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I was just chatting with a teacher here at LTL Mandarin, and she said:

我是长头发。
I have long hair. (Not: I am long hair.)

This is perplexing for me, since it's inconsistent with e.g.

我是人。
I am human. (Not: I have a human.)

She didn't use 有, and I specifically asked her if it needed a 的 at the end, but it didn't. I searched for this on Baidu and indeed plenty of people are using it, but... how does this even make sense? I feel like I'm missing something important here.

Question: Why does 我是长头发 mean "I have long hair" and not "I am long hair"?

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  • 5
    “I am long-haired”.
    – dROOOze
    Dec 22 '20 at 3:49
  • 3
    长头发(long hair) is a noun 长头发的 (long-haired) is an adjectival phrase. I think 的 can be omitted just like 长发 can be a noun or adjective
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 22 '20 at 3:52
  • 是 and "to be" are not equivalent.
    – fefe
    Dec 22 '20 at 4:12
  • When you compare English grammar to any other language, you will find inconsistencies, and prefer one or the other as more sensible. In Spanish, "to be" is separated into two kinds: permanent and impermanent.
    – jpaugh
    Dec 23 '20 at 12:27
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    @musialmi In this case, Wang Sheng's answer has the same idea. It suggested the '的' along with the object '人' is optionally dropped. Since 长头发 in 我是长头发 cannot be a noun, so it must be functioning as an adjective - with or without '的'
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 23 '20 at 15:46

19 Answers 19

14

There is no "why". "是" in Chinese does not equal "be" in English. This is just how languages work.

In Chinese, almost anything can follow "是". The part after "是" is just a description or explanation of the part before "是", not an equivalent.

Some examples:

他们回国的日期都定了,老张是明天,老李是后天。

我来中国是学习汉语,不是旅游。

You will encounter many more like this in your study of Chinese. Good luck!

PS: If you happen to know Japanese, thinking about how the part before and after "は" are not equivalent may help you understand (though of course the two languages are very different).

Edit: Since this simple answer gets quite a few upvotes, I think I could add a little more content.

I find the book 实用现代汉语语法 by 刘月华 et al. a useful book about modern Chinese grammar. Though the book is entirely in Chinese, it is aimed at learners of Chinese as a second language and covers many things that learners often find difficult.

The book devotes a whole section to sentences with "是", from page 675 to 689. More than a dozen usages of "是" are listed. Some more examples:

他夏天总是一件T恤。

他总是这么一辆破自行车。

老王是个慢性子。

问:你们俩喜欢什么运动?答:他是足球,我是乒乓球。

The book argues that these sentences may seem "illogical" superficially and you can often add some words to the sentence to make it seem more logical (eg. "老王是个慢性子(的人)" ), but the changed sentence is often more cumbersome and less succinct. This kind of sentences with "是" (是字句) express ideas more vividly and vigorously while using less words, and Chinese love that.

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  • But couldn't both of your examples be translated "is" in English? Granted – for the second, a native speaker would probably drop the auxiliary verb for brevity, but the various conjugations of "be" can be stuck almost anywhere as well.
    – timuzhti
    Dec 22 '20 at 14:57
  • 1
    Most of these examples seem to me more clearly explained as elision of a previously-stated or implied topic and a possessive, which would still wind up with an appropriate 'is' in translation: "老张**[的回国日期]** is tomorrow" and "我来中国**[的原因]** is"... or "他**[喜欢的运动]** is soccer...". I'd be leery of the comparison with the Japanese topic marker は; Chinese uses topic-comment structure but I've not heard of any explicit topic marker; and anyway in Japanese don't you still need a copula?
    – Tiercelet
    Dec 23 '20 at 17:17
  • The parallel with Japanese は makes sense to me, though I am not adept enough at either language to give an authoritative answer. Whether you have an explicit copula (a term from European linguistics) is moot, and it depends in Japanese also on the level of politeness. Jan 17 at 20:41
10

As a native Mandarin speaker this same question has puzzled me equally. I must emphasize that I don't claim to know more than the teachers, linguistics, and other smart people specializing in Mandarin. I can offer you a personal opinion based on my experiences. I can confirm iBug's answer that some sentence structures are omitted in oral and written speech. I have noticed in Mandarin sometimes the trailing denoting an adjective is omitted.

我是长头发。

is an ambiguous expression that can be interpreted as

我是长(的)头发。I am long hair.

我是长头(的)发。I am the hair of the long head.

我是长头发(的)。I am long haired. , equivalent to the concept of I have long hair.

It is possible that people will subconsciously make sense of the last expression.

4

Actually in your case, 是 means exactly "to be" in English.

However, it's important to realize in Chinese there are many ways to omit parts of speech, for example in Betty's sentences:

他们回国的日期都定了,老张是明天,老李是后天。

This one should be interpreted as:

他们回国的日期都定了,老张(的)是明天,老李(的)是后天。

Their return dates are set. Zhang's is tomorrow, and Li's is the day after tomorrow.

(or alternatively) That of Zhang is tomorrow, and that of Li is the day after ...

Where 的 is another omissIon, and the full form is

他们回国的日期都定了,老张的(回国日期)是明天,老李的(回国日期)是后天。

Similarly, the next sentence should be expanded as follows:

我来中国是学习汉语,不是旅游。
我来中国(的目的)是学习汉语,不是旅游。

So for your answer, 我是长头发 should be understood as

我(的发型)是长头发。(My hair is long)
我是长头发(的)。(I am long-haired)
我是(拥有)长头发(的人)。(I have long hair)

Their exact meaning differ a little, but all should make sense.

