Archive for August, 2010

Grammar notes: 是 … 的 without the 是?

A while back, I wrote about how the 是 … 的(shì … de) construction is used for focus. I even went so far as to look it up in a grammar book, where I was informed that this construction could be used without the 是(shì). I was not the only one to find this claim a bit sketchy. So, for our further edification, here’s an example of a sentence where 的(de) is used for focus without a 是(shì).  The following two sentences are identical except for the final 的(de). (For the non-character-readers among you, please note that this is not the same character as the medial 得(de).)

房间 打扫 干干净净
fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjìngjìng de
she ba room clean (v.) de clean (adj. red.) DE

‘She cleaned the room until it was REALLY CLEAN.’ (focus on really clean)

房间 打扫 干干净净
fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjīngjīng
she ba room clean de clean (red.

‘She CLEANED the room until it was really clean.’ (focus on cleaned)

In the first sentence, the final 的(de) places the focus on 干干净净(gāngānjìngjìng) ‘very clean’, the result of the action.  In the second sentence, the focus falls instead on the action itself, 打扫 (dǎsǎo) ‘clean’.  I assume that this is the natural place for the focus to fall in this sentence. The 把(bǎ), I think, takes emphasis away from 房间(fángjiān) ‘room’, and 她(tā) ‘she’ is presumably given information, so also a poor candidate for focus. So the added 的(de) in the first sentence is a focus marker; it draws the focus away from its natural placement–and in this case, at least, places it on the information that immediately precedes it.

So it looks like the book was right about one thing.  的(de) can be used for focus without a 是(shì) in sight. But is this in fact an example of a 是 … 的(shì … de) construction without the 是(shì)? If it is, then we should be able to add 是(shì) into the first sentence somewhere and (and this is the really important bit) the meaning and focus should be the same. How does our example sentence measure up? It is possible to put a 是(shì) into the sentence, but only in one location, at the beginning. The resulting sentence does have a good focus-shifting 是 … 的 (shì … de) construction. However, the focus falls, not on 干干净净(gāngānjìngjìng) ‘very clean’, as it did in the first sentence, but rather on 她(tā) ‘she’:

房间 打扫 干干净净
shì fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjìngjìng de
be she ba room clean (v.) de clean (adj. red.) DE

‘SHE cleaned the room until it was really clean.’ (focus on she)

So, grammar book, I hate to say it, but I think you’ve got it only half right. There is a 是 … 的(shì … de) construction, and it is used for focus. 的(de) can also be used for focus, but it doesn’t come from an underlying 是 … 的(shì … de) construction where the 是(shì) just happens to be omitted, or at least, not always. The two might be related, but they’re not the same thing.



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