Introduction to the most important Japanese verb: です

です is probably the word you will see the most when you’re learning Japanese and it is in someways the core of the Japanese language. です is a verb and it means ‘to be’ and it can be translated as ‘is, am or are’ but it also serves as a way of making a sentence polite.

  • 1. です is translated as ‘to be’ but also serves to make a sentence polite. 

For now the simplest way of thinking about it is translating it as ‘is’. For example, the first sentence you should learn goes like this:

  X です  
  It is X  

Pretty simple right? You can use for all kind of things, like so. 

  すし です
  It is sushi
  じてんしゃ です
  It is a bicycle
  サム です
  I am Sam/it is Sam
  なん です か
  What is it?
  オーストラリアじん です
  They/he/she/I are/is/am Australian(s)
  すし = Sushi
  じてんしゃ = Bicycle
  サム = Sam
  なん = What
  = Particle that turns a sentence into a question
  オーストラリアじん = Australians (literally, people from Australia)

Context is important in Japanese

Also doable right? But I can hear you thinking? ‘Where is the Japanese version of ‘it’, ‘a’ or ‘I’ in these sentences?’  Japanese often doesn’t have a way of saying this. You can say ‘I’ using わたし, but even this is left out in daily speech as it puts the focus too much on yourself. But then how do you know what you are talking about? This is implied from the context.

People would for example say ‘サム です’ when you are introducing yourself. But when somebody is approaching and nobody knows who it is and you say ‘サム です’, it is implied that you are referring to the person that just came up, so the meaning changes. But it can get even crazier. Notice the last sentence can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. You can for example see a bunch of people walking by on the street carrying koala’s and say ‘オーストラリアじん です’. The same sentence could be used when somebody asks you where you are from and you want to say you are from Australia. It doesn’t matter if you refer to something plural or not, the sentence stays the same. The specific meaning depends on context, so we can make a rule with that knowledge, namely: 

  • 2. Context is extremely important to know what a Japanese sentence means

Another thing you have probably noticed in the examples is that です always comes last. In Japanese, the main verb always comes at the end. More verbs can appear in other locations in a sentence, the main verb does not have to be the very last sound and sometimes there is no verb, but if there is one it is often at the end of a sentence. 

  • 3. The main verb always comes last in a sentence. 

Conjugating です for time and positivity/negativity

Now that you know these ground rules, let’s look at how you can conjugate です for time and polarity (positive/negative)

  です (To be) Present Past
  Positive です でした
    Is Was
  Negative じゃないです じゃなかったです
    Is not Was not

So the same examples with other conjugations of です:

  すし じゃないです
  It is not sushi
  じてんしゃ でした
  It was a bicycle
  サム じゃなかったです 
  I was not Sam/it was not Sam
  なん でした か
  What was it?
  オーストラリアじん じゃないです
  They/he/she/I are/is/am not Australian(s)

The informal version of です

As you may have already read, there are formal and informal versions of Japanese verbs. Check out this article about conjugations if you want to know more. You use the formal conjugation with strangers, older people and people who have a higher standing in some way (doctors, teachers, etc.). You use informal conjugations with friends and peers, but as a beginner it’s best to just use the formal conjugations first. But just so you know, the informal for です is: 

  です (To be) Present Past
  Positive だった
    Is Was
  Negative じゃない じゃなかった
    Is not Was not

The meaning doesn’t change, as you can see in these examples: 

  いぬ だ
  It is a dog
  とり だった?
  Was it a bird?
  パソコン じゃない
  It is not a computer
  いぬ = Dog
  とり = Bird
  パソコン = Computer

Note, in real life, almost no one uses だ. Usually they just leave it out of the sentence. 

Making a sentence polite with です

Besides being a standard verb that is used all the time you can hear です being used at the end of a sentence to make it sound polite. As you read before in this article, Japanese sentences often end with a main verb, but they don’t have to. They can also end with an adjective for example as in the following examples. 

  すし は おいしい
  Sushi is delicious
  きょう は いそがしい
  Today is busy
  おいしい = Delicious
  きょう = Today
  いそがしい = Busy

These are perfectly good sentences and as you can see you still translate ‘is’ in the English sentence without there being a です. This is just something in Japanese that you have to accept. Now, these sentences are pretty informal and you would only talk this way to friends. If you want to make it suitable for other conversations you just add です. And guess what, the meaning does not change. 

  すし は おいしい です
  Sushi is delicious (formal)
  きょう は いそがしい です
  Today is busy (formal)

Mind you, If you want to say something is not delicious or something wás delicious you have to conjugate the adjective (おいしい in this case) and not です. If you want to keep it formal you do keep です at the end of the sentence like so.  

  すし は おいしくない です
  Sushi is not delicious (formal)
  きのう は いそがしかった です
  Yesterday was busy (formal)

Expanding the standard sentence, XはYです

So with all that you now know, let’s expand how you make simple sentences with です and it’s conjugations by adding the topic particle は to the sentence. For a more elaborate explanation about the は particle and particles in general you can review the particle guide.

  これ は いぬ です
  This is a dog
  サム は オーストラリアじん です
  Sam is Australian
  あれ は ひこうき じゃない. スーパーマン だ
  That over there is not a plane. It is Superman
  としょかん は どこ でした か
  Where was the library?
  わたし は アメリカじん じゃないです
  I am not an American
  この えいが は おもしろい です
  This movie is interesting
  これ = This
  いぬ = Dog
  サム = Sam
  オーストラリアじん = Australians (literally, people from Australia)
  あれ = That over there
  ひこうき = Airplane
  スーパーマン = Superman
  としょかん = Library
  どこ = Where
  わたし = I, me
  アメリカじん = American
  えいが = Movie
  おもしろい = Interesting


So to test what you have learned in this article, here are link to some exercises.