3

I guess 我是长头发 is kind of short for 我是长头发(的人)

I am ( a person with ) long hair.

But with the part in the brackets, it is very wordy, everyone knows that the speaker is a human being. So it is omitted.

2

I think this 是 might be an example of 'illogical' sentences of the copula verb 是 (as described in Charles N. Li, Sandra A. Thompson, Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar), where 是 still means the verb to be but with a metaphorical meaning understood from the context. See for example these other answers:

Syntactic role of “我” in “我真是这个意思”

What is the purpose of 是 in “我应该是感冒了”?

2

As a native speaker, I think 我是长头发 isn't grammatically correct. People may use it in oral speech, but it's still incorrect grammar. I never say/write anything like this. You are not a piece of hair but a human/man/woman/kid/student/worker etc.

I think a lot of native speakers make similar mistake like this (using something that are not supposed to describe a human to describe a human). This could be debatable, even to me it's clearly wrong. Why don't you say 'my hair is long' or 我的头发很长 to avoid this usage?

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人不可能是东西, 我是长头发意思就是,我是拥有长头发的人。表示人的特征。

2

Actually, its just infromal speech. For example:

What's your star sign? I'm an Aries.

2

So I am a native Chinese speaker and have never academically learned Chinese.

In short, "我是长头发" is not expected to appear in formal occasions or will be considered faulty, but in daily life we do use such experssion, only in oral Chinese, not written.

Nevertheless, "我是长头发" sounds weird to me. We use "我是长头发(的人)" more often when describing a person. Maybe this is similar to the difference between "attributive adjective" and "predicative adjectives" in English.

1

As a Chinese native speaker, in daily life, I prefer this understanding(not literally):

  1. 我是长头发。equal to 我(的头发)是长头发。My hair is long hair.

  2. Moreover, any feature of mine after我是 I am means I have it., thus I can say 我是大眼睛。 I have big eyes.

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  • 我是长头发 = 我(的头发)是长头发 ≈ 我有长头发

    我是李小龙 = 我(的名字)是李小龙 ≈ 我有个名字叫李小龙

    我是女的 = 我(的性别)是女

  • 我是小明的爸爸 ≠ 我有爸爸

    我是女人 ≠ 我有女人

1

This sentence itself means "I am the guy with long hair". And could vary on some dialogue context where some parts is omitted.

This sentence 我是长头发 is not common in Chinese, unless long hair is your distinctive feature, which is so distinct that it is like a nickname of you. No one is using this kind of sentence to describe a common feature without a context.

1

I think "是" in this sentence "我是长头发" still means "be", and there is an ellipsis of "的人" at the end of the sentence.

  • 我是长头发 -> 我是长头发[的人] I am [a person who has] long hair. -> I have long hair.
  • 我是短头发 -> 我是短头发[的人] I am [a person who has] short hair. -> I have short hair.
  • 我是卷头发 -> 我是卷头发[的人] I am [a person who has] curly hair. -> I have curly hair.
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You are trying to translate "我是长头发" in a way with correct grammar, but this Chinese sentence is used to describe a meaning, not a grammar structure. If we understand it following a strict grammar(literally) way, that sentence meas "I am long hair" which makes no sense.

The most important info in that sentence are "我" me and "长头发" long hair, so the reasonable meaning of that sentence is that "I have long hair". So there comes a conflict: the literal meaning and reasonable meaning of that sentence are different and the literal one makes no sense.

Why? Because it omits some grammatical parts to fully describe its reasonable meaning. And the reader can supply all those missing parts arbitrarily as long as they are grammatically correct, like:

我(的头发)是长头发, My hair are long hair.

我是长头发(的人), I am a person with long hair.

English always ensures a correct grammatical form, but Chinese focus on the meaning.

1

'我是长头发' should be interpreted as 'I am long-haired'.

In chinese we omit hyphen and suffixes like '-ed', '-ing', etc. You should modulate sentence until it makes sense.

I dont think chinese confuse '有' with '是', nor they mean 'my hair' by saying 'I'. They just have nouns and adjectives and verbs in the same form.

0

This is another use of 是:

表示解释或描述(denoting explanation or description)

E.g. 人家是丰年,我们是歉年. / 刘老师是近视眼(Teacher Liu is near-sighted).

You can probably take it as the brief version of 我(的头发)是长头发. And 刘老师(的眼睛)是近视眼.

0

I think it is paraphrase.

我是长头发。It means I have long hair. I don't think I am long hair.(This means you are hair, not a man.)

我是人。It means I am a human. I don't think I have a man.

0

"我是长头发" describe a looks of a human, just like "我是瘦的(I am thin)", and "我是长头发" is a simple saying of "我是长头发的样子(I am long-hair-looked)", so when people say "我是长头发", which not means he or she is long hair(apparently he or she is a human), which means he or she has long hair.

actually, "我是长头发" and "我有长头发" express similar meaning in spoken English.

0

It is technically ambiguous, but people do use it colloquially.

我是长头发 actually means "I ____ long hair".

Consequently, it can mean:

  1. I am long hair. (Obviously illogical)
  2. I have long hair. (Most likely)

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