Please Un-puzzle Me Re: Copula

I’m reading “English Grammar for Students of Japanese”, which it really interesting, if you’re as geeky as I am. The books says

Unlike be in English, which is a verb, the Japanese equivalent, usually referred to as the copula is not a verb…

It sure looks verb-y to me.

So I’m puzzled about this. Specifically, if the copula isn’t a verb, what can it do that a verb cannot? What can a verb do that the copula cannot?


You can’t put だ/です into the passive, for example. I don’t think you can modify it with an adverb [*]. And verbs in Japanese don’t generally let you just butt a noun up against it. So it seems easier to say “this is its own special thing” rather than calling it a verb with a bunch of special cases and exceptions.

[*] might be wrong here, “can’t do X” judgements are always tricky…


Of course, “be” in English is a copula, also called a linking verb…

I think what it’s getting at is that it just links things, rather than is an actual action. (And since it’s not an action, it can’t be put in the passive, as pm215 said)


This is (heh) fascinating to me.

I’ve been convinced for quite some time that the biggest key to “thinking in Japanese” is …

And then I make a bunch of vague, hand-wavy arguments about verb-centricity and copulas, that don’t make much sense upon review.

There is something there for sure, but I still don’t know how to express it. I’m pretty sure forms of “to be” are involved, though.

One thing that fascinates me is that Japanese allows one word “sentences” much more than English. Another is that what we call “い adjectives” are considered more verb-like than noun-modifier-like in Japan.

English speakers would be unlikely to yell “noisy!” when startled by someone. We’d be far more likely to yell “shut up’” or “knock it off!”. A Japanese person would almost certainly yell 「うるさい!」

Further, English learners of Japanese really want to change this to 「うるさいだ!」 which is just plain wrong! We really want it to be “it is noisy” not just “noisy”.

If you ever want to truly confuse yourself, try to take a system for diagramming English sentences that you vaguely remember from primary school, then try to apply it to Japanese…


That’s kinda weirdly worded. Both “to be” and です are copulas, that’s why they’re equivalent. It’s just that “to be” is a verb, while です is not.

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If one is a verb and the other isn’t, I would have a hard time calling them equivalent…

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They perform the same function of linking things, though, they just don’t work exactly the same way. “Equivalent” doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same, just that they’re analogous

“To like” and 好き are generally regarded not just equivalent, but the same, and only one of those is a verb…

“To be” and です are regarded as equivalent because they perform the same function - they’re the copula in their respective languages. It’s a verb or verb-like object that goes where no other verb is needed. As in “The book is red” or “本は赤いです”. They’re performing the same function.

I’m not sure that that です is the copula, though. You can’t replace it with だ, and it’s technically ungrammatical (if generally accepted in more casual speech) to use with い-adjectives. “赤い本です” (It’s a red book), on the other hand, is. “赤い本” is just a phrase, but “赤い本です” is a complete sentence since Japanese sentences need a verb or verb-equivalent, like the copula or an い-adjective. “本は赤い” is a perfectly valid sentence in Japanese, even if in English you would need the copula. (Not sure “verb-equivalent” is exactly the right way of putting it, but eh)

(Edit: Actually, I dunno if it’s just that I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but while I have read that there are technically two です, one that’s the copula and one that’s just for politeness, I’m not sure I understand the difference…)

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…that’s what the quoted text in the OP is saying, though?

The quoted text does make it sound like it’s saying “to be” isn’t a copula in English, and between them only です is a copula

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Text’s phrasing implies that “to be” is not also a copula.

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Mmm, I guess so. I feel like ‘copula’ is much more commonly thrown around as a term in Japanese language learning circles than I see it in discussions of English, so that’s kinda the way I interpreted it.

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That’s because us native English speakers generally learn the grammar of English without also learning the terminology.


I don’t recall anybody talking about the copula when I was learning French, though. I think it’s more talked about by Japanese learners because there’s this obvious not-a-verb thing and it’s handy to have a term for it.


I think the issue here is just that my definition of equivalent is not equivalent to your definition of equivalent

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Japanese grammar is perfectly straightforward.

だ and です are equivalent, like ある and あります, except when they aren’t. And 形容詞 are adjectives, except when they’re verbs. 形容動詞 are, of course, adjectival nouns which is why they have 動詞 in the name.

If any of this seems difficult to understand, I recommend watching the classic 1977 movie ハウス. It makes it all clear and obvious.



Perfect! This is obviously the most cogent reply, and it helps my understanding immensly.
:grinning: :grinning: :grinning: :grinning: :grinning:

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