One of the first things you learn about the Japanese language is “desu” (です). In fact, even those who don’t know Japanese know generally how to use this copula. Just stick it at the end of the sentence and you’re good to go, right?
And for those of us who watched an anime or J-drama episode or two, we’re pretty familiar with the copula “da” (だ), aren’t we? As the textbooks would tell us, these two are supposed to be interchangeable. One is used for formal context and the other for informal ones.
I’m here to tell you that there’s more to them than that, and you won’t find your answers in textbooks. They’re from observation and practice in conversation with local Japanese people – read on to find out what they are!
The Usage of “Desu”
“Desu” (です), as we all know, is used at the end of a sentence to make it formal. This phrase is a copula, so it’s kind of like “to be” (is, am, are) in English. For example, “this is a pen” is said as “kore ha pen desu” (これはペンです). “Desu” is used to link the subject to a subject complement.
When you end a sentence with “desu”, there’s a certain level of formality attached to it. Usually, you would use “desu” when speaking to people who you aren’t familiar with as well as those above you in the work or social hierarchy. If you’re talking to your boss, I’d recommend ending your sentences with “desu”. If you’re talking to your teacher, yup, definitely use it. If you’re talking to your good friend, chances are you don’t have to use it.
“Desu” is attached to nouns and adjectives only. Verbs have their own conjugation that has the same formality as “desu”. Ending a verb with “masu” (ます) is like saying “desu”, but that’s a whole other article altogether.
The Usage of “Da”
Da (だ) is also a copula and acts the exact same way as “desu” most of the time. If you want to say “this is a pen” but using “da” instead, just replace the “desu” with “da”: “kore ha pen da” (これはペンだ). The message is conveyed across just the same.
While “desu” is more formal, “da” is more informal. You often hear it in conversations among good friends, and never with superiors and those you are not familiar with. I would advise you never to use “da” with your boss or teachers. More often than not, guys are the ones using it among themselves. That’s not to say girls don’t say it, too. My girl friends use it, and so do I.
However, “da” is often used in combination with other Japanese particles like “yo” (よ) and “ne” (ね) to make “da yo” (だよ) and “da ne” (だね). Sometimes, you’ll even hear “da yo ne” (だよね) attached at the end of sentences as well as on its own. That’s because, “da” on its own can sound rude and dry in conversation and it’s often used in written form instead of “desu” to imply informality. Using “da yo”, “da ne” and “da yo ne” brings the “da” from cold to casual.
“Da ne” is the most common one of them all, in my opinion. Attaching the “ne” with “da” automatically makes the sentence an engaging one. It’s kind of like asking the other person for their opinion – if they agree or not. If you say “Kono kēki wa oishī da ne” (このケーキを美味しいだね) is like saying “this cake is delicious, isn’t it?”
“Da yo” has a more aggressive tone to it. If you say “watashi da yo” (私だよ), it kind of sounds like “it’s obviously me!” If you’re not so close with someone, it’s best to stay away from this one.
I often use “da yo ne” (だよね) as a response and use it on its own. For example, this phrase is perfect as a response to the cake statement. Saying “da yo ne” to that is you agreeing that the cake is delicious.
The Difference Between “Desu” and “Da”
In textbooks, they’ll tell you that “da” is the informal version of “desu”. That’s pretty accurate. In theory, it is. You can definitely use “da” to make your sentences sound more informal. But make sure you’re also aware that it can also make you sound rude and aggressive.
Using “da” on its own is rather rare in conversation. “Desu”, however, is extremely common. If you’re unsure of what to use at the end of a sentence, it’s never wrong to use “desu”, but it’s not so straightforward with “da”. My advice is to stick with “desu” until you’re comfortable with the various ending particles like “da yo” and “da ne”, or even “yo” and “ne” on their own. Read our Japanese Particles article if you want a clearer picture of what you can use and how to use them.
And there you have it! “Desu” and “da” can seem pretty clear-cut, but it’s not so black and white until you have to actually use it in conversation. I was like that when I first got to Japan, but after countless observations and practice, I now have a better understanding of their usage. Remember, Japanese is a constant learning journey. Good luck!
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Our second season’s second episode of the Nihongo Master Podcast introduces a language series in the mix: Study Saturday! In this series, we bring you a new grammar episode every Saturday — bite-sized and full of vocabulary words. They’re going to be very similar to the lessons Nihongo Master offers, so if you realise you love Study Saturday, you’ll love our interactive online learning system.
The series episode flow goes like this: grammar point, roleplaying scenarios, vocab recap.
And for our very first episode, we looked at one I personally use every day: Have you ever…? Like… Have you ever needed to ask someone if they had ever done something? Or tell someone that you have or have never done something before? Yes? Exactly!
