On the use of an adjective before ‘です’

Students of Japanese may have at some point wondered, as have I, what the difference between ないです and ありません is. Ask a Japanese, and you will get a vague explanation about how the former is less formal than the latter, and how there is no difference in their meaning. That explanation is valid—but it is not the entire truth.

The difference between the two is precisely the same as the difference between It’s me and It is I: the former is incorrect according to the rules of traditional grammar, but it is often preferred because the latter sounds stiff.

The word ない (無い) is an adjective (形容詞).[[These 形容詞 are often called ‘i-adjectives’ or ‘adjectival verbs’ to distinguish them from 形容動詞 (‘na-adjectives’ or ‘adjectival nouns’), but for simplicity’s sake, and reasons given here, I will just call them ‘adjectives’.]] です is a heavily contracted combination of the particles にて, and probably either 候ふ (sōrō) or ございます.

です means essentially the same thing as である, だ, and でございます. Each is a combination of the particle で (contracted にて) and a verb that means ‘is’. です can be exchanged for だ, である, です, であります, ございます, or で候ふ. The phrases are semantically and grammatically identical: replacing one with another changes a sentence’s tone but not its meaning.

However, unlike the others, です is used after adjectives. The acceptance of this usage dates back to 1952, when it was formally approved by the National Diet.

7 形容詞と「です」


7 Adjectives and ‘です’
The long-controversial use of [of です] with an adjective to end a sentence—as in ‘大きいです’, ‘小さいです’, etc.—is acceptable as a plain and simple form.

The adjective+です construction is accepted by Daijirin.

… 形容詞および形容詞型活用の助動詞には,その終止形に付く。

Daijirin, entry for ‘です’

… when adjectives and adjectival auxiliary verbs are used, [です is] attached to their terminal form.

And it has been accepted by Kōjien since 1998.


Kōjien 6th ed. (2008), entry for ‘です’

Until the second decade of the Showa period[[This means around 1935–1945.]], expressions such as ‘面白いです’, in which です is attached to an adjective, were considered unorthodox; but today[[The sixth edition was published ten years later in 2008, but the entry is the same as that in the fifth.]] they are considered to be correct.

The fourth edition of the Kōjien, in which Shinmura Izuru’s influence is more evident, does not even mention the use of adjectives after です:

【助動】(「で候(そう)」の約とか、「でござります」の転とかいう) 体言や体言に準ずるもの、或る種の助詞に付けて、指定の意を表す。[[①狂言では、おもに大名・山伏などの名乗りなどに使い、尊大な感じを表す。である。狂、禰宜山伏「これは出羽の羽黒山より出たる駈出の山伏です」


Kōjien 4th ed. (1991)

Auxiliary Verb(Said to be a contraction of ‘で候 (そう)’ or an alteration of ‘でございます’, or similar.) [です is] attached to uninflectable or nominalised words, and to some types of particles, and has the connotations specified [below].[[The connotations specified are (1) in a Noh farce, the haughtiness of of a daimyō or a mountain hermit-monk; (2) in the late Edo period, the speech of the pleasure quarters, and of physicians, artisans, etc.; and (3) from around the Meiji Restoration onwards, a level of politeness above that of ‘だ’ and below that of ‘でございます’.]]

Foreign writers of Japanese may sometimes wish to eschew the adjective+です construction to avoid sounding foreign or childish. Although it is widely accepted as proper Japanese, it is not considered formal or sophisticated.

Although we can rewrite 面白くないです as 面白くありません, we cannot rewrite 面白いです as 面白くあります. It is not technically wrong, but it is not conventional Japanese at all, and will cause the reader to stumble. The phrase 面白くないのです is grammatically correct (I believe の is short for もの), but is has an explanatory tone that is not always appropriate. 面白い is correct on its own, but is not formal. 面白うございます is archaic and comical.

A full-text search of the fifth edition of Kōjien will return no examples of です used after an adjective, except for the one in the entry on です. It seems that although Kōjien acknowledges that such usage is considered correct, it neither employs nor actively recommends it.

