Japanese Language and Culture

Japanese Verbs

One of the hardest aspects of mastering any language is mastering the words that change form by inflection. In Japanese, that means verbs and adjectives. Not having a solid handle on all of the most common inflections will seriously hobble your ability to speak, read and understand spoken Japanese.

Realizing this, I set out to master basic verb forms early on. My approach was to master the mechanics of producing the forms along with learning the basic meanings of the inflections. This didn't mean that I always knew (or know) the intricacies of how to use all the inflections, but it meant that I could recognize them when I saw them and produce them at will. Proper usage is picked up only by experience, but if you don't know it in the first place, you won't know when you're hearing or reading it. The process of learning the mechanics of Japanese verb conjugation also builds up the important skill of reversing an inflected form to the the root form that you would need to look it up in a dictionary.

By and large, once you start interacting in Japanese settings, you will learn and remember most verb forms by example, that is, by hearing particular forms in particular situations, rather than by conscious construction. This is the more natural way to learn, but unless you are frequently immersed in the language, you need to know the inflection process. Even if you are immersed, this is a valuable skill for your continuing study.

Some Background on Japanese Verbs

Japanese verbs are a breed apart from their counterparts in Western languages. Japanese has no plural form, and correspondingly, verbs do not inflect for number. Japanese verbs also do not inflect for person. Thus the same form is used to mean, for example, "I go", "you go", "she goes", "we go", or "they go". As far as inflection cases, this is a vast simplification compared to, say, English, French, or German.

Furthermore, unlike Western languages, there are only a very small handful of irregular verbs. Of the verbs that are irregular, most are pretty regular in their irregularity. Oftentimes you hear that Japanese only has two irregular verbs. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but the two in question, "suru" (to do) and "kuru"(to come), are the only two which are so highly irregular that it will take a special effort to memorize them.

Although there is relative simplicity of inflection, there are some additional complexities of Japanese verbs not found in European languages. Japanese society is keenly aware of relative social position, and of social relationships between individuals and particular groups. The language, most particularly in the inflection of verbs, reflects and expresses this.

Most verb forms have both a plain form and a polite form. The plain form is used among familiars, i.e. self, family, close friends, etc. The polite form is used with superiors and people with whom the speaker is not on intimate terms. To a native speaker the plain form is normative, and the polite (sometimes called "normal polite" or "-masu form") is a modification of the plain form.

Most methods of teaching Japanese to Westerners emphasize the polite form exclusively at first, not even letting on that a plain form exists. I believe that both forms should be learned up front, so that the plain form can be internalized, but that the polite form should be highly exercised in speaking practice as a beginning student, so that on your first encounters in the language you will be perceived as well mannered.

Only the last verb in a sentence shows the politeness level of the whole sentence, so there are cases even when one is being polite where plain forms are still required. The most common example is the "no desu" expression that is used at the end of a polite sentence to make the sentence explanatory. Since "desu" is already polite, the main verb of the sentence must be in plain form.

A normal polite level of speech can be used (especially by foreigners) in almost any situation without causing offense.

There is a whole aspect of the Japanese language of which the plain/polite distinction only scratches the surface. Verbs may not only be polite, they may be honorific, expressing respect for the subject of the sentence, or humble, to show great politeness by lowering the position of the speaker. To master honorific and humble language is a tall order. Many Japanese despair of their ability to use it correctly in all the necessary situations, and businesses train employees, such as receptionists or store clerks, who must make use of it extensively.

For the most part, honorific and humble language isn't extremely important for daily life, and foreigners especially are not generally expected to employ it. It is still valuable to know something of it, however, so that you aren't confused by it if it is directed at you (by the above mentioned receptionists and store clerks, for instance). You can always resort to asking someone to speak more plainly to you.

Note that some verbs are inherently honorific, humble, or especially polite without special conjugation, such as "irassharu", "oru" and "gozaru", respectively. You will make use of many of these, especially since they appear often in set expressions.

The Dictionary Form

I will be discussing Japanese verbs in terms of their dictionary form, which, as the name implies, is what most dictionaries list as their entry for the verb. The dictionary form corresponds to the plain (i.e. not polite) form of the nonpast indicative tense. This is the tense used to make simple declarative statements such as "I eat", "you go", etc.

