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I created a sentence earlier today stating "他是一点儿严厉," but I was told that it was better if I say "他有一点儿严厉”。They didn't really know why, but just that it made more sense - could someone elaborate when to use 有 vs 是 in the sense of describing objects with adjectives? Hopefully what I'm saying makes sense :)

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有(一)点 as a set can use to mean "a little too...". See this Chinese Grammar Wiki page.

Some examples from the page:

我 有点 饿 。
I'm a little hungry.

这个 菜 有点 辣 。
This dish is a little too spicy.

昨天 有一点 热 。
Yesterday it was a little too hot.

是 does not have this usage, so 他是一点儿严厉 is wrong.

However, you can say 他是有一点儿严厉, where 是 is used for emphasis.

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一点 makes 有 valid. According to dictionaries, one of the usage of 有 is to describe extent (how large, how big, how severe, etc.). E. g. 他有两米高. (not 他有高). In your case, 他有一点儿严厉 makes sense, whilst 他有严厉 does not because it doesn't specify the extent(一点儿).

是 + adj is used for emphasis, denoting the sense of really or indeed. E. g. 他是严厉(he's indeed strict)。他是聪明(he's indeed smart)。We put an emphasis on 是 when we say those sentences, or they might sound wrong.

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@fefe's answer about 有一点 as a set is correct. It is of course colloquial only.

There is one more thing.

When you compare 是 to the English be, 是 is only used in predicative statement. (Such as the exact one I just used.) 是 is not used as the universal linking verb before a descriptive adjective.

"He is strict" in English attaches the adjective "strict" to the object in question "he" as a linking verb. 他是一点儿严厉 breaks up the colloquial word phrase 有一点儿。But moreover, 严厉 is not used as an adjective that requires linking verb. (严厉 is a descriptive quality. But that does not make it adjective in the same style as in English. Semantic does not mandate syntax.)

是 is indeed used for emphasis as @fefe mentioned. That often places 是 in the same place as the English "be" even when the function of 是 is not as a linking verb. For example, 他是严厉 is used by Chinese speakers and is better translated as "that he is strict" or "he is indeed strict" depending on the context to give emphasis or affirmation.

In short:

有一点 is colloquially almost as if "is a little" in English -- ie. containing an inferred linking verb. That explains 他有一点儿严厉

是 is not a universal linking verb for adjective. 是 is not used for comparative adjectives. It is comparable to the English "be" only in 1) predicative statements, 2) for special emphasis, 3) as linking verb for words modified into adjective using ...的.

有 vs 是 are not comparable per se. (Though the usage of 是 deserves considerations and clarifications along the line of this thread. So good question.)

EDIT: incorporated user21820's comment.

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  • 严厉 indeed is an adjective, while 严厉的 is not. So, both 他是严厉 and 他是严厉的 are correct. However they demonstrate different usages of 是. The former is for emphasis, and the latter is for linking usage. – dan Aug 19 at 0:15
  • @dan: If it is for emphasis only, it is not adjective the same way in English. In English, adjectives are -- in almost every instance -- words that can be used to decorate a noun, usually before the noun and before the adjective people use an article (e.g. the). You cannot use 严厉 to decorate a noun the same way many other descriptive words can in Chinese. – Argyll Aug 19 at 13:28
  • You got exactly right! That's why I strongly encourage to not use English grammar to interpret/understand Chinese. But the fact is that many people do that way including many of native Chinese speakers. – dan Aug 19 at 14:55
  • @dan: ya good point. I think native speakers are not the natural authoritative source of grammar unless they happen to study linguistics. Only when studying a second language, you would attempt to summarize grammar and attempt to use proposed grammar to predict legible sentences. It is that process that makes someone acutely aware of the underlying grammar. So instead, I'd rather see what an English or other language speaker say about Chinese grammar. – Argyll Aug 19 at 16:03
  • @dan: In the earlier example, 严厉的 can be used to decorate nouns. e.g. 他是位严厉的父亲. 严厉 itself cannot be. The 是+quality phrase in Chinese is probably something else different from be + adjective in English. We see 是+adjective (I think we do?) and we also see perhaps 是+noun for emphasis. – Argyll Aug 19 at 16:09
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// Non-native

In Chinese there are verbal adjectives.

I am tall. 我高。not 我是高。

高 is a verbal adjective here. It does not mean ''tall'', it means ''to be tall''. So the verb 是 is not used with verbal adjectives.

Here are some other examples.

我严厉。我饿。我累。我胖。 Get the idea ?

Now , in Chinese to say ''a little'' is 有点儿 or as you've put it 有一点儿。

我有点儿严厉。我有点儿饿。我有点儿累。我有点儿胖。

The 是 is built into the verbal adjective 严厉, and 有 is part of the 点儿 structure.

If you want to say ''I am indeed something'' in Chinese then you would add the 是 and emphasise it when speaking.

I am indeed tall. 我是高 or 我是很高。

I am indeed a little bit stern. 我是有点儿严厉。

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  • FYI out of 我严厉。我饿。我累。我胖, only 我饿 and 我累 are likely to be used. Someone else may propose a better theory. But a difference is that 严厉 and 胖 are never used as verbs while 饿 and 累 can be. As for the idea of verbal adjectives, if anything, non-verbal adjectives in Chinese are the rare cases (and more of a modern construct), aren't they? – Argyll Aug 18 at 20:25
  • @Argyll: I have never heard "我饿" or "我累" as complete sentences from native speakers. People instead say "我饿了" and "我累了". – user21820 Aug 19 at 3:24
  • @user21820: I agree "我饿了" and "我累了" and when describing an immediate situation simply "饿" or "累" are the usual style of speech. But I can see "我饿" or "我累" being said -- as a native speaker. I cannot see 我严厉 or 我胖 being said in any context. – Argyll Aug 19 at 13:25
  • @Argyll: Actually I change my mind. I think all can be said, but only in response to an inquiry: (1) "谁饿?我饿!"; (2) " 理由主要有三: 1、 [...] 2、 [...] 3、我胖,个还不高,脸大。" (from Chinese Internet Corpus). – user21820 Aug 19 at 14:37
  • @user21820: Nice example. 我胖,个还不高,脸大 makes me giggle. haha. I agree, this example concludes the natural use of 我胖. I am less certain about grammatical categorization. Since last commenting, I've been thinking about 我严厉. 严厉 may be either a noun or not even a word. You can probably say something like 三分严厉,七分诱导 -- parodying 90% diligence 10% wit. In that case, 严厉 is a noun. I can't think of any example where 严厉 is used independently as an adjective which by definition either decorates noun or if such special usage exists -- it does in Chinese -- via linking verb describes a subject pronoun. – Argyll Aug 19 at 15:25

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