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Japanese Verb Conjugations

In this lesson, we will learn how to identify Japanese verbs and how to change them to different forms for different purposes. I decide to teach you Japanese verb conjugations at such an early stage, because it is impossible for us to proceed with our study if we don't know how Japanese verbs work.

Why? It's because the verbs you see in Japanese articles seldom exist in their "dictionary form". If you don't know anything about Japanese verb conjugations, chances are you can't even use a dictionary. For example, when you see "買った", there is no way you can find it in any dictionary, be it the paper one or the electronic one, because only the basic form 買う (aka dictionary form) is listed. It's like when an English learner sees the word "went", he needs to go to "go" when he's using a dictionary.

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How to identify Japanese verbs?

First, let's review the Japanese Hiragana table.

あ行 か行 さ行 た行 な行 は行 ま行 や行 ら行 わ行  

In this table, 行 (gyou) means column and 段 (dan) means row. う段 (u row) refers to Hiragana whose vowel is 'u", e.g. うくすつ…, as highlighted above.

It is very easy for us to identify Japanese verbs in a dictonary, because the basic form of all Japanese verbs must end with an う段 (u row) Hiragana. Examples are 書く, 言う, 読む, 死ぬ and 話す, in which くうむぬす all share the vowel "u".

In fact, the basic form of all Japanese verbs must end with う, く, ぐ, す, つ, ぬ, ぶ, む or る, with 死ぬ(die) as the only verb that ends with ぬ. And the verbs are not evenly distributed. Most end with る. Only a few end with ぐ, ぶ and む.

What has that got to do with verb conjugations?

The last Hiragana of a Japanese verb has everything to do with verb conjugations, because to change Japanese verbs into different forms, we only need to change the last Hiragana from う段 (u row) to other rows, e.g. from く to き (i row), from む to め (e row), from る to ら (a row), etc. Except for a few irregular verbs (fewer than 5), the front part of a Japanese verb never changes, e.g. はなす can change to はなせる, はなした or はなさない, but the はな part remains unchanged forever. So in this lesson, you must pay attention to the last Hiragana of the Japanese verbs.

There are 2 kinds of regular Japanese verbs

Japanese has two kinds of regular verbs, namely 五段 (five-row) and 一段(one-row). One-row verbs all end with る and their 2nd last Hiragana must belong to either い段 (i row) or え段 (e row), e.g. 食べる, 借りる, 見える and 閉める, in which べ, り, え and め belong either to i row or e row. As you can see, the 2nd last Hiragana of these four verbs are clearly shown. And when you see a verb that has a Kanji followed by two Hiragana characters, then you can be sure that it is a one-row verb. So it is not difficult to identify them at all. One-row verbs are much easier than five-row verbs, as implied by their names, because most of the time we just need to take away their る and put in other things instead of changing る to other rows.

Five-row verbs end with う, く, ぐ, す, つ, ぬ, ぶ, む or る. Yes. Some of them also end with る. But their 2nd last Hiragana usually don't belong to i row or e row. Of course, there are exceptions, i.e. 走る(はしる), in which the 2nd last Hiragana し also belongs to i row. But the difference is that its 2nd last Hiragana is NOT shown when written in Kanji, that is, し is hidden and contained in the Kanji 走 instead of being written out. Usually, when you see a verb that has a Kanji followed by ONE Hiragana only, then it should be a five-row verb. Of course, again, there are some exception, but not many.

In this lesson, we will focus on five-row verbs only, as they are more difficult. One-row verbs will be discussed in Lesson 5.

Too much talking. Let's begin the verb conjugation lesson now.

連用形(renyoukei) "う段>い段” (u row > i row)

連用 means "continuative" and 形 means "form". I prefer to use the Romaji translation "Renyoukei" as there is still no official English translation for this term. And to make it easier to understand, I use "Renyoukei form", even though "kei" already means "form".

Renyoukei form is very easy to understand and use. You just need to change the last Hiragana to the i row. For example, kaku > kaki, nomu > nomi, shiru > shiri, etc. Of course in real life you need to do it in Hiragana instead of Romaji. If you are not familiar with Hiragana yet, please take a look at our Hiragana lessons. We teach Hiragana "row by row".

Usually, learners meet verbs in Renyoukei form way before meeting the same verbs in basic form, because all verbs in beginner's textbooks are used in the polite ます form, e.g. 書きます, 買います and 言います. 書き, 買い and 言い are in Renyoukei form as their last Hiragana are changed from u row to i row.

Besides being used for polite ます form, Renyoukei also has the following functions:

followed by たい to mean "want to"
e.g. 言う=say, 言いたい=want to say
followed by なさい to give orders
e.g. 言いなさい=say it now
followed by やすい and にくい to mean "easy to" and "difficult to" respectively
e.g. 言いやすい=easy to say, 言いにくい=difficult to say
followed by ながら to mean "while"
e.g. 言いながら=while I say
followed by another verb to form combined verbs
e.g. 誤る=make a mistake, 言い誤る=make a mistake in speaking
followed by に and another verb to show purpose
e.g. 切符を買う=buy a ticket, 行く=go, 切符を買いに行く=go to buy a ticket

Remarks: For honorific verbs いらっしゃる, おっしゃる, くださる, ござる and なさる, their Renyoukei all end with い instead of り.

Negative Form "う段>あ段" (u row > a row)

The negative form is also very easy. We only need to change the last Hiragana to あ row and then write ない. One exception is verbs that end with う. We change う to わ instead of あ.

The negative form taught in classroom in beginner's class is usually the negative of polite ます form, e.g. ます > ません.

Negative form is equal to English "not...", e.g. 聞く=hear, 聞かない=not hear.

Past Tense and て form (te form)

All Japanese verbs are by default present tense or future tense, depending on the context. And changing 5-row verbs from basic form to past tense is the most difficult part of Japanese verb conjugations.

The rules are:

Last Hiragana How to change?
う, つ or る change it to Sokuon (small tsu) and then write た(ta)
change it to and then write た(ta)
Exception: いく should be changed to いった
change it to and then write だ(da)
change it to and then write た(ta)
ぶ, ぬ or む change it to and then write だ(da)

The past tense of the polite ます form is very easy.
You just need to change ます to ました.

If you replace た and だ with て and で respectively, then you will get the so-called "te form", e.g. 買った > 買って, 仰いだ > 仰いで and 死んだ > 死んで. Not difficult at all!

"Te form" is used in the following ways:

pure "te form". It means a request or command to your friends
e.g. 読む=read, 読んで=read it now
followed by ください to form a polite request
e.g. 読んでください=Please read it
followed by ある, いる, おく, しまう, etc to indicate the state of the verb
e.g. 作る=make, 作ってある=has been made
For details, please refer to 100 Basic Japanese Sentence Structures.
followed by another clause to form a more complicated sentence
e.g. 図書館へ行く=go to the library, 本を読む=read books
図書館へ行って本を読む=go to the library and read books
followed by あげる, くれる, もらう to indicate the direction of a verb
e.g. 作る=make, 作ってくれる=make for me
followed by はいけない to mean "must not"
e.g. 走る=run, 走ってはいけない=must not run
followed by もいい to mean "it's okay to"
e.g. 走ってもいい=It's okay to run
followed by ほしい to mean "I want you to"
e.g. 走ってほしい=I want you to run