There is one verb that I’m going to introduce immediately: the auxiliary verb (です). In English, we use the auxiliary verb to help us with verb tense. For instance, we say “I am leaving” not “I leaving” or “this is a pen” not “this a pen”. In Japanese the auxiliary verb is formally called the “assertive auxiliary verb” and is used to declare what something is. It is orange in the sentence below.

学生がくせいです
Is a student.

Note that periods in Japanese are represented by a small bubble instead of a dot.

In English when we use an auxiliary verb we must also add a pronoun, e.g. we can’t say “Is a student” we must say “He is a student”. This is the same in Japanese—we need a topic for the sentence. The difference is that once the sentence topic is defined it does not need to be repeated. The below, for instance, is acceptable in Japanese:

Is John a student?
Yes, is a student.

In English we would need to reply, “Yes, he is a student” despite the fact that we know “he” is the subject of the sentence from the question.

は is the particle that defines the topic of the sentence (when used as the topic particle the pronunciation is わ not は). It is the most fundamental particle in the language because it is present in every sentence even if it is not explicitly stated or repeated.

Now, remembering that every sentence ends with a verb and that the particle always follows the word or phrase which it is defining we have the below as the most basic sentence structure.

【TOPIC】は【NOUN】です。

The most literal translation of the topic particle is “as for”. Remembering this will help you when the particle is used to define more abstract topics than mere pronouns.

わたし 学生がくせいです。
As for I, am a student.

In English, the auxiliary verb transforms depending on the pronoun:

I am a student.
He is a student.
We are students.

This is not the case in Japanese; it’s all much simpler.

わたし 学生がくせいです。
As for I, am a student.
かれ 学生がくせいです。
As for he, is a student.
わたしたち 学生がくせいです。
As for we, are students.

You might also have noticed that nouns in Japanese do not have a plural form (the word for student does not change in any of the above sentences). With a few exceptions, plural forms of words in Japanese do not exist (yup, it’s a tough one to get your head round at first).

As stated in the introduction, all verbs in Japanese have two forms: the standard form (sometimes referred to as the “casual” form) and the honorific (“polite” form). In this guide I will use the terms “standard” and “polite” to denote the two different forms.

です is the polite form of the auxiliary verb. You will hear it everywhere, every day. だ is the standard form. The conjugation and grammatical usage is different, but they mean exactly the same thing.

かれ 学生がくせいです。
He is a student.
かれ 学生がくせいだ。
He is a student.

Both sentences can only be written as “He is a student” in English—the nuance of “polite” and “standard” form is lost in translation (at least when it comes to simple sentences like the above). Let’s look the negative, simple past, and simple past negative tense of the auxiliary verb.

The Negative

Form Present Negative
Polite です ではありません
Standard ではない

We simply put the negative form of the auxiliary verb at the end of the sentence to make it negative.

かれは 学生がくせいではありません
He is not a student.
かれは 学生がくせいではない
He is not a student.

While the above sentences are grammatically correct, in conversation Japanese speakers will often replace では with じゃ so we end up with:

かれは 学生がくせいじゃありません。
He is not a student.
かれは 学生がくせいじゃない。
He is not a student.

じゃ is more colloquial and rolls off the tongue far more easily than では.

The Past

Form Present Past
Polite です でした
Standard だった
かれは 学生がくせいでした
He was a student.
かれは 学生がくせいだった
He was a student.

The Past Negative

The conjugation is the same as for the negative but we replace ない with なかった for the standard form. For the polite form we simply add でした (the past polite form of the auxiliary verb) to the negative form.

Form Present Past Negative
Polite です ではありませんでした
Standard ではなかった
かれは 学生がくせいではありませんでした
He was not a student.
かれは 学生がくせいではなかった
He was not a student.

As with the negative, we can also replace the では with じゃ to get the following:

かれは 学生がくせいじゃありませんでした。
He was not a student.
かれは 学生がくせいじゃなかった。
He was not a student.

Of course, armed with our topic particle and auxiliary verb we can change the topic and the noun to create different sentences.

彼女かのじょは 医者いしゃです。
She is a doctor.
建物たてものは 大学だいがくではありません。
The building is not a university.
ここは 渋谷しぶやです。
Here is Shibuya [a place in Tokyo].

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