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The phrase 自以爲是 loosely means "to think that one's self infallible". 自以为 makes sense to me, but the 是 confuses me. What does it mean here?

I know it should mean "fallible", but the dictionaries I have consulted give the opposite meaning (as in, they have 是 meaning things like "is exactly" or "correct", meaning 爲是 would be incorrect, which is the opposite of infallible!

  • infallible = "correct", so 自以为是 = "to think one's self correct/in-the-right". Not sure why you think the 是 should correspond to "fallible"; it's not supposed to. 自 = oneself, 以为 = believe to be, 是 = correct/in-the-right. – Stumpy Joe Pete Apr 24 '17 at 22:07
  • Thank you! I figured out where I went wrong, I was not treating 以为 as its own compound. I was treating it as corresponding with 是, 为是 or "not correct". – Caoimhghin Apr 24 '17 at 22:27
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“自以为是” is originated from classic Chinese.

In Literally,

自: oneself

以为:think

是: correct / correct things. see Wiki Chinese Dict the 2nd or 3rd. Similarly, the word "是非" originally means (arguing about)"right and wrong", then means "argument and debate" nowadays.

So to directly translate “自以为是”: ones always think he/she is right.

Which means opinionated/full of oneself/fancies oneself

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  • Where does the compound 以 + 为 come from to mean "think"? I am an amatuer, so when I saw the characters, I did not know to mentally group 以 with 为, so I read 以 as "to regard as", and then 为是 as "incorrect". An amatuer mistake. I suppose it is just a matter of memorizing more. – Caoimhghin Apr 25 '17 at 5:27
  • @Caoimhghin '以为' is a combination. Usually regarded as think/consider/believe. In other case it has meaning of "...think it is...." and "....use as..." – Kevman Apr 25 '17 at 5:31
  • I also just realized that I was confusing 爲 for 無 because of the older character. – Caoimhghin Apr 25 '17 at 5:34
  • 以为 is not a compund word, instead, 以 and 为 are two separate words. 以 means think, 为 means is. – ltux May 12 '17 at 7:53
  • @ltux thn21.com/wen/yufa/14731.html multiple usages – Kevman May 12 '17 at 14:18
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自以为是 is a chengyu derived from ancient Chinese literature. There is a very important thing you should bear in mind when learning chengyu, that is, in old Chinese, monosyllabic words are much more common than bisyllabic words. Normally you shouldn't try to interpret the structure of chengyu by morden Chinese grammar rules. 以为 is a bisyllabic compound word in morden Chinese, but it's not in old Chinese, at least not in 自以为是. Instead, 以 and 为 are two separate monosyllabic words. 自以为是 is a inverted sentence. The "nomral" order is 以自为是. It's made up of four monosyllabic words. 以 means think, 自 means oneself, 为 means be, 是 means right. This will be very obvious if you read @Pedroski's example carefully:

《荀子·荣辱》:“凡斗者必自以为是,而以人为非也。”

The whole sentence means: Those who fight will always think that they themself are right and others wrong.

Now comapre the word order of 自以为是 and 以人为非.

自        以        为        是
oneself   think    be        right

以        人        为        非
think     others   be        wrong

Obviously, the meanings of 自以为是 and 以人为非 in 凡斗者必自以为是,而以人为非也 are related to each other and it's easy the reason that the structure of these two 4-character phrases should be symmetric, and the syntatical functions of the corresponding characters in the two phrase should be the same. Now it's easy to get the conclusion that 自以为是 is actually 以自为是.

Then what's the reason for this inverted order? In fact, this is a very common structure in old Chinese. If the object is 自, it can sometimes be put before the verb for emphasis. Other examples are 情不自禁,不能自已,作茧自缚,扪心自问 and so on.

There is a chengyu 自欺欺人, which means to deceive oneself as well as others. You can compare 自欺 and 欺人 with 自以为是 and 以人为非.

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  • I don't agree this is 宾语前置. "自" is still the subject. The object is a clause "为是", and the subject of this clause is omitted since it's the same as the subject of the main sentence. Therefore, 自以为是 is the abbreviation of 自己认为自己是对的. A true example of 宾语前置 is: 时不我待, in which 我 is the object of 待. – Harry Summer May 13 '17 at 4:09
  • @HarrySummer Obviously, the meanings of 自以为是 and 以人为非 in “凡斗者必自以为是,而以人为非也“ are related to each other and it's easy the reason that the structure of these two 4-character phrases should be symmetric. If you disagree that 自以为是 is actually 以自为是,then you must explain why 以人为非 is 以人为非 instead of 人以为非. – ltux May 13 '17 at 5:28
  • I think you missed my point. You mentioned in your answer this is a very common structure in old Chinese ... object ... can sometimes be put before the verb. But for 自以为是,it is not this structure, because 自 is not the object of 以. The object of 以 should be "(自)为是", where the subject 自 in the object clause is omitted. As for 以人为非,人为非 is the object of 以, and the subject is omitted. There is no anything inverted, only ignored. – Harry Summer May 13 '17 at 7:45
  • You claim that in 自以为是, the object is omitted, and in 以人为是, the subject is omitted. Sorry I can't see the logic behind your argument. Why two phrases that is highly related in meaning and grammatical structure have totally different sentence style? You didn't give any convincing arguments. In fact, there doesn't exist something like 'object-omission structure' in Chinese, there is only 'subject-omission structure'. The subject of the two phrases are both 斗者. The subject of 自以为是 is also 斗者, not 自 as you imagined. – ltux May 13 '17 at 8:13
  • Chinese is a Null-subject language, not a Null-object language. There doens't exist a null-object language on Earth. – ltux May 13 '17 at 8:14
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Have a look here

Change 是 for 对 Baidu give these 2 examples:

《荀子·荣辱》:“凡斗者必自以为是,而以人为非也。”

《孟子·尽心下》:“众皆悦之,自以为是。”

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