Da(だ) and Desu(です)Japanese Nouns: Expressing a Positive or Negative State-of-Being :Welcome to the wonderful world of Japanese language learning! We admire you for your ambition in taking on one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers. Today, we’re going to cover one of the most basic aspects of Japanese language: nouns, and how to use them to express positive and negative states of being.    

Japanese Nouns: Expressing a Positive or Negative State-of-Being

Most English speakers remember what a noun is from elementary school. It’s a word in a sentence that is a person, place, thing, or idea. Patrick is a noun because he is a person, McDonald’s is a noun because it is a place, etc. 

Firstly, let’s learn a few Japanese nouns. Below is a table with the Japanese writing on the left, the pronunciation of the Japanese writing (Romaji) in the center, and the English translation on the right. 

JapaneseRomajiEnglish
佐藤さんSatō-sanMr. Satō
寿司屋sushiyaa sushi restaurant
ロボットrobottoa robot
ailove

As you can see, each of the nouns above is a different kind of noun. Satō-san is a person (we chose the name Satō because it’s the most common last name in Japan), sushiya is a place, robotto is a thing, and ai is an idea.

Da(だ) and Desu(です)

Now, we’re going to introduce the verbs da and desu, which express a positive state of being. A rough translation of these two words (which have the same meaning) is “is,” “am,” or “are.” 

Da is used in casual situations between close friends and people younger than you. 

Desu is used in formal situations involving people of authority, people who are older than you, people who have more experience in a certain discipline than you, and strangers/people you don’t know very well.   

Now, let’s make a few simple sentences using the nouns we learned above and combining them with da or desu.

JapaneseRomajiEnglish
佐藤さんです。Satō-san desu.I am Mr. Satō.
寿司屋です。Sushiya desu.This is a sushi restaurant.
ロボットだ。Robotto da.It is a robot.
愛だ。Ai da.It is love.

Let’s take a look at the first sentence in the table above, “Satō-san desu.” Notice that the English translation is “I am Mr. Satō.” We already taught you that Satō-san means “Mr. Satō” and that desu means “am,” but there is no word that expresses “I” in the Japanese sentence. Why is that? Well, it’s because in a Japanese sentence, you can omit the subject (in this case “I”), and it is still a complete sentence as long as the subject is clear.

For example, if Mr. Satō wants to introduce himself, he can raise his hand and say, “Satō-san desu.” Because he is raising his hand, it is clear that he is talking about himself. Therefore, he doesn’t need to use “I” in this situation.

Take a look at the second sentence: “Sushiya desu.” The English translation is, “This is a sushi restaurant,” but the word expressing “this” is not present in the Japanese. As with the Mr. Satō sentence, if the subject (in this case “this”) is clear, then you can omit it, and it is still a complete sentence.

For example, if you want to tell someone that the restaurant they are standing in front of is a sushi restaurant, you can point at it and say, “Sushiya desu.” Because you are pointing at it, it is clear that the subject is “this restaurant right here;” therefore, you can omit the subject and just say, “Sushiya desu.

Also take note that the verbs in the first two sentences above are desu, and the last two are da. Remember that desu is used in formal situations and da is used in casual situations. In the first sentence, we used desu because when someone is introducing themselves, they are usually talking to strangers or people they don’t know very well. This means that we need to use the formal desu. With the other three sentences, we have chosen desu and da arbitrarily since it will ultimately depend on how formal/casual the situation is.

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Dewa Nai(ではない) and Dewa Arimasen(ではありません)

Now that we have made a few simple sentences that express a positive state of being (e.g. “I am Mr. Satō,” and “This is a sushi restaurant.”), let’s learn the words that express a negative state of being.

Dewa nai and dewa arimasen have the opposite meaning of da and desu. They mean “is not,” “am not,” or “are not.”

Dewa nai, like da, is used in casual situations, and dewa arimasen, like desu, is used in formal situations. 

Let’s use the same sentences from above that express a positive state of being and use them now to express a negative state of being.

(NOTICE: The Japanese hiragana は is normally pronounced “ha,” but when は functions as a particle—as below—it is a special case. In this case it is pronounced “wa.”)  

JapaneseRomajiEnglish
佐藤さんではありません。Satō-san dewa arimasen.I am not Mr. Satō.
寿司屋ではありません。Sushiya dewa arimasen.This is not a sushi restaurant.
ロボットではない。Robotto dewa nai.It is not a robot.
愛ではない。Ai dewa nai.It is not love.

As you can see, the sentence structure is exactly the same as da and desu. The rules are exactly the same. Simple! Yatta (Yay)!

In summary, Japanese sentences don’t always need a subject in order to be grammatically correct as long as the subject is clear; such as, if the speaker points at what they’re talking about. In order to express a positive state of being by using a simple Japanese sentence, you use the formula (point at something) + noun + da / desu. If you want to express a negative state of being, then you use (point at something) + noun + dewa nai / dewa arimasen. Da and dewa nai are used in casual situations, and desu and dewa arimasen are used in formal situations.

Now comes the most important part of learning any new language, getting out there and practicing! Find other people studying Japanese and practice with them! Take some Japanese classes and practice with your teacher! Find real Japanese people, and watch their faces light up with joy when they understand what you say in their language! 

In short: get out there and practice, practice, practice!  

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