～んです can be difficult for Japanese learners to use correctly. Grammatically, it’s easy to use it: ～んです simply just comes after the dictionary form of a word, and it always comes at the end of a sentence or phrase. So what makes it so problematic for learners? The answer is that ～んです has a social function, so the trick is knowing when it’s appropriate to use it.
But first, here are common variations depending on politeness level and the preceding word.
- Casual conversation, following a verb & い adjective: ～んだ or ～のだ
- Casual conversation, following a noun & な adjective: ～なんだ
- Casual conversation, following anything: ～の／〜ん
- Polite conversation, following a verb & い adjective: ～んです or ～のです
- Polite conversation, following a noun & な adjective: ～なんですor なのです
There are eight main ways that ～んです is used.
The first person will end a question with んです to request an explanation from their partner, and the second person answers with んです to provide an explanation.
- Person A:「どうして遅刻したんですか？」
- “Why were you late?”
- Person B:「すみません。込んでいたんです。」
- “I’m sorry. It was crowded.”
- Person A :「レストランに行こ？」
- “Want to go to a restaurant?
- Person B :「 レストランに行きたいってことは、お腹が空いてるの？」
- “Since you said you want to go to a restaurant, I take it you’re hungry?”
2. 納得：Realization / Understanding
んです can be used at the end of a statement to express that the speaker just discovered or realized something, and might even convey the feeling of surprise.
- “I wonder how this machine works… Ah! If I press here, it works.”
- Person A :（英語を教えているとき）「ここは"it"じゃなくて"this"だよ！」
- (When teaching English) “It shouldn’t be ‘it’ here. It’s ‘this’!”
- Person B :「そうなんですね！」
- “I see!”
Related to this, 「そうなんですね」and「そうなんですか」are polite phrases that listeners use to show that what they’ve just heard is new and interesting to them. The English meaning is similar to, i.e. “Is that so?”. The listeners are mostly showing that they understand and are paying attention, but there’s a small nuance of being surprised or having just learned something.
- Person A :（たくさん食べている）
- (Person A is eating a lot)
- Person B :「たくさん食べるんですね！」
- “You’re sure eating a lot!”
For this particular social function of んです, it’s often paired with repeating back what the person’s partner has just said. An important part of Japanese culture is “listening out loud.” Listeners make brief verbal utterances called 相槌 （あいづち） to show the other person that they’re listening attentively. Common 相槌 are うん, はい, and そうですか, which are similar to when English speakers say, “Right,” “Really?” or “Is that so?” to show they’re listening.
相槌 can also take the form of the listener repeating back what they just heard in the form of a question, with んですか added at the end. Because it’s technically a question, it might seem like the listener is seeking confirmation or expressing surprise. However, the listener is simply showing that they’re paying attention and comprehend what was spoken.
- Person A :「おれは今度のX JAPANのコンサートに行くよ！」
- “I’m going to the next X JAPAN concert!”
- Person B :「えっ！先輩行くんですか？！じゃあ私も行こうかな！」
- “Wow! You’re going? Then maybe I’ll go, too!
- んです can also be added at the end of a statement that paraphrases what the other person has said. Again, it’s signaling that you understood.
- “Wow! You’re going? Then maybe I’ll go, too!
- (During a break at work)
- Person A : 「Bさん休憩時間ですよ！いっしょにお昼ご飯食べよ！」
- “B-san, it’s break time! Let’s go get lunch.”
- Person B : 「ごめん。これを早く終わらせないといけないからもう少しするよ。」
- “Sorry. I have to finish this, so I’m going to do a little more.”
- Person A : 「えっ働くんだ！？うん。分かった。」
- “What, you’re working!? Okay, I got it.”
- Person A : 「じゃあまたね！」
- “See you later!”
- Person B : 「え〜もう行くんだあ、、、。寂しいなあ。」
- “You’re leaving already…! I’ll be lonely.”
- Person A : 「白夜行もう一回観よ！」
- “I’m going to watch White Night Train one more time!”
- Person B : 「また観るんだ。。。」
- “You’re watching it again…?!”
3. 先触れ、前置き：To preface or forewarn
んです can be used at the end of an opening statement to indicate that you’re going to immediately follow it with an announcement, news, an explanation, or the main point, etc. This use of んです is usually followed by the particle が . When んですが occurs in the middle of a sentence, it’s a polite way to prepare the listener for what you really want to say or ask. (In casual speech, it takes the form of んだけど.）
- “~san, you’re quite good at Japanese, so where did you study?”
- “Sensei, I have something to tell you. Is this a good time?”
- “What is it?”
- “The thing is, I’ve decided to return to my own country next year.”
- (Before asking a question)
- “This is somewhat personal so I apologize in advance, but is it alright to discuss something with you now?”.
Here is part 2 and part 3 of this article topic on the nuances of んです (~ndesu)!
Hero image by Sorasak on Unsplash