What could be simpler than the little verb “to be”?
A lot, as it turns out.
The good news is that the Chinese verb for “to be,” 是 (shì), isn’t irregular like it is in so many European languages.
(Oh, right, this is Chinese. There aren’t any irregular verbs at all. Just take a moment to bask in the glory of that before you move on.)
The bad news is that only a few of the concepts expressed by “be” in English are expressed with 是 (shì) in Chinese.
The really good news is that we’ll tell you exactly which expressions they are, and we’ll even tell you what to do about the ones that aren’t used with this tricky word. Not only that, but we’ll also give you helpful tips to practice using these super common expressions.
No big, abstract concepts here. Just simple, straightforward, useful Chinese.
To 是 (shì) or Not to 是 (shì): A Simple Guide to the Chinese Verb “to Be”
When to Use 是 (shì)
First off, when does the verb “to be” stick around in Chinese?
1. Use 是 (shì) to connect two nouns
是 (shì) is used like the English verb “to be” when you want to connect two nouns (or pronouns) together in a sentence to explain what something, or someone, is:
我是美国人。(wǒ shì měi guó rén – I am an American.) Literally: American person
Just like English, right?
Make it your own:
This is a great way to practice answers to some of the most common questions you’ll hear if you visit a Chinese-speaking country. Make sure you know how to tell people where you’re from by putting the name of your country into the blank:
我是 __ 人。 (wǒ shì ___ rén. – I am a(n) _____ person.)
Also, make sure you can tell people what you do, by substituting your job for 老师 (lǎoshī):
我是一个老师。(wǒ shì yí gè lǎo shī. – I am a teacher.)
This is also a great way to use simple sentences to practice vocabulary. Look around your house or work with a language partner and name the things you see.
这是手机。(zhè shì shǒu jī. – This is a cell phone.)
那是沙发。(nà shì shā fā. – That is a sofa.)
Or, if you’re not an absolute beginner, kick things up a notch and talk about what kind of things the things you see are. We’ll illustrate with an example:
苹果是一种水果。(píng guǒ shì yī zhǒng shuǐ guǒ. – Apples are a kind of fruit.)
2. Use 是 (shì) in the phrase 是不是 (shì bú shì) to ask a question or confirm information
The phrase 是不是 (shì bú shì) is one way of asking a question in Chinese. 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.”
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.)
However, the phrase 是不是 (shì bú shì) can also be added on to the end of a sentence to confirm something you think is true. For example, if you’re pretty sure someone is from Taiwan, you can confirm by asking:
你是台湾人，是不是？(nǐ shì Táiwān rén, shì bú shì. – You’re Taiwanese, aren’t you?)
You can confirm any type of information this way; it isn’t limited to sentences that already contain 是 (shì) as their main verb. So if you call someone up at dinnertime, you could ask her:
你在吃饭，是不是？(Nǐ zài chī fàn, shì bú shì. – You’re eating, aren’t you?)
The correct way to answer any of these questions is either 是 (shì), if the answer is “yes,” or 不是 (bú shì), if the answer is “no.”
Make it yours:
These are great sentences to practice with a language partner or a classmate. Take turns asking and answering. Granted, it may not be the most exciting conversation you’ll ever have, but still, you’ll be having a real conversation in Chinese.
A: 这是不是手机？(zhè shì bú shì shǒu jī? – Is this a cell phone?)
B: 是。那是不是沙发？(shì 。nà shì bú shì shā fā? – Yes. Is that a sofa?)
A: 不是。(bú shì – No.)
While these are grammar points that every beginning Chinese student will become familiar with, 是 (shì) shows up many other places in Chinese, too. Up next are a few simple phrases you can use to get yourself started with real Chinese conversations.
3. Use 是 (shì) to keep a conversation going with the phrase “是吗? “(shì ma)
If you’re tired of trying to string together Chinese sentences and want to keep the other person talking, throwing in a 是吗? (shì ma) here and there’s a good way to do it. It’s the Chinese equivalent of something like “Oh, really?” or “Yeah?”
As long as you don’t make yourself sound exceedingly skeptical, the other person will take it as a sign that you’re interested in what they’re saying and keep on going.
Make it yours:
Next time someone starts telling you a story in Chinese, try responding with 是吗? (shì ma) when they pause. As long as the other person keeps talking, you don’t have to.
4. Use 是 (shì) to agree in conversation
Another good way to show you’re following a conversation is to occasionally agree with the person you’re listening to. To do that, try using these 是 (shì) phrases:
- 是的 (shì de) is for mild agreement. It’s the equivalent of “uh-huh” or “yeah.” This mostly serves to show the speaker that you’re listening, you’re empathizing with them or you want to hear more.