All Japanese verbs in the dictionary form end with a syllable from the "u" row of the kana table. Even more restrictively, the last syllable of the verb must be one of the following: "su", "ku", "gu", "bu", "mu", "nu", "ru", "tsu", "u". If a word does not end in one of these syllables, it is not a verb in the dictionary form.

Two Types of Regular Japanese Verbs

Regular Japanese verbs, which, thankfully, are all but a relatively small handful, fall into two categories based on how they conjugate. For any given verb, you must know or identify to which group it belongs as the first step to inflecting it.

One group of verbs is called "godan" ("five-step") verbs. They are also sometimes referred to as "type I" verbs, and occasionally called "yodan" ("four-step") verbs. The terminology is unimportant, as long as you can recognize what sets them apart. Any regular verbs that do not end with "-ru" are godan verbs. Furthermore, for verbs that do end with "-ru", if the preceeding syllable is not from the "i" or "e" rows of the kana table, i.e. "ki", "shi", "chi", "ni", etc., or "ke", "se", "te", "ne", etc. then the verb is godan. What you have to be careful of are a minority of "-ru" verbs whose preceeding syllables are in the "i" or "e" rows which are godan verbs anyway. There is no way to know, except simply to remember when such verbs fall in this category.

The above is couched in terms of Japanese writing, but this can be a little simpler to understand at first if we use roomaji. All regular verbs whose roomaji representations end in anything other than "-iru" or "-eru" are godan verbs. Additionally there are a relatively small number of cases where verbs end in "-iru" or "-eru" that are godan verbs anyway. The following are godan verbs:

話す hanasu to speak
歩く aruku to walk
泳ぐ oyogu to swim
呼ぶ yobu to call
飲む nomu to drink
死ぬ shinu to die
作る tsukuru to make
待つ matsu to wait
洗う arau to wash

The other group of verbs is called "ichidan" ("one-step") verbs. They are also sometimes refered to as "type II" verbs. Obviously, any regular verb that is not godan is ichidan. Following the converse of the above, all ichidan verbs end in "-ru", and the syllable that preceeds the "-ru" is from either the "i" or "e" row. In terms of roomaji, all ichidan verbs end in "-iru" or "-eru". The following are ichidan verbs:

飽きる akiru to grow tired of
できる dekiru to be able
食べる taberu to eat
教える oshieru to teach

As stated above, verbs that end in "-iru" or "-eru" may actually be godan verbs in some cases. You must simply remember which these are on a case by case basis. Here are a few godan verbs ending in "-iru" and "-eru":

入る hairu to enter
走る hashiru to run
参る mairu to come, to go (humble)
しゃべる shaberu to talk, to chat

Additionally there are some homophonic pairs made up of one godan verb and one ichidan verb. Such is the case with the verb "iru" ("to exist" for animate subjects) and "iru" ("to need"). The former is ichidan, the latter is godan. Obviously each verb in such a pair is written with different kanji (for verbs written in kanji), even though the readings are the same. Furthermore, homophonic verbs may take differing pitch accents. Here are a few more:

Ichidan Godan
kiru (to put on)
vs. 切る
kiru (to cut)
kaeru (to change)
vs. 帰る
kaeru (to return)
neru (to sleep)
vs. 練る
neru (to knead, to polish up)

Here is a more or less complete list of godan verbs ending in "-eru" and "-iru".

Once you are familiar with the inflections, one way to remember the classification of a given "-iru" or "-eru" verb is to remember two different forms, such as the dictionary form and the past tense. Because of the difference in the way ichidan and godan verbs conjugate, the two of these together will mark the verb as being unmistakably in one or the other category, whereas the dictionary form alone will not.

The Mechanics of Conjugating a Japanese Verb

Once you have identified the verb's type, you are ready for the process which will take it from the dictionary form to whatever end inflection you desire.

