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Expressing Location and Existence in Chinese: Using 在, 有 and 是

When describing the position of an object or person in a sentence, Mandarin Chinese commonly uses three verbs: 在(zài), 是(shì), and 有(yǒu). These verbs convey different nuances and can be used in various sentence structures to indicate the location or existence of someone or something.

Understanding how to use these verbs correctly is a fundamental part of the Chinese language, and they come up frequently in everyday situations, such as giving directions. In this article, we will explore the different ways of using 在, 是, and 有 and provide examples to help you grasp their usage.

1.  在 (zài)

Use “在” to show where someone or something is.

This pattern is similar as the English sentence structure “Something/someone is at some location.” However, “在” is a verb, not a preposition.

For example:

Noun/noun phraseLocation wordEnglish meaning
刘老师

Liú lǎoshī

zài

教室里。

jiàoshì lǐ.

Teacher Liu is in the classroom.
你的车

Nǐ de chē

zài

外面吗?

wàimiàn ma?

Is your car outside?
超市

Chāoshì

在不在

zài bú zài

你家旁边?

nǐ jiā pángbiān?

Is the supermarket next to your home?
银行

Yínháng

zài

哪儿?

nǎ’er?

Where is the bank?

2.  有(yǒu)

Use “有” to show that someone or something exists in a particular place.

Location wordNoun/noun phraseEnglish meaning
我家对面

Wǒjiā duìmiàn

yǒu

一个公园。

yígè gōngyuán.

Across from our home, there is a park.
学校里

Xuéxiào lǐ

yǒu

书店。

shūdiàn.

There is a bookstore in the university.
书店旁边

Shūdiàn pángbiān

yǒu

一个银行

Yígè yínháng

There is a bank next to the bookstore.
教学楼前

Jiàoxué lóu qián

yǒu

很多自行车。

hěnduō zìxíngchē.

There are many bicycles in front of the academic building.

3.  是(shì)

Use the following pattern to specify who or what is in a particular place when we already know that they exist there.

For example:

Location wordNoun/noun phraseEnglish meaning
这个包里

Zhège bāo lǐ

shì

什么东西?

shénme dōngxi?

What’s in this bag?
这个包里

Zhège bāo lǐ

shì

手机和钱包。

shǒujī hé qiánbāo.

There is a cell phone and wallet in this bag.
孩子前边

Háizi qiánbian

shì

妈妈。

māma.

The kid’s mom is in front of him.
超市对面

Chāoshì duìmiàn

shì

咖啡馆。

kāfēi guǎn.

Across from the supermarket is a coffee shop.

4. General comparison between 在, 有 and 是

Basically, we can use these three common ways to express the position of an object:

English sentenceChinese sentence
B is A’s location
The park is next to my home.
公园  我家的旁边 (Gōngyuán zài wǒjiā de pángbian.)
A is B’s location
There is a park next to my home.
我家 的旁边  公园 (Wǒjiā de pángbian yǒu gōngyuán.)
A is B’s location
Next to my home is a park.
 我家 的旁边  公园 (Wǒjiā de pángbian shì gōngyuán.)

Note : However the difference between 有 and 是: A sentence with 有 only denotes what exists in a certain place, while a sentence with 是 not only indicates that a certain thing exists in a certain place, but also further specifies what that thing is.

A: 我家旁边有一个公园.( Wǒjiā pángbiān yǒu yí gè gōngyuán.)
There is a park next to my home.

B:是什么公园?(Shì shénme gōngyuán?)
What’s kind of that park?/ what’s name of that park?
(B wants to know more information about that park in detail.)

A: (我家旁边)是景山公园。(Wǒjiā pángbiān) shì jǐngshān gōngyuán.
It’s Jingshan Park beside my home.

Furthermore, the object of a sentence indicating existence with 有 is usually a general reference, while the object of a sentence indicating existence with 是 is usually a specific reference. Therefore, we can say “孩子前边有个人。There is a person in front of the child,” but we wouldn’t say “孩子前边有妈妈。There is a mother in front of the child.” Instead, we would say “孩子前边是妈妈。The child’s mother is in front of them” or “妈妈在孩子前面。The mother is in front of the child.”

In conclusion, when it comes to expressing the position of an object in a sentence, there are three common ways to do it in Chinese.在(zài) can indicate the location or position of something or someone. 有(yǒu) can indicate the existence of someone or something in a particular place. Finally, 是(shì) can indicate the existence of something or someone in a particular place and further specify what that thing or person is. It’s important to note the differences between using 有 and 是, where the former denotes what exists in a certain place and the latter further specifies what that thing or person is. Familiarizing yourself with these structures will allow you to express yourself with a higher level of fluency and specificity, which will make everyday conversations go much more smoothly.

Let’s do some exercises

Try to translate these sentences into Chinese:

  1. There are many students in the library.
  2. He studies Chinese in Beijing.
  3. The bathroom is next to the bedroom.
  4. Who is on your left?
  5. The bank is across from the post office.
  6. The kid is behind his dad.

Reference answers:

  1. 图书馆里有很多学生。/ 很多学生在图书馆里。
  2. 他在北京学中文。
  3. 卫生间在卧室旁边。/ 卫生间旁边是卧室。
  4. 谁在你左边?/ 你左边的是谁?
  5. 银行在邮局对面。/ 银行对面是邮局。
  6. 孩子在他爸爸的后面。/ 爸爸的后面是孩子。
Rita Zhang

Rita is a professional Mandarin teacher, has been teaching more than 8 years. She enjoys digging more about Chinese grammar and culture work and helping more learners. Now she is working at the one-on-one online Chinese school TouchChinese.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. 非常感谢您。
    老师,我喜欢汉语但是我不知道怎么用,怎说怎写ei。
    我要你教我。
    谢谢您

    This my E-mail [email protected]
    And this my wechat: ahmedh41247

    Thanks …

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