- 是啊 (shì a) is a bit stronger. Now you’re not just being polite—you agree with what you’re hearing and you feel a bit excited about it. If you want to make sure the speaker knows how you feel, you can interject a 是啊 (shì a) a during a pause. This is like saying “Right!”
- 就是 (jiù shì) is the most emphatic of the three. There’s no doubt in your mind that the speaker is correct and you want to express your firm agreement. Think about the English phrases “Of course!” or “I know!”
Make it yours:
Just like 是吗? (shì ma), these phrases help to transform you into an active conversation partner. Even if you can’t think of anything else to contribute, these phrases will ensure that you’re not at a complete loss for words. Again, try these out in place of the smile and nod you usually use when someone launches out with a long narrative in Chinese.
When to not Use 是 (shì)
By now it should be clear that the verb 是 (shì) is really common in Chinese. But it still isn’t nearly as common as the verb “to be” is in English. There are at least four common ways in which English speakers use “be” that 是 (shì) just can’t be used in Chinese.
1. Do not use 是 (shì) to connect 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 communicate these ideas.
Instead, use 很 (hěn)
Chinese sentences of this sort don’t require a verb. Instead, they typically include an intensifying adverb such as很 (hěn) “very” between the subject and the adjective.
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. Do not use 是 (shì) to connect a noun and a prepositional phrase
In English we say “My friend is in the library” or “The cat is on the table.” Not so in Chinese.
Instead, use 在 (zài).
在 (zài) is a preposition meaning “at”—but in sentences like these, it takes the same place that the verb “be” does in the English ones. After that you have the location. Then, if “at” doesn’t describe your location well enough, you can end your location phrase with a second preposition (postposition, if you want to be technical about it).
Got that? It’s 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. Do not use 是 (shì) to say “there is/there are”
In English, we use “to be” when talking about the existence or presence of an object: “There’s a cat on the table,” “there are ants in the kitchen.” In Chinese? Not so much.
Instead, use 有 (yǒu).
Chinese takes yet another strategy here: It uses the verb 有 (yǒu), meaning “to have.” 有 (yǒu) goes at the beginning of the sentence. No subject is necessary. Then follow the same word order we just learned for location sentences.
有猫在桌子上 (yǒu māo zài zhuō zi shàng. – There’s a cat on the table.)
有蚂蚁在厨房里 (yǒu mǎyǐ zài chú fáng lǐ. – There are ants in the kitchen.)
4. Do not use 是 (shì) as a helping verb
Finally, English speakers use the verb “be” as part of the present or past continuous verb tenses: “I am eating an apple,” “He is running.”
As you’ve probably guessed by now, Chinese speakers don’t.
Instead, use 在 (zài).
Chinese speakers use 在 (zài) when they want to emphasize the continuous nature of the event they’re talking about.
And yes, this is the same 在 (zài) we were just talking about. It even takes the same position in the sentence that “be” does in English. So in Chinese, you’ve got Subject + 在 (zài) + Verb (+ Object).
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.)
FAQ: You Really Can’t Use 是 (shì) to Connect a Noun and an Adjective?
Ah, you’ve been paying attention, haven’t you? You’re pretty sure you heard someone use 是 (shì) followed by an adjective. First, congratulations on your excellent listening skills!
Second, there are in fact quite a few places that an adjective might follow 是 (shì) in Chinese, but they aren’t the equivalent of simple sentences of the sort “The leaves are green” or “The man is fat.”
We won’t go into these in detail here, but if you’re curious, we’ll give you some links to explore on your own.
The 是 – 的 (shì-de) construction
The first of these is what’s often called the 是－的 (shì-de) construction. This is used to put emphasis on whatever words show up between the 是 (shì) and the 的 (de). You might hear it in a sentence like the following:
树叶是绿色的。(shū yè shì lǜsè de. – The leaves are green.)
Note the 的 (de) at the end of the sentence. This sentence is likely the answer to a question about what color the leaves are.
For more information about what the 是 – 的 (shì-de) construction does, check out this Chinese grammar wiki entry.
老是 (lǎoshì) or 总是 (zǒngshì)
A second place you’ll hear 是 (shì) followed by an adjective is when 是 (shì) is actually part of the word, like 老是 (lǎoshì) or 总是 (zǒngshì), both of which mean “always.”
So you might hear someone say “她总是很高兴” (tā zǒng shì hěn gāo xìng) “She’s always happy.” But this isn’t the same as using 是 (shì) to connect a noun and an adjective. Here, 是 (shì) isn’t acting as a verb.
Oh, and the post title?
It’s catchy, but it turns out that Chinese also fails to use the verb “be” when pondering questions of continued existence à la Shakespeare. This gets translated
生存还是毁灭，这是个问题 (Shēng cún hái shì huǐ miè, zhè shì gè wèn tí) (To survive or to perish, that is the question.)
We’ll leave that one for Hamlet to ponder.
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