The Meaning of '-N Desu' in Japanese

This Japanese Phrase Can Be Used at the End of a Sentence

People walking on a paved walkway with bamboo on either side in Japan.

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The phrase –n desu (ん です), meaning "it is," is sometimes used at the end of a sentence. It is also commonly used in conversation, though it might be difficult for beginners to learn. The phrase has an explanatory or confirmatory function. The difference between –masu (〜ます), another nominal ending for a verb, and –n desu is very subtle. This makes it very hard to translate. The nominal ending –n desu can be translated as "it is the case that" or "it is for the reason that." However, there is no true English equivalent.

–N Desu Versus –Masu

One of the best ways to understand the subtle, nuanced meaning of –n desu is to compare it to –masu by viewing how two sentences use these endings differently:

Ryokou ni iku n desu ka? (りょこう に いく ん です か。)

  • Are you going to travel?

Ryokou ni ikimasu ka? ( りょこう に いきます か。)

  • Are you going on a trip?

In the first sentence, which uses –n desu, the speaker assumes that the listener is going on a trip and just wants her to confirm it. In the second sentence, which uses –masu, the speaker simply wants to know if the listener is going on a trip or not.

Formal Versus Informal

You also need to use a different form of –n desu when it is attached directly to a plain form of the verb in an informal situation. When the circumstances are informal, use –n da instead of –n desu, as demonstrated in the table. The sentences are written first in hiragana, which is a phonetic syllabary (or transliteration) made from simplified kanji characters. These sentences are then spelled using Japanese characters. An English translation follows on the right side of the table.

Ashita doubutsuen ni ikimasu.
I am going to the zoo tomorrow.
(simple statement)
Ashita doubutsuen ni iku.
Ashita doubutsuen ni iku n desu.
I am going to the zoo tomorrow.
(explaining his or her plans for tomorrow.)
Ashita doubutsuen ni iku n da.

Note how in Japanese, social context is very important. In English, the social situation, or position of the person you are addressing, would make little or no difference. You would tell a good friend at school or a visiting dignitary at a formal state dinner that you are going to the zoo using the same words.

Yet, in a formal situation in Japan, you would use –n desu, but you would use –n da if the circumstance were less formal. In the case of the first two sentences above, you would use –masu in a formal situation but omit the ending altogether if the setting or circumstances were informal.

Why Questions

In Japanese, why questions are often completed with –n desu because they are asking for a reason or an explanation, as the table demonstrates:

Doushite byouin ni iku n desu ka.
Haha ga byouki nan desu.
Why are you going to the hospital?
Because my mother is sick.
Doushite tabenai n desu ka.
Onaka ga suiteinai n desu.
Why don't you eat?
Because I am not hungry.
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Your Citation
Abe, Namiko. "The Meaning of '-N Desu' in Japanese." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Abe, Namiko. (2023, April 5). The Meaning of '-N Desu' in Japanese. Retrieved from Abe, Namiko. "The Meaning of '-N Desu' in Japanese." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).