Japanese verb conjugations can be thought of as being produced by the following fomula:

{Prefix} + {Root} + {Base} + {Inflection ending} + {Auxiliary verb/ending}

  • Prefix is usually a polite beginning like "o" used in very few forms.
  • Root is the dictionary form of the verb with the last syllable removed.*
  • Base is usually one (sometimes two) syllables that connect the root to the inflection ending. In some cases, a root and base make up an inflection without any additional ending. Bases are derived from the last syllable of the dictionary form of the verb, and also differ between ichidan and godan cases. In this method, the root with a base attached is called a stem and a stem is named similarly to its corresponding base. For any verb, there are seven different bases (and thus stems).
  • Inflection ending is what usually gives the verb its final meaning, although sometimes an auxiliary verb or ending also contributes to the meaning. Bases and inflection endings go together, so you must learn which endings require which bases, but there are patterns that will help you remember many of them.

* Note: Linguistically, part of the sound of the dropped syllable is necessary for the root to contain the meaning conveyed by a godan verb, so the "root" in this method is not, by itself, meaningful. From a mechanical and written point of view, however, this method is easier to work with. We add back the necessary component by attaching the base.


asobu (to play) as a "polite nonpast indicative":

Root: aso
Base: bi
Inflection ending: masu

Result: asobimasu ("play", "plays", or "will play")

matsu (to wait) as a "plain negative past presumptive"*:

Root: ma
Base: ta
Inflection ending: nakatta
Auxiliary: darou

Result: matanakatta darou ("probably didn't wait")

* Remember that inflection names exist just to have something distinct to call the form. Don't let terminology get in the way. The meaning is what is ultimately important.

Note that there are different ways to frame the rules that allow you to construct all of the verb forms. That is, there are different divisions that could be made in considering what is a base, what is an ending, and so forth. The method I am presenting derives from two considerations:

  1. Validity in the context of Japanese writing. Some systems, for instance, will say to drop the -u from a verb like "hataraku", and add -i to form the "-masu stem". In kana, "ku" is a single unbreakable element, so the system I am presenting would phrase the rule as: drop "ku" to form the root, then add base "ki" to form the "i-stem".
  2. Rule simplicity and least number of exceptions or differences in rules between ichidan and godan variations.

Bases and Stems

To form a stem with a given base, simply select the base from the table below based on what kind of verb you are conjugating, and in the case of a godan verb, what its last syllable is in dictionary form.

Verb Type a-base i-base u-base e-base o-base te-base ta-base
Ichidan [none] [none] -る
-su (-す) Godan -さ
-ku (-く) Godan -か
-gu (-ぐ) Godan -が
-bu (-ぶ) Godan -ば
-mu (-む) Godan -ま
-nu (-ぬ) Godan -な
-ru (-る) Godan -ら
-tsu (-つ) Godan -た
-u (-う) Godan -わ

DON'T PANIC! This table is easier to memorize than you might think. From the a- to the o-stem, notice that almost all the changes are very regular, directly following the corresponding column of kana as you might see them in a table. There are two anomalies to look for in this part of the table. The first is that the o-bases are long vowels, extended by hiragana "u" (う). The second is that the a-base for a godan verb ending in "-u" is "-wa" and not "-a", like you might expect from the pattern.

For the other two bases, the te-base and ta-base, you will have to do a little more work. It's easier, however, if you see the verbs in groups by how they behave. Ichidan is simple: just add "-te" or "-ta". For the godans, "-su" stands alone, taking "-shite" or "-shita". Verbs ending in "-ku" and "-gu" are similar, but just as "gu" is the voiced form of "ku", "de" replaces its unvoiced form "te" in the ending.

The others fall neatly into two groups. Verbs ending in "-bu", "-mu", and "-nu" all have identical behavior for these two bases. Verbs ending in "-ru" (that are godan verbs), and those ending in "-tsu" and "-u" form a similar group. Use these associations to your advantage by remembering the godan ending syllables in the order presented. Then the groups will always fall into place in your mind. Also note that for any -te form, the corresponding -ta form always follows directly (and vice-versa), so memorize one and you really know them both.

There is one last thing to keep in mind. Naming things can be dangerous because of exceptions. Such is the case with a number of the ichidan bases. Note, for instance, that both the a- and i-stem for "taberu" is "tabe" which ends neither in an "a" nor "i". These bases are sometimes numbered from 1 to 7, instead of the names I've given here, which avoids the pitfall of exceptions. Numbering is less descriptive, however. I find it useful to have the mnemonic name, which works most of the time.