Further reading (in Japanese)

形容詞の否定形に複数の形があるのはなか on 日本語教師の広場

デス・マス体が書きにくいワケ by ‘tobi’

「形容詞+です」述語の生起要因についての準備的考察 by 前川喜久雄

カリ活用 on Kotobank

The Dokkōdō

A translation of Miyamoto Musashi‘s last message

In this translation, I do not attempt to contribute any new interpretations, but I endeavour to convey to the reader the peculiar intensity of Musashi’s words.

I used second person singular for linguistic precision and to emphasise the fact that Musashi lived in the same age as when Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible were written.

The Japanese definitions used herein are taken from the Kōjien, the Gakken Kogo Jiten, and the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten. The English definitions are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary and have been verified for congruence using Etymonline and Google Ngrams.[[The word ‘romantic’ in the tenth precept galls me but I have yet think of anything better.]]

To preserve the look of the original text, I included many of the hentaigana that Musashi used, but, owing to the low quality of the images I could find, I was unable to clearly identify every instance of their use; and so I have left the usual hiragana as they are where the original text was illegible.

The hentaigana are displayed using the UniHentaiKana font.



The Lonely Way[[Or perhaps ‘The Path One Walks Alone’ (though 行 does mean ‘go’).]]

一 世〻の道𛄜そむく事𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: yoyo no michi wo somuku koto nashi

Defy not the ways of the world.[[Although hitotsu does mean ‘one’, in this case it is used merely to list each item, so I have omitted it from the English.]] [[The word そむく literally means “turn one’s back”, but in Japanese to turn one’s back is not to ignore or abandon but to rebel.]]

一 身𛂋𛁠の𛁅𛃉𛄜たくま𛁑

Hitotsu: mi ni tanoshimi wo takumazu

Seek not after pleasures.

一 よろ𛁑𛂌依怙の心𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: yorozu ni eko no kokoro nashi

Favour not one thing over another.

一 身𛄜あさく思世𛄚ふ𛀚く思ふ

Hitotsu: mi wo asaku omoi yo wo fukaku omou

Take little heed of thyself, and take great heed of the world.

一 一生の間よく𛁅ん思は𛁑

Hitotsu, isshō no aida yokushin omowazu

Desire nothing as long as thou livest.

一 我事𛂋おゐて後悔𛄜せ寸

Hitotsu, waga koto ni oite kōkai wo sezu[[Some people insert a comma between 我 and 事 and read it as ‘ware, koto …’: ‘I rue things not.’ I don’t think that this is the correct reading but I don’t have any proof. However, a precept that begins with ‘I’ does not sit nicely with the others.]] [[The character ゐ is pronounced wi, so にゐいて could be transliterated as ni owite, but the difference in pronunciation is so little as to make no difference.]]

Rue not what thou hast done.

一 善惡𛂌他を𛂗𛁠𛃑心𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: zen’aku ni ta wo netamu kokoro nashi

Begrudge not others for good or ill.

一 いつ𛄀の道𛂌もわ𛀚れ𛄜𛀚𛂂𛁅ま寸

Hitotsu: idzure no michi ni mo wakare wo kanashimazu

Do not grieve at any parting.

一 自他共𛂋うら𛃉か𛀸つ心𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: jita tomo ni uramikakotsu koto nashi[[Some insert an を between うらみ and かこつ, but that is a mistake.]]

Blame neither thyself nor another.

一 𛄀ん𛃀の道思ひよる𛀸ゝろ𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: renbo no michi omoi-yoru kokoro nashi

Do not yearn for romantic love.[[I would write Yearn not for the love of a woman, because ‘romantic love’ was not part of the contemporary English lexicon, but it leaves too much unsaid to be an accurate translation.]]

一 物毎𛂌𛁏𛀪𛀸の𛃑事𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: mono goto ni suki-konomu koto nashi

Have no predilections.

一 私宅𛂌おゐてのそむ心𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: shitaku ni oite nozomu kokoro nashi

Desire nothing of thy house.

一 身ひとつ𛂌美食𛄜このま𛁑

Hitotsu: mi hitotsu ni bishoku wo konomazu

Choose not fine food when eating alone.

