Japanese Grammar Bank


The Japanese language, like Korean or Javanese, has several levels of politeness when addressing someone, it is called Honorifics:

  • Polite language (丁寧語, teineigo);
  • Respectful language (尊敬語, sonkeigo);
  • Humble language (謙譲語, kenjōgo)

These honorifics change depending on who you are talking to, and it is important to learn them so you don’t inadvertently offend or disrespect someone!


丁寧語 teineigo

The basic Japanese polite form is called 丁寧語 (ていねいご).

Many people start learning this form by default when they are just getting started with Japanese. It is the form we use when ending our sentences with ます and です (using the ます forms of verbs, and using です as the copula—to be, or is).

私はカレンですわたしはかれんですwatashi wa karen desuI am Karen
映画を見ましたえいがをみましたeiga wo mimashitaI saw a movie

Another very common example of 丁寧語 is ございます (gozaimasu).

ございます is the polite form of the verb ある (aru), to exist. This exists in some basic phrases in Japanese as a default.

ありがとうございますarigatou gozaimasuThank you very much
おはようございますohayou gozaimasuGood morning


尊敬語 sonkeigo

The next level of politeness is  尊敬語 (そんけいご), or respectful language.

When speaking Japanese, we show our respect for people by a) elevating their actions, and b) humbling our own actions.

The distinction between the actions of the other and the actions we make ourselves is key, since we do not want to elevate our own actions or belittle someone else’s! 

尊敬語 is used when talking about the actions or things of others who are superior to you.

A way to start adding politeness to words is by attaching prefixes お- and ご- to words.

The trick here is knowing which prefix to use which which word, and which words don’t work with either prefix. 

  • お is used with words that come from Japanese origin;
  • ご is used with words of Chinese origin, but exceptions do exist.

Words borrowed from other languages, usually written in katakana, won’t take either prefix, but when they do, it is お (おトイレ).

For many learners, the first sighting of this form might be in phrases like: お元気ですか (ogenkidesuka), how are you? or in words like お母さん (okāsan) and お父さん (otōsan).

This form is a sign of respect for the person you are talking to, and for the people and things that belong to them. 

Here are some more examples of words that take on the お and ご prefixes:

osakeSake / alcohol
電話odenwaTelephone call
ゆっくりgoyukkuriTake your time

Different ways to use 尊敬語 (そんけいご)

There are few ways to use 尊敬語 (そんけいご) in sentences. Choose which one will depend on the context and just how honorific we are trying to be.

One way to do this is to add お to the Verb-stem or ご to the Noun and at the end add になります.


お (Verb-stem form) / ご (Noun) + になります


先生はお待ちになりましたsensei wa omachi ni narimashitaThe teacher waited
先生は大学をご卒業になりましたsensei wa daigaku wo gosotsugyou ni narimashitaThe teacher graduated from university

Using the PASSIVE FORM of the verb also makes it more polite:

先生は行かれますかsensei wa ikaremasukaSensei, are you going?

Some verbs have special honorific forms. For example:

見ますmimasuto see


ご覧になりますgoran ni narimasuto see (respectful)

If we are talking to someone above us, like a boss or a teacher, we can say:

この本をご覧になりましたかkono hon wo goran ni narimashita kahave you seen/read this book?

謙譲語(けんじょうご) is used when talking about our own actions to someone superior to you.


謙譲語 kenjōgou

Honourifics can further be broken down into humble languages 謙譲語 (けんじょうご).

They are used when our actions have an affect on or involve a superior (謙譲語 1), and ones that do not involve or affect a superior (謙譲語 2). 

Involving a superior || 謙譲語 1

To make a 謙譲語 1 verb, we can add  お to the Verb-stem or ご to the Noun and at the end add します:


お (Verb-stem) / ご (Noun) + します

And there are also special forms of verbs that can be used, like:

お持ちしますo mochi shimasuTo hold (humble)
ご連絡しますgorenraku shimasuTo contact (humble)
見ますmimasuto see
拝見しますhaiken shimasuto see (humble)

So, if we are talking to someone of higher status about something we did, that involves them, we could use 謙譲語(けんじょうご) 1.

先生の写真を拝見しましたsensei no shashin wo haiken shimashitaI saw your (the teacher’s) photo

The action of viewing in this sentence is done by the speaker, and it involves someone of a higher status (it is the teacher’s photo being viewed), so that’s why 謙譲語 1 is used.

Not involving a superior || 謙譲語 2

謙譲語 2 consists mostly of special verbs, like:

するsuruTo do
致しますitashimasuTo do (humble)
来る/行くkuru / ikuTo come / to go
参りますmairimasuTo go / to come (humble)

Let’s say we are talking to the boss about going somewhere tomorrow, in a way that does not involve the boss at all.

明日そこに参りますashita soko ni mairimasuI am going there tomorrow

 That sentence was using the 謙譲語 2 form of the verb 行く (いく), to go. What if we made the same sentence but using the 謙譲語 1 verb, 伺う(うかがう)?

明日そこに伺いますashita soko ni ukagaimasuI will be meeting you there tomorrow

These sentences are the same except for the verb, and both verbs translate to “to go”. The first sentence uses a 謙譲語 2 verb, which does not involve a superior. This could be spoken to someone higher up when it does not directly involve them.

If the person speaking is meeting with a boss or teacher, the action would involve a superior, so the speaker should choose to use the 謙譲語 1 verb.


There are many different verbs for each category, so be sure to explore them on your own.

Here are just a few examples of how a verb can transform into respectful language and humble language.

To give 上げる お上げになる 差し上げる
To eat 食べる 召し上げる 頂く
To see 見る ご覧になる 拝見する
To do する なさる 致す
To know 知る ご存じ 存じ上げる 存じる
To go 行く いらっしゃる 伺う 参る

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What are honorifics in Japanese?

Honorifics can be described as multiple levels of politeness or respectfulness. It is used in the Japanese, Korean and Javanese languages.

In Japanese there are three levels of honorifics:

Polite language (丁寧語, teineigo);

Respectful language (尊敬語, sonkeigo);

Humble language (謙譲語, kenjōgo, or “modest language”)

What is Teineigo (丁寧語) in Japanese?

丁寧語 (teineigo) is the first level of honorifics in Japanese, also called the polite language.

Many people start learning this form by default when they are just getting started with Japanese. It is the form we use when ending our sentences with ます (masu) and です (desu).

What is Sonkeigo (尊敬語) in Japanese?

尊敬語 (sonkeigo) is the second level of honorifics in Japanese, also called the respectful language.

What is Kenjōgo (謙譲語) in Japanese?

謙譲語 (kenjōgo) is the third level of honorifics in Japanese, also called the humble language.

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