A guide to Japanese Grammar: 1

In Japanese by Jeremy Arns

Polite form, plain form, and “is” and “is not”

Japanese is spoken in a polite form, or a plain form, depending on politeness levels and who you are speaking to. As a basic example, if you are speaking to a superior you would use polite Japanese, and if you are speaking to friends or family you would use plain Japanese. At first that may sound difficult, but the difference between polite and plain Japanese isn’t that drastic, and the concept is extremely embedded in the language.

Let’s take a look at the verb “is / am / are” and it’s polite and plain form.

です (polite form)
(plain form)

Is a cat.

Is a cat.

The difference is sort of like “That is” versus “That’s”. The sound is close, but one is more formal and drawn out.

Let’s learn how to say “is not / are not / am not”, which can be done by using ではありません or ではない.

ではありません (polite form)
ではない  / じゃない (plain form)

Is not a cat.

ではない。 /  猫じゃない
Is not a cat.

The difference between the formal and plain form of this is ありません (formal) and ない (plain)– では stays the same. You probably notice there are two plain forms listed, ではない and じゃない. Both are plain forms, however the second (じゃない) is even “more plain”. The sound では when slurred or spoken fast sounds like じゃ, and became an accepted form.

If in doubt of which you should use, you can use ではない , however there are certain situations where じゃない (or じゃん) would likely be used opposed to ではない。 For instance, if someone said “Isn’t this cool?”, they could say かっこういいじゃない! (to be grammatically correct, this should be かっこうよくない, however this is sometimes used an expression even though it’s grammatically incorrect, which enforces the nuance of “Isn’t this cool?”), however if they used ではない, and said かっこいいではない!, it would probably just sound like they’re saying it isn’t cool, and have bad grammar. A lot of this is in voice inflection and this example might be a bit exaggerated– you could use ではない with the right voice inflection to get the same meaning across, but using じゃない in this situation is natural.

Let’s quickly review です (is / am / are), and ではありません (is not / are not / am not) , in both polite form and plain forms.

Is not a pen.

Is a pen.

Inferred topics or subjects, topic and subject markers, how to say “I like”, and Japanese word order

As a general rule, subjects aren’t spoken if it’s already understood or can be inferred. A good example is the word for “I” or “Me” (私). In English, it’s very natural to use sentences including the word “I”:
I like that, I did that, I think so, I don’t know.
In Japanese however, it’s not natural to use 私 in the same frequency we use the word “I”.

Taking the earlier example above, ぺんです, which was translated just as “Is a pen.”, can also mean “This is a pen”. The “this” part wasn’t said in Japanese because it’s inferred.

Before we teach how to omit subjects, let’s first learn how to mark something as a subject or a topic. It should be noted that what is marked as a subject or topic comes before the topic or subject marker. In other words, if you say 私は, you are marking 私 as the topic.

(topic marker)
(subject marker)

This is a pen.

Unless it’s important to point out that this is a pen (versus something else), it’s more natural to say ぺんです versus これはぺんです.

Let’s review the earlier examples with full sentences:

That’s a cat.

That’s not a cat.

As you can see, それは is inferred without saying it, so there’s no reason to use それは for “That’s a cat” or “That’s not a cat”, and it sounds more natural if you don’t!

Let’s learn how to say something that takes both a subject, and a topic. Here we’ll use the word for “I” (私), the word for “Cat”(猫), and the word for “Like”(好き).

I like cats.

The above sentence uses three concepts, “I”, “Cats”, and “Like”. Notice how in Japanese it’s in just that order, versus English where you would say “I” first, then “Like”, and then “Cats”. This is because Japanese is a SOV language (Subject, Object, Verb), where English is an SVO language (Subject, Verb, Object).

As mentioned earlier, things that are understood without saying them aren’t typically said, and using the word “I” (私)is generally avoided unless it wouldn’t be understood without saying it. This would make the sentence just the topic and the verb, 猫 (cat) and 好きです (like):

I like cats.

Let’s learn how to say you don’t like cats!

I don’t like cats.

The construction of how to say “I like” is 好き+です, and the way to say “I don’t like” is 好き+ではありません. To make it clear what it is that you don’t like, which is the subject of the sentence, you would mark it with . Since “Cats” is the subject of this sentence, it therefor becomes 猫.

As another note, 好き can be used as an adjective– and the verb in the sentence 猫が好きです is です, not 好き. You could use 好き as an adjective with the same words like this:

A cat that (I) like.

A cat that likes cats.

There are different types of adjectives, な adjectives and い adjectives. 好き happens to be a な adjective, so to use it as an adjective, you add な, followed by a noun you’d like to modify with the adjective. Like this:

A pen that I like.

Future lessons will cover adjectives in depth–
Let’s practice the construction of how to say you like something, or don’t like something, in plain form:

(I) like cats.

(I) don’t like cats.

(I) don’t like cats.

By switching out 猫 with something else, you now know how to say you like something, or don’t like something! This only works for nouns, so if you’d like to say you like something else that isn’t a noun (like an action), there’s a way to do this.

Stay tuned for more lessons shortly!

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