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One tricky part of Japanese is the different formalities. Then how and when those formalities are used with different people, or even the same people!
This article goes over the different formalities in Japanese, who they’re used with and when. As well as how to break down long, complicated sentences.
There are various different levels of formality depending on the situation. These situations vary depending on your relationship to the person you’re talking to.
But first here is an example of the different formalities in Japanese from most formal to most informal.
“Please send this” [note: そうしん = send digitally]
これをお送信（そうしん）いただけないでしょうか？ (Business, addressing outside your group, formal)
これを送ってくれないでしょうか？ (Business, addressing within your group, formal)
これを送ってくれ。(Very casual, almost instructive rather than asking)
これを送って。(Very, very casual and friendly)
Wow… that’s a lot… well not really. You’ll see there are some general rules which can help you distinguish when to use the formal forms of Japanese.
As you learn more and more Japanese grammar you’ll also become accustomed to using these.
General Rules for Formal Japanese
1) The End of the Sentence Determines the “Tone” or “Formality” of the sentence
Notice how it’s the end of sentence (the various forms of ください or “please”) which determines the formality of the sentence? This is the case for the majority of Japanese.
Let’s say you want to say exactly the same thing but to your friends, you would drop the です altogether and say コンビニに行きたい.
These two sentences mean the same thing but their tone chances depending on the ending.
(By the way, if you wanted to be incredibly formal, the most formal form of です is でございます but it’s very strange to use that in the context of “I want to go to the shops”. You’d more likely you a softer いきたいと思います = I think I want to go)
NOTE: です and ます are NEVER left in the middle of a sentence when two sentences are combined.
I.E For the sentence “I studied a lot but I failed the exam”
You would NOT say いっぱい勉強（べんきょう）しましたのに試験（しけん）に落ちました（おちました）X
But you WOULD say いっぱい勉強（べんきょう）したのに試験（しけん）に落ちました（おちました）
2) The Longer It Is the More Formal It Is
You’ll see this with other forms of grammar that end the sentence such as “have to” which is しないと as very informal, friendly tone, up to しなければいけません。
3) Noun Forms of Verbs are Used More in Business
As you learn more and more Japanese vocabulary you’ll probably come across nouns which can be combined with する, which mean exactly the same (or similar to) the verb.
See the above list for example: I used 送る（おくる）and 送信（そうしん – digitally send) or 発送（はっそう – physically send）which all mean “to send”. But the second two are used more in business settings.
Other examples include わかる / 了解（りょうかい）する “to understand” and できる / 可能（かのう） “can do”.
This isn’t to say all noun verbs that use する are more formal and can only be used in formal situations. You CAN use these words in any situation. It just sounds slightly more business like when writing emails or talking on the phone.
4) You CAN use Different Formalities with the Same Person
I work in an office with Japanese people and use of formal Japanese vary as much on the situation as on the person.
Often when someone is asking for a favor they’ll use keigo (the top of the formality on the list). Sometimes my coworkers (again when asking for a favor) will use さま instead of さん even though we’re all very friendly and mostly use さん.
When we’re having lunch we’ll use casual plain form する and だ etc. But when we’re working or talking about work we’ll use ます and です.Expect for when I talk to my boss when I use です・ます generally and keigo when I ask for something or am asking about them.
When referring to other people we’ll use for formal terms to refer to them. Such as people in the head office will be 本社方（ほんしゃかた）instead of 本社さん, or my coworker will call her husband ご主人（ごしゅじん）rather than 旦那さん（だんなさん）. Or I’ll refer to my coworkers mother as お母さん（おかあさん）but my own as はは. (Note when I’d talk direct to my own mother I’d say おかあさん because it’s polite.)
See Rules for Using Keigo to learn more about referring to and talking to people “inside” and “outside” your circle. But as a general rule, more polite = more distant, formal, cold, respectful. More casual = close, friendly, warm.
It might seem confusing but as you learn different terms for people and talk to Japanese people you’ll begin to see how these are all used depending on the situation.
And it’s NOT the end of the world if you mix something up. There are NO strict rules for what to use when. Even Japanese people get stuck and misuse formal Japanese.
Longer, More Complicated Sentences
(With Various Formal Tones in the Same Sentence)
Let’s have a look at a longer, more complicated sentence and break down how different formalities can be used.
自転車 – じてんしゃ = bike
貸す – かす = to lend
先週 – せんしゅう = next week
週末 – しゅまつ = weekend
会社 – かいしゃ = company
同僚 – どうりょう = coworkers
関西 – かんさい = Kansai (area of Japan)
旅行 – りょこう = trip, vacation
出発する – しゅっぱつする = to depart, leave
Phew! Bit of a mouthful! First here are the individual clauses of the sentence broken down into individual sentences with です・ます:
おじが自転車を貸してくれました。- (My) uncle lent me his bike.
（ので = therefore/and so)
先週の週末です。 – Last week’s weekend (= last weekend).
会社の度量と関西旅行をするつもりです。 = a trip to Kansai planned with coworkers from (my) company.
出発しました。 = (we) left.
So the complete translation of this sentence would be “My uncle lent me his bike, so last weekend I left with some coworkers from (my) company to go on a trip to Kansai we planned.”
Breaking Up the Sentence
As a general rule VERBS and COMMAS are good indications of where to break up the sentence to make it more manageable.
Go back and read the full sentence again, breaking at the end of each verb and comma. Is it easier to understand now?
Applying the General Rules
As I mentioned before, the overall tone of the sentence is determined by the end.
In this case the end of the sentence is 「出発しました」which could be used with strangers, teachers, or people you respect in general. If this was being said to a friend it would use a more information 「出発した」. Or if you were talking to your boss you would use 「出発いたしました」. The rest of the sentence would be constructed in exactly the same way.
Notice how the formal use of です and ます is NOT used anywhere in the middle of the sentence?
In this sentence the person uses おじ instead of おじさん even though the whole sentence is fairly formal (because of the ending). As mentioned this is because of their relationship. It’s THEIR uncle, so they don’t have to use さん because he’s within their group.
HOWEVER, they CAN still use おじさん. The sentence would still make sense and would mean exactly the same thing. But by saying おじさん they are subtly implying to other person that maybe they’re no that close to their uncle, or maybe they have a lot of respect for him.
The more grammar you learn the more you’ll be able to understand longer, more complex sentences.
I have 3 grammar courses on memrise, 2 for beginner and 1 for intermediate, which aim to help people practice.
To sum this article up:
- The ending of the sentence sets the tone/formality.
- ます and です are never in the middle of the sentence (even if it’s a formal sentence).
- Noun forms of verbs are used more in formal business, but can be used in any situation.
- You can mix up formalities depending on the situation and your relationship with the other person. And you can you different formalities with the same person.
Please let me know if that helped at all or if that was just confusing and you have more questions! ^-^
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