If you missed that episode, go check it out! Here’s a recap of what we covered in that episode, along with a list of vocabulary words that we used.
Have You Ever…ことがある？
Before we get to playing “Never Have I Ever”, we gotta know how to ask the basic question: Have you ever…?
To ask this question in Japanese, all you have to do is add “koto ga aru” (ことがある) / “koto ga arimasuka?” (ことがありますか) to the casual past tense of any verb.
We looked at this example: “Have you ever been to Europe?”
For this question, we’ll use the verb for “to go” which is iku (行く), then change it to the casual past tense: itta (行った). Then, just add the phrase we mentioned before to make “itta koto ga aru” (行ったことがある) / “itta koto ga arimasuka” (行ったことがありますか). So when you have the subject and put it all together, you get: “yoroppa ni itta koto ga aru?” (ヨーロッパに行ったことがある？) / “yoroppa ni itta koto ga arimasuka?” (ヨーロッパに行ったことがありますか？)
In the episode, we gave a few more examples — check it out for more clarity.
We also looked at how to reply. There are two ways to go about this kind of question: “Yes, I have…” or “No, I haven’t…” While you could get away with a simple “hai” or “iie”, but why not up your game a bit?
To say you’ve done something, the formula is pretty much the exact same as the question. Reply the example question with “yuroppa ni itta koto ga aru” (ヨーロッパに行ったことがある) / “yuroppa ni itta koto ga arimasu” (ヨーロッパに行ったのとがあります). As simple as ABC! Or, you could even cut it short to “itta koto ga aru” (行ったことがある) / “itta koto ga arimasu” (行ったのとがあります) — leaving out the subject.
For the negative reply “No I haven’t…”, we gotta make a slight change to the ending — aru (ある) has to be in its negative form, which is nai (ない) or arimasen (ありません). So then it becomes: “yuroppa ni itta koto ga nai” (ヨーロッパに行ったことがない) / “yuroppa ni itta koto ga arimasen” (ヨーロッパに行ったのとがありません). Similarly, you can cut it short by leaving out the subject: “itta koto ga nai” (行ったことがない) / “itta koto ga arimasen” (行ったのとがありません).
In short, the formula to ask “Have you ever…” is:
subject + particle + verb in the casual past tense + koto ga aru/arimasuka (ことがある/ことがありますか).
And for the answer of “I have/have never…”, it’s the same with a slight difference at the end:
subject + particle + verb in the casual past tense + koto ga aru/koto ga arimasu (ことがある/ことがあります) for positive; koto ga nai/koto ga arimasen (ことがないことがありません) for negative.
For the full explanation with everyday examples, head over to Spotify or Apple Podcasts — we even have a few roleplaying scenarios using this grammar language a few times!
Just like our previous episodes, we wrapped it up with a vocab recap for all the Japanese words we used. Here’s a compiled list of it:
Kouhai (後輩) — people of lower status
Tomodachi (友達) — friend
Senpai (先輩) — people of higher status
Kazoku (家族) — family
Iku (行く) — to go
Yoroppa (ヨーロッパ) — Europe
Taberu (食べる) — to eat
Kankoku (韓国) — South Korea
Ryouri (料理) — cuisine
Kohi (コーヒー) — coffee
Koucha (紅茶) — black tea
Nomu (飲む) — to drink
Nominomo (飲み物) — drink
Tabemono (食べ物) — food
Ichiban suki (一番好き) — literally translates to number one like, but it actually means favourite
Igai (以外) — with the exception of, or except
Suki (好き) — like
Daisuki (大好き) — love
Meccha (めっちゃ) — a casual way to say really
Chuugoku (中国) — China
Ippai (いっぱい) — a lot
Onaka tsuita (お腹ついた) — to be hungry
hyaku pacento (百パーセント) — 100%
Eigo (英語) – English language
Jetto kosuta (ジェットコスタ) — roller coaster
Noru (乗る) — to ride
Muri (無理) — impossible
Kowasou (怖そう) — looks scary
Hitori de (一人で) — alone
Uso (うそ) — a lie
Tanoshii (楽しい) — fun
Issho ni (一緒に) — together
Ikou (行こう) — let’s go. It comes from the word “iku”
Shiata (シアター) — theatre
Pafomansu (パフォマンス) — performance
Miru (見る) — to see or to watch
Majikku (マジック) — magic tricks. you can also call it tejina
Omoshirosou (面白そう) — looks interesting
Chotto (ちょっと) — a bit, but it can also mean “wait”
Tanomu (頼む) — please
Tabun (多分) — maybe
Yakusoku (約束) — promise
And that’s the recap of our very first episode of our language series, Study Saturday. If this recap has been useful to you, perfect! You’ll love the Study Saturday podcast series — so pop open your preferred streaming app and give Nihongo Master Podcast a listen!