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彼が持っているのは二百円です。 Supposedly this means "It is 200 yen that he has.". But I am really not familiar with this sentence construction. Therefore, I'm not sure how everything before の works with the rest of the sentence. Or what の is doing in the first place.

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is there any more context for the quote? –  yadokari Dec 21 '12 at 21:51
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

彼が持っているのは二百円です

He has 200 yen.

彼 / が持っている / の

He / has (lit. is holding) / (what he is holding){because の makes が持っている into a noun="what he has"}

は / 二百円です

as for / 200 yen is

So literally, it would be, "As for what he is holding, it is 200 yen" - "As for what he has, it is 200 yen" - "As for what he has, it's 200 yen" - "He has 200 yen"

の turns 彼が持っている into a noun phrase, while は means "as for".

In natural English, it becomes "He has 200 yen." Without context, I cannot ascertain what is emphasized -see comments below as well as this question:

AはB emphasizing B, rather than A/aはb-emphasizing-b-rather-than-a

Depending on context, perhaps an implied meaning would be, "All he has is 200 yen."

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I am not sure what you mean by “emphasis on ‘what he has.’” As I understand it, the sentence puts an emphasis on 二百円, as the English translation in the question suggests. For example, the sentence in question can naturally arise in the following context: 彼が持っているのは二百円です。二百ドルではありません。 In other words, the 彼が持っているの part is known information, and 二百円 is new information. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 21 '12 at 20:37
    
@TsuyoshiIto, could you tell me what you think the question in Japanese would be that would elicit the quoted response in the op's question? –  yadokari Dec 21 '12 at 20:56
    
The sentence, "It is 200 yen that he has." is natural only if one is asked a question along the lines of, "What is it that he has?" ...(the english seems somewhat unnatural to me) –  yadokari Dec 21 '12 at 20:58
    
If I translate は as "as for," then the emphasis is on "what he has." Perhaps I am mistaken in this translation. –  yadokari Dec 21 '12 at 21:01
    
I don't understand your point on known vs new information- if the listener knows "what the person has" then why would he ask it? maybe i am not following you correctly. –  yadokari Dec 21 '12 at 21:03
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