I'm trying to understand 是。。。的 constructions. The page on such constructions at Chinese Grammar Wiki explains one way to use 是。。。的:

This is the most simple way to use 是 with 的: you drop the noun and let 的 represent it. This usage requires context; otherwise the other person won't know what noun you are referring to. Having the 的 take the place of the noun is sort of like the way we say "one" or "it" in English. It's a basic substitution, but it's one that is very common and very helpful in everyday Chinese.

And gives these examples:

你 也 是 大学生 ?你 是 什么 专业 的 ? Nǐ yě shì dàxuéshēng? Nǐ shì shénme zhuānyè de? Are you also a college student? What's your major?

我 是 中文 专业 的 。 Wǒ shì Zhōngwén zhuānyè de. My major is Chinese.

I don't understand this. 的 does not represent the noun - 什么 does. Is it better to say that 的 just follows at the end of the sentence, rather than that it actually represents the noun?

(Chinese Grammar Wiki article accessed here: https://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/grammar/The_%22shi..._de%22_patterns:_an_overview)

  • 你也是大学生?你是什么专业的(大学生)?
    – Shaw
    Feb 15, 2021 at 20:44

2 Answers 2


The hidden noun that Chinese Grammar Wiki refers to is 大學生 (college student). They argue it is short for


Which is kind of true. 什麼專業的 is adjectival on 大學生, specifying what kind of major the college student is (pursuing).

A better way to look at 是...的 according to its function (emphasis) is to just delete 是 and 的 and see if the rest makes sense on their own:

是...的 omission

(1.1) 你是什麼專業的?

(1.2) 你什麼專業?

(1.3) 我中文專業。

All of the above are grammatical. Sentences (1.1) and (1.2) mean semantically the same, except the former gives emphasis on 什麼專業 and has the nuance of courteousness.

In sentences (1.2) and (1.3), 什麼專業 and 中文專業 become adjectival nouns. They are placed after the noun as a verbless predicate, i.e. in the form of N+Adj., which can sometimes be a stand-alone sentence. Think of 你好嗎[吗], where the speaker greets the listener (literally) if the statement 你好 (lit. you good) is true (by the yes/no question particle 嗎). Adj+N, on the other hand, is the only correct way to position the adjective when we want to create a nominal phrase. So:

N+Adj. vs Adj+N

(2.1) 高個[个]子 tall stature

(2.2) (他)個子高。 lit. (His) stature is tall.

(2.3) 中文專業的我 I, a Chinese major

Only (2.2) is a sentence. (2.1) and (2.3) are only nominal phrases. 的 is required for pronouns (2.3). And now:

(3) 他個子是高的,不是矮的。 lit. His stature is tall, not short.

Sentence (3) emphasises the stature of the person the speaker is referring to. In that case, it would be hard to sensibly add any noun after 的. Perhaps 個子, as in 他個子是高的個子 (lit. his stature is a tall one), but that is very poor style of writing.


(4) 他是我的。He is mine.

In certain occasions such as that of sentence (4), reduction into 他我* would not make any sense. Adding a dummy noun 東[东]西 (thing) then suffices, as in 他是我的東西, showing possession. Again that is for understanding, writing it would not be stylistic.

Whichever method (adding a dummy noun or deleting 是的) you choose is fine, as long as it makes sense.


You can also interpret X专业的 as a possessive adjective (just as one would say "That is Mackenzie's"), so 你是什么专业的 is asking "you have the property of belonging to which major?"

  • 2
    That works in some cases, but far from all. It doesn’t work, for example, with adjectival modifiers (这件衣服是红色的 doesn’t mean ‘this jacket belongs to red’) or deictic (是这样的 doesn’t mean ‘it belongs to this way’). In Chinese there’s no real difference between possession and any other type of nominal modification, but they are fundamentally different in English, and it’s important to remember that their mapping is not bidirectional (i.e., just because English possessive => Chinese 的 doesn’t entail that Chinese 的 => English possessive). Feb 15, 2021 at 1:55
  • if treating each of these cases as possessive qualities helps one understand the grammar better then I don't see any issue with that Feb 15, 2021 at 10:22
  • I just don’t see how it possibly could. How would it help to think of 一件很好看的衣服 as ‘a jacket belonging to very nice’ as opposed to just ‘a very nice jacket’? Feb 15, 2021 at 10:30
  • Because that is literally how adjectives work in Mandarin. 红色的车 = red's car = the car of red = red car. this line of thought should already be ingrained and I'm just expanding on it Feb 15, 2021 at 13:33
  • 1
    That is kind of how I learned to think about it too, by sort of generalizing possession to mean to be in a particular category. So rather than it belonging to "red", more like it's of the red category, or the nice category. "It goes in the red pile" basically. Or Eric's pile.
    – Curiosity
    Feb 15, 2021 at 16:05

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