In the answer to this question I asked (When to use である vs であります?), sazarando responded by saying that "である" is formal but not polite, and "です" is polite but not formal. I sort of understand the distinction he was making, but from my English perspective, I suppose I don't understand why you would want to be formal and not polite at the same time.

The example he gave for である was

A politician giving a speech on TV:

我々は日本国民である - We are Japanese citizens

In this example, why would the politician not want to be polite to the people to whom he is speaking? I understand why you would not use である when talking to, say, a superior at work, because that's simply a private conversation where you need to be respectful to your superior. But in the above case where you're speaking in public or writing in a newspaper or something, I don't understand why you wouldn't be polite as well as formal.

Also as a side question, in some academic presentations I've witnessed, the presenter simply uses 謙譲語, rather than using formal speech, so they would end sentences with でございます rather than であります or である. What would be the explanation for this?

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    Thanks for mentioning me! The reason I gave the example of a politician giving a speech on TV is because a lot of them have kind of a "firebrand"-style of speaking, where using polite language would make them sound weak and un-authoritative. But, it's still a formal context (a speech) so they may opt for である to enhance their position.
    – sazarando
    Jul 1, 2016 at 8:30
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    Another example of a "formal but not polite situation" might be a judge addressing the observers of a court case. Like:「判決は私の責任である」 Or a teacher instructing students in class. Like:「牛は哺乳類である」Perhaps the pattern here is "someone in authority addresses a group of people".
    – sazarando
    Jul 1, 2016 at 8:33

2 Answers 2


By "formal" they seem to have meant "literary", "solemn", "lofty" and such things, while "polite" seems more about social courtesy. In this sense:

  • "Formal" or not: get vs obtain; job vs profession; cold vs rhinopharyngitis etc.
  • "Polite" or not: Can I... vs May I...; want vs would like; Can you... vs Would you mind... etc.

Thus, the style in academic papers is typically "formal but not polite", and the way a hotel clerk speaks to customers is "polite but not formal". Japanese honorifics denote "politeness" and we don't have grammar represents the degree of "formality" they said.

だ — plain (not formal nor polite)
です — polite
でございます — double-plus-polite
である — formal
であります — formal and polite


I usually hear "である" in formal situations but when the speaker is not addressing anyone in particular, but is just making a statement.

What sazarando means by "polite" is situations where the speaker is addressing someone in particular (often someone right in front of them or on the phone). And in these cases, you will most likely hear 謙譲語 spoken to you as it is the language they are required to use while serving someone in particular during their job.

While a politician serves the people, making a statement need not be "polite" in the way I just described. Indeed, you will hear である in a lot of similar situations such as news, documentaries, TV programs, speeches, textbooks, etc.

"です" is a general medium-ground politeness level that can be used towards strangers but not while you are on the job and serving them. I think that is why it is taught so often in introductory classes because it is a social position that non-Japanese will likely find themselves in when interacting with native Japanese.

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