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How to use 是 (shì, “to be”) in Mandarin Chinese?

By: Chun-Yi Peng Thu Jan 04 2024
Mandarin chinese
Sentences With Special Verb Predicates

This is probably one of the very first questions that you’d encounter in your journey of Chinese learning, and here we have you all covered! Let’s start with the basics:


(Wǒ shì lǎoshī.)

I am a teacher.

Like in English, you would say, “I am teacher” (with no “a”) in Mandarin. And if you want to ask someone “Are you a teacher?” you would say:


(Nǐ shì lǎoshī ma?)

Are you a teacher?

Did you notice that you don’t have to change the word order to make a yes-no question in Mandarin? All you need to do is add a  (ma) at the end of a statement to turn that into a yes-no question. What’s even better is that you do not need to conjugate  (shì) or any verbs for past/future in Mandarin. Sounds great, right?

However, there is a catch: you cannot use 是 (shì) with adjectives, which is probably one of the most common mistakes learners make. For example,

X 中文难。

(Zhōngwén shì nán.)

Chinese is hard.

Instead of this, what you’re supposed to say is:

O 中文很难。

(Zhōngwén hěn nán.)

Chinese is hard.

Why? Let’s read on!

Table of Contents

    (shì, be) is a verb that connects two, nouns but remember, nouns and pronouns only, never adjectives. For example,


    (Tā shì lǎoshī.)

    He is a teacher.

    Here, (shì, be) connects (, he) and 老师 (lǎoshī, teacher). You can think of (shì, be) as the “=” sign. What you’re saying is that (, he) = 老师 (lǎoshī, teacher). And if you want to make a negative sentence, simply add (, not) before (shì, be), like this:


    (Tā shì lǎoshī ma?)

    Is he a teacher?

    Like we said at the beginning of this post, we don’t need to change the word order to make a yes-no question in Mandarin. All you do is add a  (ma) at the end of a statement. If you’re feeling fancy, you can also use the A-not-A structure, where you repeat the (shì, be):


    (Tā shìbùshì lǎoshī?)

    Is he a teacher?

    So you’re literally saying, “Is he or is he not a teacher?” Easy right?

    Now that we discussed the role of in these sentences, you may have seen structures where in structures like these is omitted. This is done mainly in spoken language and you may want to read our post on nominal predicates that explains this in more detail.

    in most cases is not obligatory. There are two cases in which cannot be omitted:

    • With demonstrative adjectives:


      (Zhè shì shǒu jī.)

      This is a cell phone.

    • When we classify an item to a category:


      (Píng guǒ shì yī zhǒng shuǐ guǒ. )

      Apples are a kind of fruit.

    In many ways, (shì, be) acts like “be” in English, but do not use (shì, be) with adjectives.


    Never use (shì, be) to connect a noun or pronoun and an adjective. In Mandarin, you use an adverb of degree, like (hên, very), to connect the subject and adjective.

    X 花是红。

    Huā shì hóng.

    O 花很红。

    (Huā hěn hóng.)

    The flower is red.

    Using (shì, be) for adjectives, like in the first example, is one of the most common mistakes many English speakers make as it is easy to assume that (shì, be) works exactly like “be” in English.

    How to use 是 (shì, “be”) for tag questions in Mandarin Chinese?

    (shì, be) can also be attached to the end of a sentence to make a tag question. Tag questions with (shì, be) are for confirmation of a previous statement. To make a tag question with (shì, be), we can use either 是吗 (shìma) or 是不是 (shìbùshì). For example,


    Nǐ xiǎng huí jiā, shìma?



    (Nǐ xiǎng huí jiā, shìbùshì?)

    You want to go home, right?

    Now, let’s talk about something that’s a bit more challenging.

    How to use 是...的 (shì…de) for emphasis in Mandarin Chinese?

    是...的 (shì…de) structure is quite versatile. It is similar to the “it is…that…” pattern in English. You can use that to emphasize when, where, how, with who, etc. an event occurred. However, 是...的 (shì…de) cannot be used to emphasize the grammatical object in a sentence. Look at the following example sets: the first sentence is how you’d normally say it, and the second is how you use the 是...的 (shì…de) structure to emphasize part of the sentence.

    • When?


      Wǒ qùnián xué Zhōngwén.


      (Wǒ shì qùnián xué Zhōngwén de.)

      I studied Chinese last year.

    • Where?


      Tā zài Běijīng xué Zhōngwén.


      (Tā shì zài Běijīng xué Zhōngwén de.)

      He studied Chinese in Beijing.

    • How?


      Tā gēn Lǐ lǎoshī xué Zhōngwén.


      (Tā shì gēn Lǐ lǎoshī xué Zhōngwén de.)

      He studied Chinese with teacher Li.

    • Subject


      Tā dǎ wǒ.


      (Shì tā dǎ wǒ de.)

      He hit me.

    • Adjectives


      Zhèxiē guāndiǎn hěn zhèngquè.


      (Zhèxiē guāndiǎn shì hěn zhèngquè de.)

      These points of view are quite right.

    • Action


      Wǒ xué Yīngguó wénxué.


      (Wǒ shì xué Yīngguó wénxué de.)

      I study English literature.

    Remember, since 是...的 (shì… de) cannot be used to emphasize a grammatical object, you cannot say:

    X 我学英国文学

    (Wǒ xué shì yīngguó wénxué de.)

    It is English literature that I study.


    Did you notice that in the example above, (shì, be) is followed by an adjective?


    (Zhèxiē guāndiǎn shì hěn zhèngquè de.)

    These points of view are quite right.

    This is the only case where you would see (shì, be) used with adjectives. You only see that with the 是...的 (shì…de) structure.

    As you can see in all these examples, 是...的 (shì…de) is a very useful structure. You simply add  (shì) right in front of the phrase you want to emphasize, and  (de) at the end of the sentence. And in all those cases, you can even drop the  (shì)! Just make sure you never drop  (de)! This structure is quite useful, right?

    When to use 在 (zài) and 有 (yǒu) instead of 是 (shì)?

    You should not use  (shì) to express that something exists in / on / at a place:

    我在学校 。

    (Wǒ zài xuéxiào. )

    I am at school.


    (Wòshì zài lóushàng.)

    The bedrooms are upstairs.


    (Zhǔwòshì zài nǎr?)

    Where is the master bedroom?

    We can see the basic pattern is: subject +  (zài) + location.  (zài) is the only verb needed here.

    You could also read our post on 在 (zài) where we discuss how  (shì) cannot be used to express existence in a place!

    Finally, in Mandarin, there are no counterparts to the "there is / are" pattern in English. (yôu, to have) will cover it all. So remember, when talking about "there is something at some place," the Mandarin sentence will be structured like "some place has something."


    (Fángzi wàimian yǒu yí ge huāyuán.)

    There is a garden outside the house.

    (lit.) (Lit.: Outside house has a garden)


    (Lóushàng yǒu sān jiān wòshì.)

    There are three bedrooms upstairs.

    (lit.) (Lit.: Upstairs have three bedrooms.)

    To sum up

    In this post, we discussed one of the most important verbs in Mandarin: (shì, be). It is like the English “be” in many ways, but the most important difference is that you don’t use that for connecting adjectives. The 是...的  (shì structure is useful for emphasizing a particular part of a sentence.

    Do not use  (shì) to express existence in / on / at a place nor to express “there is / are.”

    Alright, that’s pretty much everything you need to know about (shì, be)! Now try out our exercises to see how much you’ve learned!

    Downloadable Resources

    Elevate your language-learning journey to new heights with the following downloadable resources.

    How to use 是 (shì, “to be”) in Mandarin Chinese

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