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How is 指 used, what is it's role in definitions such as this (from Wikipedia):

研究生是**获得学士学位后继续深造.

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In my understanding, 指 (zhi3) means "refers to". Sometimes it is interchangeable with 表示 (biao3shi4) or 表达 (biao3da2), which mean "expresses". Just like in an English dictionary, you might see a word with a definition that says X refers to Y or X is used to express Y. These words are used in a basically parallel way.

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so 是指 together means "refers to"? –  trideceth12 Feb 23 '12 at 5:11
    
Maybe "is referring to" would be close in English with all of our weird tenses. I think this 是 is not essential to the sentence, but adds emphasis. –  aelephant Feb 23 '12 at 23:16
    
@trideceth12 You are right. "是指" is used together, meaning "refers to". "是" is an essential part. (native speaker here) –  gonnastop Mar 19 '12 at 17:12

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