I've read a grammar tip about 的 which I'm not sure I've completely understood (it's on page 7 here, if you can read Italian). It talks about using 的 to specify a quality.

An example is: 意大利的人 is different from 意大利人. In this case, I think the difference is between Italians as in "Italian people" (意大利人) and the people who live in Italy (意大利的人). This seems clear.

The other example, however,is about the difference between 白的马 and 白马, rendered respectively as "a horse whose color is white" and "a white horse". This seems to be a subtle difference and I'm not sure when I should use which. (Maybe it's just an arbitrary, "literary" choice?)

Then it goes on with a sentence example: to say "my horse is white" I'd use "my horse is a horse whose color is white" 我的马是白的(马). For an Italian native speaker, this is similar to the English idiom "he is a friend of mine" (in Italian you'd just say "è un mio amico", "he is my friend"): it sounds a bit off at first, but if that's how it works in Mandarin then that's what I will do. However, the point of my question is:

Would it be correct to use 我的马很白?

If it's correct, is there a semantic difference between 我的马很白 and 我的马是白的?

  • 1
    意大利的 is a possessive noun, the same as his, its....意大利的人 = Italia's people. 意大利人 is simply Italian. It sounds odd to describe the color of an animal in comparative term (很白, 很黑...), try avoid this kind of sentence. Instead, 我的马是純白的 will do.
    – r13
    Sep 27, 2021 at 16:01

2 Answers 2


Without other context, I would probably interpret "意大利的人" as "people who work for Italy". (I'm a native Mandarin speaker.)

is there a semantic difference between 我的马很白 and 我的马是白的?

Yes, there is. They answer different questions.

Is it white or not white? What color is it? It is white. 它是白的。

How white is it? It is very white. 它很白。

"My horse is white" as a normal sentence without special emphasis would be "我的马是白的".

It is often said that in Chinese 很 is used instead of 是 to link the subject and the adjetive. It actually depends on the adjective and the meaning you want to convey.

For "degree" adjectives like 漂亮, 很 is usually used.

For "quality" adjectives, "是...的" is usually used.

If the adjective can be interpreted as both, then both structures can be used, each with its nuance.

Even for "degree" adjectives like 漂亮, you can also use "是...的" under some circumstances. For instance, there are two dresses and I think one of them is pretty and one is ugly. You don't know which is which, and you ask me "这件是漂亮的还是丑的?" I could answer "这件是漂亮的" (This is the pretty one).

白 is usually a "quality" adjective, so "是...的" is usually used. If you say 很白, you are quite emphasizing that it is "very white".

For "degree" adjectives like 漂亮, if you say 很漂亮, it's usually not very emphatic, so you don't need to translate it as "very pretty", but it's also not wrong to say "very pretty".

Hope this makes sense.

  • I'm slightly confused by the "very white" bit. I've been taught that 很 means "very, a lot", but if the sentence is a nominal predicate it takes the place of 是, which is omitted, and it does not mean "a lot". So - I've been taught - 她很漂亮 means "she is beautiful", not "she is very beautiful". However, sometimes I see it translated as "she is very beautiful". Which is correct? (I know it's a different question, I'll open another thread if that's the correct way to handle it)
    – Simone
    Sep 28, 2021 at 7:10
  • @Simone That's a good question. I also thought of it when I wrote the answer, but I was in a hurry then. I have edited the answer now.
    – Betty
    Sep 28, 2021 at 12:57
  • In my entire life, I have been resisting using "是...的" simply because it's what I call "new Chinese". Such usage is rarely found in Chinese 80 years ago, or that's what I think. In the case of "这件是漂亮的还是丑的?", I'd simply ask "那一件漂亮?" or "那件漂亮那件醜?" and the answer would be "這(一)件漂亮" or "這件漂亮那件醜."
    – joehua
    Sep 28, 2021 at 16:41
  • @Betty thank you for your clarification! I think I've understood, thanks a lot!
    – Simone
    Sep 29, 2021 at 14:00
  • @joehua Very interesting remark. As much as I like philology, though, I'm still at a very early stage in my Chinese studies, so I have to go with what is being used today. BTW, this "new Chinese" you mention, is it a new trend, a new custom in the use of a lively language, or a new grammar rule imposed by a "political" decision?
    – Simone
    Sep 29, 2021 at 14:05

'白的'and'意大利的'here are used as adjectives to qualify '马‘ and ’人‘ respectivily. Meanwhile, '白马' and '意大利人' are nouns. It is easily to understand that ‘白的马’ and ‘白马’ mean the same thing. '我的马(not 妈,妈means mother)很白' is correct. You can understand these two sentences'我的马很白‘ and ’我的马是白的‘ the same meaning. In English, both ‘我的马很白’ and ‘我的马是白的’ mean " The hair of my horse is white". Similarly, the two sentences express the same meaning in Chinese.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.