What ‘desu’ means and how to use it in Japanese

The grammatical construct ‘desu’ is important to know and is one of the very first things learners come across when studying Japanese. It’s easiest to understand as being similar to the verb ‘to be’ in English. There’s more to it than that however and English does not have a direct equivalent.

What does ‘desu’ mean?

‘Desu’ is almost always at the end of a sentence and is used to connect subjects with predicates. In casual conversations ‘です’ can become ‘だ’.

This is a food box in Japan

Example:

Japanese これ - は - 食べ物 - です。
Hiragana これ - は - たべもの - です。
Romaji Kore - ha - tabemono - desu.
Translation This is food.

Subject Kore
Particle Ha
Noun Tabemono
Verb Desu

Note that ‘desu’ translates to ‘is’ in the sentence.

Pronunciation

A man is practicing the pronunciations of desu and masu in Japanese

The most common way to pronounce the word ‘desu’ is to drop the final ‘u’ sound, making it sound more like ‘dess’. Dropping the final ‘u’ sound is common throughout the Japanese language.

For example, the polite verb ending ‘masu’ is pronounced more like ‘mass’, so get used to dropping that final ‘u’ sound!

How to use ‘desu’?

It ‘s crucial to be aware of the different levels of formality in Japanese and to adjust the way you speak to prevent any inadvertent perceived rudeness! The level of formality you need to use is based primarily on the age and status of the person you are talking to, so it’s important not to get them mixed up.

The three levels of formality you should know are:

Da

Informal

です Desu

Formal

でございます De gozai masu

Most formal (Keigo)

だ 

Da

Kansai friends are talking to each other casually


The informal copula ending ‘da’ should be used when speaking to people you’re familiar with such as friends or family. 


If you visit Osaka or Kyoto, you’re likely to encounter the Kansai dialect variant of this ending, ‘ya’. It’s further informalised by adding ‘de’ afterwards, so if you want to impress your Kansai friends, end your sentences with ‘yade’ 「やで」.

です 

Desu

A woman, a man, a girl and a boy are talking politely in Japanese


‘Desu’ should always be the copula ending that you default to when meeting someone for the first time, regardless of age and status, or to show someone respect if they’re either older or more senior than you in some way. If you’re ever unsure as to which level of formality to use, ‘desu’ is always a safe bet as you’ll never offend someone by using it with, at worst you might sound a little formal when you don’t need to be, which isn’t much of a bad thing!

でございます 

De gozai masu


A Japanese man is talking to his clients at work in Japan

The most formal variant of the copula ending is ‘de gozaimasu’ which (unless you’re working all the time) will probably be the form you use the least. It’s reserved for business situations, such as talking to clients, but you might also use it when speaking to someone you revere greatly. So be prepared to use ‘de gozaimsu’ at work or if you’re lucky enough to meet the imperial family!

It’s also worth mentioning that it’s very common to add either ‘yo’ or ‘ne’ or both together (‘yone’ and never ‘neyo’) to the end of  ‘da’ and ‘desu’

‘Ne’ is normally used to seek affirmation, like how you use ‘right?’ at the end of sentence in English, while ‘yo’ is used to assert yourself boldly. ‘Yone’ is a combination of the two when you want to both emphasise your statement and prompt your partner to agree with you.

A woman is learning Japanese with Kaizen Languages app

For example:

Japanese Kaizen Languages - は - 素晴らしい - アプリ - です - よね
Hiragana Kaizen Languages - は - すばらしい - あぷり - です - よね
Romaji Kaizen Languages - ha - subarashii apuri - desui - yone.
Translation Kaizen Languages is a wonderful app isn’t it?

When not to use ‘desu’

Remember, only to use ‘desu’ after a noun or an adjective, and not after a verb

Verbs themselves should be transformed to their polite version ending in ‘masu’. One exception to bear in mind is the use of ‘nodesu’ or the more formal ‘ndesu’. These can be used after the dictionary form of a verb when giving a reason to explain something.

An exchange student is studying Japanese now

For example:

Japanese 今、 - 日本語 - を - 勉強 - している - - です。
Hiragana いま、 - にほんご - を - べんきょう - している - - です。
Romaji Ima, - nihongo - wo - benkyou - shiteiru - n - desu.
Translation I am studying Japanese now.


You might’ve noticed that there is no subject in the sentence and here’s the reason. In Japanese language, the subject isn’t always necessary and it can be dropped in most cases when the subject is obvious as we explain in more detail in another blog - check it out here.

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November 30, 2020 11:25 AM