The word “demo” in Japanese (generally written in hiragana as でも) can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. In this article I will go through some of the most common ones and give example sentences for each.
Usage 1: Contrasting a previous statement (“but”)
One of the simplest and most common usage of “demo” is to express basic contrast, which is pretty close to the English word “but” or “however”. Here is an example:
- 雨が降ってる。でも、景色が綺麗。 (ame ga futteru. demo, keshiki ga kirei)
- It’s raining. However, the view is beautiful.
Note that if you wanted to connect to clauses you would not use “demo”, but instead use something like “(da)kedo”. In fact, I think “雨が降ってるけど景色が綺麗” sounds more natural than the above. I feel that “demo” is a little more common when someone starts speaking, in the sense of contrasting what someone else said.
- Person A: そのゲーム高いね。 (sono geemu takai ne)
- That game is expensive.
- Person b: でも楽しそう (demo tanoshisou)
- But it looks fun!
Usage 2: Set phrase “sore demo”
There is a common phrase “sore demo” that is used to begin a sentence, and has the nuance of “even given that”.
- この車はしょっちゅう壊れる。それでも大好き (kono kuruma wa shocchuu kowareru. sore demo daisuki)
- This car breaks frequently. Even so, I love it.
Usage 3: To make a casual suggestion (“something like…”)
The word “demo” can also be used when making a suggestion to do something. Here is a common phrase with that meaning:
- お茶でも飲みませんか (ocha demo nomimasen ka?)
- Would you like to get tea (or something)?
Usage 4: “de” particle plus “mo” particle
In some cases it is better to interpret “demo” as a combination of the “de” particle plus the “mo” particle. Let’s look at an example:
- 外でも勉強できますよ (soto de mo dekimasu yo)
- You can also study outside.
In this case, if the sentence was “soto de benkyou dekimasu yo” it would mean “You can study outside”, but by adding the “mo” there is the sense of “also”. The “de” particle has several meanings, but in this case it specifies the place an action occurs.
(Note: most of the usages in this article can be interpreted as the combination of “de” plus “mo”, but I find learning the common usages case-by-case is easier to understand.)
Usage 5: Verb in “te” form plus “mo” particle
Since most written Japanese doesn’t have spaces between words, sometimes it can be tricky to know when one word starts and another ends. If you see a “demo”, sometimes that can be part of a “-bu”, “-mu”, or “-gu” verb’s “te” form (gerund) plus the particle “mo”. This is because these types of verbs conjugated with “~de” at the end (i.e. oyogu -> oyoide, asobu -> asonde, nomu -> nonde)
- 彼は一日中遊んでも疲れない (kare wa ichinichuu asonde mo tsukarenai)
- He doesn’t get tired even if he plays all day.
A “te” form verb plus “mo” particle can have other meanings,including asking for permission (遊んでもいい？) or, less commonly, expressing “also” doing some action (泳いでもいる).
Usage 6: Demonstration
“Demo” can also represent a political or other demonstration as a short form of デモンストレーション. Even though this meaning is generally written with katakana (デモ), with spoken Japanese you don’t get that information to help differentiate.
- 最近のデモはますます激しくなってる (saikin no demo wa masu masu hageshiku natteru)
- Recent demonstrations have gotten more and more violent.
Usage 7: question word + “demo” (unconditional)
When used with a question word, “demo” can make something unconditional in the sense of applying to any of a class of things. For example: “dare demo” (anyone), “nan demo” (anything), or “itsu demo” (anytime).
- 何でも買っていいよ (nan demo katte ii yo)
- Buy anything (you want).
Usage 8: “nan demo nai” (it’s nothing)
Another set phrase using “demo” is “nan demo nai”, which means “(it’s) nothing” and is used when someone asks you “what’s wrong” but you don’t want to answer.
- Person A: どうしたの？元気ないね (doushita no? genki nai ne.)
- What’s wrong? You don’t look too good.
- Person B: いや、何でもない (iya, nan demo nai)
- No, it’s nothing (= I’m fine).
The derivation of this is a bit tricky to explain, but first you have to know about the word “dearu” which is a formal (or literary) way to say “desu” (meaning “is” or “are”). The negative of “dearu” is “de (wa) nai”, and if we replace the “wa” with “mo” we get “de mo nai”. Adding the question word “nan” (“what”) to this and we get “nan demo nai”.
By the way, the “~demo nai” pattern can be used with other words, for example “dare” (“who”).
- あいつは誰でもないよ (aitsu wa dare demo nai yo)
- That guy is nobody.
Here, “dare demo nai” literally means “isn’t anybody”.
Usage 9: “suru demo naku”
By following a dictionary-form verb with “demo naku”, the idea of “not even doing ~” can be expressed. Let’s look at an example:
- 彼女は話すでもなく、ただ黙って立ってるだけだった。 (kanojo wa hanasu demo naku, tada damatte tatteru dake datta)
- She was just standing there quietly, not even speaking.
Here “demo naku” comes from the adverbial negative form of “dearu” which is “de (wa) naku”, with the “wa” replaced by the “mo” particle.
You can also use more than one “suru demo naku” in a sentence to express “not even doing ~ and not even doing ~”.
Usage 10: expressing the concept of “even”
Finally, “demo” can be used after a noun to express that “even” that person or thing would or can do something, sometimes with a nuance of surprise. (By the way, this can also be expressed with the slightly more formal-sounding phrase “de sae”).
- 簡単だよ。子供でもできる (kantan da yo. kodomo demo dekiru.)
- It’s easy. Even a child can do it.
Usage 11: [noun] + “ni demo” pattern
I said I was going to introduce ten usages, but I thought of one more so I’ll go ahead and mention it.
Just as “demo” after a question can be used to specify all things of a certain type (Usage 7), it can also be used after a noun and the “ni” particle to specify all instances of some group. Let’s look at an example:
- どこにでもあるようなお店 (doko ni demo aru you na omise)
- A store like you would find anywhere.
Literally “どこにでもある” means something like “exists anywhere”, and here it implies the store is not particularly special. By the way, the “ni” particle is used here in order to specify the location of existence (a very common usage of this particle).
Here is another example with a different usage of the “ni” particle:
- 誰にでもわかるような本 (dare ni demo wakaru you na hon)
- A book that anyone can understand.
In this example the “ni” particle is used with “wakaru” because the latter is a special verb that means more like “is understood” than “understand”, and the role of “ni” is similar to the English word “by”.
Finally, you might wonder whether “ni mo” can be used instead of “ni demo” in the above two examples. In turns out that “ni mo” is more commonly used to express negative state, in other words applying to none of some type. For example,
- そんなこと、誰にもわかりません。 (sonnna koto, dare ni mo wakarimasen
- Nobody would understand something like that.
That completes the common meanings and set phrases that I can think of. For any others you come across, you should be able to infer the meaning based on what you learned here. But if you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.