Time for some examples. Here is a table like that above, except that all the stems have been produced for example verbs by applying the root + base equation.

Verb a-stem i-stem u-stem e-stem o-stem te-stem* ta-stem*
taberu (to eat)
hanasu (to speak)
aruku (to walk)
oyogu (to swim)
yobu (to call)
nomu (to drink)
shinu (to die)
tsukuru (to make)
matsu (to wait)
arau (to wash)

* Note that since these stems form inflections on their own, they are often refered to as the "te-form" and "ta-form" of the verb. The te-form, as you will see, has a few different functions, and the ta-form is a past tense, in addition to being part of other inflections. You will also notice later on that the i-stem, u-stem, e-stem and o-stem all form inflections on their own, and all but the o-stem are used as the basis of still other inflections (although the o-stem is used in a few verb expressions).

Making Inflections

With the basic ability to form stems at your disposal, you're ready to produce any Japanese verb form. Most inflections, including all of the most common everyday-use inflections, are simply made up of a stem plus an ending. This means that you have to know which stem goes with which endings. I will present these case by case, but you should notice the following patterns:

  • Endings derived from the polite suffix "masu" universally attach to the i-stem. This stem is called the "masu stem" in many sources for this reason, but that's not the limit of its application, so we'll stay away from calling it that.
  • Almost all plain negative verb endings attach to the a-stem.

That takes care of quite a few of them, actually. Once you're on to the patterns, it just gets easier.

As was previously explained, verbs do not inflect for number or person, as they do in English, so, thankfully, that's out of the picture. But we add back some complication with politeness level. Most inflection cases of Japanese verbs have both a plain and polite form, though in some cases, the polite form is not heard in normal conversation because of the mechanics of the language. Normally, only the final verb in a sentence indicates politeness, so polite cases of forms that are not typically used at the end of a sentence are rarely heard except in special circumstances or in set phrases (like "akemashite omedetou gozaimasu").

The menu to the right links to rules for numerous inflection cases and verbal constructions. Basic end-stage verb inflections (as opposed to inflections that give you back another verb or adjective) indicate an affirmative or negative sense ("I talk" vs. "I don't talk"). Taking these in combination with "plain" and "polite" levels of speech gives us four variants for most inflection cases.

The inflection rules will be presented with a particular stem or "root" in brackets, which you will replace with that form of the verb, and then anything else that should be directly applied attached with a "+" sign. Any auxiliary will follow an ampersand ("&").

prefix + [stem] + ending & auxiliary

To get a feel for how the inflection rules work, let's use the verb "matsu" ("to wait") and start with the nonpast indicative. Let's look at the combination of the plain politeness level with the affirmative sense. The rule for this variant will be presented like this:


This gives "matsu" (待つ). That's not very interesting, but that's all it is. Now let's take the plain negative:

[あ-stem] + ない
[a-stem] + nai

This gives "matanai" (待たない). Now for the case of the "plain negative past presumptive" as was presented for "matsu" earlier:

[あ-stem] + なかった & だろう
[a-stem] + nakatta & darou

As we saw before this gives "matanakatta darou" (待たなかっただろう). The "&" indicates the begining of what I consider to be the "auxiliary" portion of the inflection. Everything after "&" in a rule will be written in roomaji as it is normally spaced. In Japanese writing there are no spaces. In the roomaji, however, the separation can be useful for understanding how the parts fit together. It is also more readable that way.

The rules are grouped into inflections of similar meaning, and these inflections will be named, as they have been so far (e.g. "nonpast indicative"). When there is no fancy name for an inflection, the basic meaning (e.g. "Easy to do") is used instead.

Additionally, inflection cases are presented with approximate meanings, inflection examples, usage notes, and usage examples where possible. Rules will be divided between what applies to godan verbs and what applies to ichidan verbs, but where this is not marked, the rule applies to both. Simply select the correct base for the verb type.

Copyright © 2010-2011 Collin McCulley. All Rights Reserved.

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