The Meaning of Desu in Japanese, Its Usage and Audio Examples
Whether you’ve studied Japanese for a day or 10 years, you’ve likely stumbled across the word です (desu) at the end of many sentences.
My Japanese teacher, for instance, always ended her sentences with a powerful です.
Anytime we spoke in class, we’d be aware of her デス (です, glare) — death glare. See what I did there, with the katakana?
Cheesy Japanese puns aside, there was a reason she was so keen on her students understanding this word: It’s essential for sounding polite!
Read on for a full explanation of the politeness and grammar aspects of the Japanese です.
- Solving the Mystery of the Meaning of Desu
- What Is the Meaning and Usage of です?
- The 4 Forms of です You Need to Know
- Does Conjugating です Change Its Meaning?
- Other Ways to Use です
- And One More Thing...
Solving the Mystery of the Meaning of Desu
What Is the Meaning and Usage of です?
Put in the simplest terms, です means “to be” and comes at the end of a sentence, as all Japanese sentences follow a subject-object-verb pattern.
You can conjugate です, but it has some limitations that we’ll get into later.
です also has different levels of politeness depending on the context of the conversation. It can also act as a way to combine independent clauses.
Before we really get into it, it’s important to know the proper pronunciation of です. Though the Romanized form is spelled desu, it’s actually pronounced like dess.
Check out this quick video:
The u does not make a sound for voiced consonants; it’s similar to how the polite endings of verbs are pronounced. For example, 食べます （たべます）— to eat, sounds like tabemass, instead of tabemasu.
Therefore, dess instead of desu.
It might seem odd at first to silence the u sound. As you hear more naturally-spoken Japanese like in the videos on FluentU, however, it’ll become second nature.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Now, there are two main ways to use です, so let’s examine them.
A linking verb meaning “to be”
As a linking verb (also known as a copula), です can connect subjects and predicates. The best practical example would be when telling someone your name:
My name is Tom.
The subject of the sentence is “my name,” marked by は , the subject particle. Then, です connects the subject to the predicate, which is the part of the sentence that describes the subject.
Here’s another example:
Today is Friday.
As you can see, です can appear in some of the most simple sentences in Japanese.
A word of warning, however: Don’t confuse です with いる (iru) or ある (aru).
いる and ある are also verbs, but they don’t act as copulas. They mean “to exist” or “to be.” いる corresponds to living things and ある refers to non-living things.
Talk about having an existential crisis in Japanese!
But don’t worry—the differences aren’t too hard to nail down. Take a look at these examples:
The Empire State Building is in New York.
The Empire State Building is a New York landmark.
A way to connect two independent sentences
Besides its use as “to be,” です can also combine independent sentences. In fact, using it this way will help your conversational Japanese sound less staccato and more natural.
(It’s important to note that you won’t connect sentences with と (and), which is used for connecting nouns.)
Similar to Japanese godan verbs, です has a て-form (connecting form), which is で , as in:
The test is tomorrow and the presentations are next week.
Be sure not to confuse it with the location particle で , which you’ll see here:
It’s Golden Week in Japan and Spring Break in the US.
The 4 Forms of です You Need to Know
The polite and most common form: です
To be on the safe side, it’s best to use the polite form, which is です itself.
Not using です at all leaves your sentences “hanging.” Using the polite form not only ensures that your sentences are grammatically correct, but also that they’re not offensive.
The respectful form, used in formal situations: でございます
If you’re familiar with 敬語（けいご）— polite speech, you know that verbs can have very different levels of politeness.
でございます is considered a very respectful form of です and has the same meaning and usage.
You might find it written in email correspondence or on website pages. You may also hear it spoken in meetings and presentations. As always in Japanese, it all depends on the audience.
The casual form, used in informal situations: だ
だ is the lowest level of politeness. Thus, using it can sound very straightforward.
Take the following examples and their translations:
何方様ですか？ （どなたさまですか？）— May I ask who might you be?
誰ですか？ （だれですか？）— Who is it?
誰だ？ （だれだ？）— Who dat?
See how casual だ is?
The polite form, used in public speech and literature: である
Lastly, you’ll likely see である as the form of です most often written in newspapers or books. It appears often in journalism and formal writing, so it’s good to know for reading the news in Japanese.
This form is a step down from でございます but more polite than です by itself.
You can check out the Asahi Shimbun (Asashi Newspaper) in Japanese for a chance to see this form in its natural usage.
Does Conjugating です Change Its Meaning?
As I mentioned before, you can use です in different tenses.
The past tense of です is でした , as in:
Yesterday was my birthday.
And again as before, you can link different statements together, but they don’t have to be in the same tense:
Yesterday was my birthday but today is my little sister’s birthday.
There’s also the presumptive form, which is used for uncertainty and presumptions. The polite form is でしょう .
Isn’t she the winner this year?
Is this fine?
The informal counterparts would be だ (casual form), だった (past tense) and だろう (presumptive).
Other Ways to Use です
です doesn’t just follow nouns, though that’s where you’ll notice it most at first.
As you get further along in Japanese, you’ll encounter です with a mixture of other words, which typically adds some nuances.
Let’s take a brief look at other places you might see です.
With adjectives and verbs
Using です with adjectives and verbs doesn’t change the meaning or tense of these words.
Tokyo is highly populated.
As we went over earlier, です connects the subject and the predicate, so it’s best to view です as the high-five that won’t leave your sentence hanging.
In casual speech, however, です is usually omitted. But even if we take it away, the meaning of the sentence won’t change. Here’s the same sentence first with and then without です:
It was cold yesterday.
It was cold yesterday.
Remember, because Japanese adjectives can be conjugated, です doesn’t function like the “to be” verb in English. So でした sounds unnatural in the example above.
We already know what tense we’re using because of the way 寒い （さむい）— cold, has been conjugated. So adding です to the end merely holds the subject and the predicate together. That’s why it can be left out entirely and not change the meaning.
Keep in mind that it’s standard to use です with your superiors or people you might not know very well. です gives your Japanese a cushion that helps you not come across as rude or too strong.
To soften strong expressions
Another unique aspect of Japanese adjectives and verbs is that they can take on the 〜たい or the “I want to…” form. For example:
I want to eat strawberries!
I’ve heard a toddler scream this at his parents before. He even left out the object particle; not necessarily because he’d mastered Japanese, but because of his close relationship to the people he was speaking to—his parents (who did get him strawberries, by the way).
Expressing desire like this sounds very powerful. That means you’ll typically want to soften the impact with です or even 〜と思います （〜とおもいます）which literally translates as “I think that…” but acts as a humble sentence ending to display politeness.
I want to drink some coffee.
I would like to drink some coffee.
Of course, if you’re by yourself and really craving some caffeine, feel free to shout from the top of your lungs: コーヒー飲みたいな！ （こーひーのみたいな！）— Geez, I really want coffee!
The の particle goes at the end of a sentence to explain something to the speaker. Here too, です is optional and its presence depends on the style of speech, but it doesn’t change the meaning.
I want to drink some coffee.
This is a very common sentence pattern that sounds much more natural. To learn more, I recommend checking out some Japanese grammar websites or Japanese textbooks.
Whew! Now, you have all the tools and knowledge you need to get out there and score some perfectly structured sentences.
Although it comes in several forms and locations, です is one of the most meaningful Japanese words out there!
And One More Thing...
If you love learning Japanese with authentic materials, then I should also tell you more about FluentU.
FluentU naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You'll learn real Japanese as it's spoken in real life.
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos as you'll see below:
FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts. Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they're written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
And FluentU has a learn mode which turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples.
The best part? FluentU keeps track of your vocabulary, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You'll have a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)