation! wow!

    Remember that English has the STRESS mechanism that allows us to focus on stuff in situ; it figures that mandarin would have a structure.

    1) when the book says “是 (shì) can sometimes be omitted” to me this smacks of an ad hoc descriptive answer. I suspect there is a lonely 的 construction (or perhaps there are several)that are separate from the 是的 construction, and they just haven’t gotten to the bottom of it.

    2) I have a couple of prematurely formed theories about what happens with 的. One theory I have is that might be an “adjective maker:” whatever word or phrase precedes it behaves as an adjective. But I must admit, that’s a saturday morning armchair ad hoc description; maybe I just said it to save face… ;)

  2. 2 staples June 7, 2010 at 5:12 am

    Yay! My question got answered! Thanks, btw :)

    Okay, so if I want to put the stress on the subject, I can add a not-so-random “shi” after it and stick “de” at the end of the sentence? And if I want to sound all cool and hip and up-to-date in front of any Taiwanese people, I can occasionally skip the “shi”?

    So if there’s a “shi” in the sentence already. . . like, if I’m annoyed with someone and say “ni shi yi ge ben dan” and my friend looks up and says “wo bu shi” and I want to say, “not you, he’s the idiot.” could I use the shi/de sentence structure? like “bu shi ni, ta shi ben dan de”

    • 3 Katie Tang June 8, 2010 at 8:22 pm

      Hmm. The “shi” should go before the subject, but otherwise, that sounds about right–although it’s been a long time since I’ve heard any Taiwanese Mandarin, so don’t take my word for what sounds cool and hip. Actually, I write a blog about grammar. That should be enough to tell you you’re better off not taking my advice on what’s cool and hip :) As to your second question, that seems to be the gist of it. You can use it for contrastive examples like that one and also (I assume) for showing what part of the sentence is an answer to a question that was asked, or just showing what part of a sentence you want to stress.

      • 4 staples June 9, 2010 at 8:31 am

        haha. of course grammar is cool and hip!

        ah. so it would be “bu shi ni, shi ta ben dan de.” I think this will come in handy. . . thanks :)

      • 5 Katie Tang June 10, 2010 at 6:35 am

        Oh, hmmm. I just realized–actually, I don’t know what happens when there’s already a “shi” in the sentence.

  3. 6 Håkan Friberg September 12, 2010 at 6:48 am

    I don’t know if you’re still following this thread, but here are my two cents worth. I just hope they don’t make you even more confused.

    One important reason why Chinese grammars are so confusing is that they focus on the sentence level and not on the discourse or conversation level. Many phenomena are only explicable if you take the context into account.

    One important aspect of Chinese grammar that is often ignored is the old knowledge/new knowledge distinction. The main difference between conversation snippets using the shi是…de的 construction and le了 lies in which information is already established as fact in the conversation and which isn’t.

    So when you try to explain the difference between
    我 是 周二 回来 的
    wǒ shì zhōu’èr huílái de
    I am Tuesday return de

    and the improbable sentence
    *我 周二 回来 了
    wǒ zhōu’èr huílái le
    I Tuesday return le
    you have to take this distinction into account.

    Shi…de is used to introduce new facts/details about an event already established as fact.

    Post-verbal le了 is used to introduce a new (whole, completed) event as fact.

    Also, the topic or temporary focus of the conversation is usually placed first in a sentence, if it is not represented by a verb phrase.

    So, let’s assume you are talking about your arrival in Beijing.

    a, ni zai beijing le.
    Oh, so you’re in Beijing.

    This establishes the fact that you are in Beijing, and that this is contrary to what I was assuming. Ergo, you must have arrived at some point, but I don’t know when.

    ni shi shenme shihou huilai de.
    When did you get back?

    The topic is now your rearrival in Beijing, but VP:s cannot be placed in the topic position, so we use shi…de to ask for details about this topic. You cannot use the shi…de construction if the action denoted by the VP is not already established as fact in the conversation.

    wo shi zhou’er huilai de.
    I came back Tuesday.

    The topic is still my rearrival, and I am providing details about it, so the shi…de construction is appropriate.

    Post-verbal le了 on the other hand, is used to introduce a new event as fact in a conversation where this has not already been done. Therefore it should not be used if the topic is the event denoted by the VP.

    If, however, a certain time, such as Tuesday, is the current topic, le了 can be used to introduce a new event as fact.

    zhouyi ni hai zai Shanghai. Zhou’er ne?
    So Monday you were still in Shanghai. What about Tuesday?

    zhou’er wo huilaile.
    Tuesday I returned (to Beijing where I still am).

    Note that zhou’er周二 is now in the topic position (first in sentence), since that is what we are talking about.

    I hope this was useful. :-)

  4. 7 Håkan Friberg September 12, 2010 at 6:52 am

    And it should be

    bu shi ni, shi ta shi ge bendan.
    It’s not you, it’s he who is a jerk.


  1. 1 Grammar notes: 是 … 的 without the 是? « The (y)east also rises Trackback on August 16, 2010 at 9:44 pm

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