一 末〻代物𛂂る古き道具所待せ寸

Hitotsu: suezue shiromono naru furuki dōgu shoji zezu

Keep not old tools for later gain.[[I believe that this is an admonishment against the buying of antique goods in the hope that they will become valuable.]]

一 𛄌𛀚身𛂌い𛁠り物い𛃉𛁏る事𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: waga mi ni itari mono-imi suru koto nashi

Deprive not thy body.[[I.e., do not abstain from food or certain acts for ascetic reasons.]]

一 兵具𛂞各別よの道具𛁠𛁅𛂂ま𛁑

Hitotsu: heigu wa kakubetsu yo no dōgu tashinamazu

Rejoice in no tools but weapons.[[I believe that yo means 余, even though the kana よ used here is derived from the kanji 与.]]

一 道𛂌おゐて𛂞死𛄜いとは寸思う

Hitotsu: michi ni oite shi wo itowazu omou

Think it not ill to meet death on thy way.

一 老身𛂌財寳所領もちゆる心𛂂𛁅

Hitotsu: rōshin ni zaihō shoryō mochiyuru kokoro nashi

Wish not for lands and treasures for thine old age.

一 佛神𛂞貴𛁅佛神𛄚𛁠のま𛁑

Hitotsu: busshin wa tōtoshi busshin wo tanomazu.

Worship the Gods and Buddhas but ask of them nothing.

一 身𛄚捨ても名利𛂦すて𛁑

Hitotsu: mi wo sutemo myōri wa sutezu

Cast away thy life before thou casteth away thine honour.

一 常𛂋兵法の道𛄜𛂦𛂂𛃿寸

Hitotsu: tsune ni heihō no michi wo hanarezu

Never stray from the way of the fighting arts.

Further reading

Image of the original scroll at the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art – if you are interested in graphology, then this is worth a look.

Some amateur commentary on the precepts (in Japanese)

A Dokkōdō translation by Teruo Machida

A very nice Dokkōdō translation by William Scott Wilson

Another Dokkōdō translation (author unknown)

五輪書 – The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi (original text and Modern Japanese translation)

Do keiyōdōshi exist?

Keiyōdōshi (形容動詞 – ‘adjectival verbs’) are a class of declinable words such 静か and 堂々 that take the auxiliary verbs だ, なり, and たり. The classification is widely accepted in Japan and is recognised by highly reputable dictionaries such as Daijirin and the current Kōjien.

It was not, however, accepted by Shinmura Izuru (新村出), the original editor of the Kōjien (広辞苑). The fourth edition of the Kōjien was the last to include his dissenting opinion in a meaningful manner:


[…] In another theory, keiyōdōshi are not acknowledged [to exist]: the first form [[The ‘first form’, in this case, means words like 良かり, consisting of a 形容詞 adjective (よい) in the continuative form (thus よく) plus the verb あり. よく+あり→よかり. See 広辞苑第四版 (Iwanami Shoten) for more details.]] is reduced to あり and the continuative form of the adjective, and the second[[Words that take an n– verb, as with 静かなり.]] and third[[Words that take a t– verb, as with 泰然たり.]] forms are considered to be combinations of nouns and the specified auxiliary verbs. This dictionary follows this last theory.

The fifth and sixth editions seem to accept the existence of keiyōdōshi, and only mention the controversy in passing:


There is also a theory in which keiyōdōshi are not recognised as a part of speech.

Shinmura’s theory interests me because it seems to consider なり and たり more analytically—after all, the auxiliary verb なり is formed by combining に and あり, and たり by combining と and あり.

To say 静かなる山 (‘a still/quiet mountain’) is to say ‘mountain existing in [a state of] stillness/quietness’. This is a little different grammatically from an expression such as 静かだ (which can be translated as ‘it is still/quiet’) in which 静か is used somewhat like an adjective.

Very strictly speaking, it is hard to justify putting a d– sound after a なり word such as 静か. If we look at the Daijirin and Daijisen, we can see that even though they say that 静かd– is permissible in spoken language, all the usage examples they provide for 静か are of 静かn–.