Japanese has two ways to say "there is" or "there are."

ある

いる 

Both show "existence" but they are NOT interchangeable.

Let me illustrate with the following question:


Do you know the DIFFERENCE in these two sentences?

くもがある。

and

くもがいる。




くも could mean CLOUD or SPIDER.

Cloud image kumo
spider image kumo

Both are pronounced exactly the same even with the same pitch accent:


So... which is which?

くもがある and くもがいる

Is it a cloud or a spider?!


If you know the KANJI it is easy.

(くも)がある。

There is a cloud.

蜘蛛(くも)がいる。

There is a spider.



But there is an easier way. Do you know the difference between ある and いる?

くもがある

and

くもがいる

THE SECRET


ある shows existence of non-moving objects

いる shows existence of things that move on their own

Since a cloud is pushed by the wind and doesn't move on its own, it uses ある.
(A cloud may move, but it isn't moving on its own accord)

And since a spider can move, it uses いる.
(A live spider may be very still, but it has the ability to move on its own accord)


くもがある

There is a cloud.

くもがいる

There is a spider.


Of course, conjugations had to be a little tricky. いる is a Group 2 (-ru verb / 一段動詞(いちだんどうし)) and ある is a Group 1 (-u verb / 五段動詞(ごだんどうし)). All this means is the conjugations are different for いる and ある. In other words, you need to memorize the following chart.

Tense & Negation

いる (moving)

ある (non-moving)

Present plain form

いる

ある

Present polite -ます form

います

あります

Past plain form

いた

あった

Past polite -ます form

いました

ありました

Negative plain form

いない

ない

Negative polite -ます form

いません

ありません

Past Negative plain form

いなかった

なかった

Past Negative polite -ます form

いませんでした

ありませんでした

Notes: 

  • The past plain form of いる doesn't have the small っ, but ある does: いた and あった
  • All conjugations of いる (moving "there is") start with an い
  • All conjugations of ある (non-moving "there is") start with an あ except the negative plain form ない and なかった (past negative)

Conclusion:

If something can move on its own accord, use いる. if not, use ある.

いる:

  • People
  • Animals
  • Objects that move on its own such as a moving vehicle or a moving Roomba vacuum appearing from the other room.

ある:

  • Buildings
  • Non-living objects
  • Plants & flowers [they are alive, but can't freely move in any direction]
  • Meat and fish prepared for food [it can no longer freely move]
  • Anything else that doesn't move on its own such as ideas and facts.

A few fun situations.

  • What about a car or taxi? If it is parked, it's ある. If it is moving, it is いる.
  • What about a train? It moves like a car, but since it can't freely move in any direction (it has to stay on the tracks), it is ある.
  • How about a robot that can move on its own? いる.
  • A cow? いる. A slab of beef? ある.
  • What about the moon? This is usually ある, although いる is possible if you want to emphasize the movement or its sudden appearance (from behind the clouds, for example). While the moon does move, it moves slowly to our eyes and therefore the ある is most often used to simply show the moon's existence.
  • How about a ghost? Well, in theory, it can move on its own so it is いる.
  • An alien? いる. 
  • What about a dead body? Before death, いる; after death, ある.
  • What about a zombie? Uh... いる. It moves on its own, right?

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