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Basics: Verb Conjugation


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Verb usage

Assuming that you start learning with the polite style of Japanese, the first verbs that isn’t です will generally be in the form of ~ます.

Verbs ending in ます can be used in four different ways.

  • Non-past Affirmative - ~ ます
  • Non-past Negative - ~ ません
  • Past Affirmative - ~ ました
  • Past Negative - ~ ませんでした

English Kanji (Affirmative) Non-Past Affirmative Non-Past Negative Past Affirmative Past Negative Verb Stem
To go 行きます いきます いきません いきました いきませんでした いき
To do します しません しました しませんでした
To come 来ます きます きません きました きませんでした
To see 見ます みます みません みました みませんでした
To eat 食べます たべます たべません たべました たべませんでした たべ
To drink 飲みます のみます のみません のみました のみませんでした のみ

Overall, the stem of a verb could be considered a foundation. You can “build” onto the stem to create variations of the verb for different contexts. The most common version of this would be the dictionary form.

Dictionary Form: If you try to look up a verb in a Japanese dictionary and search for it in its ~ます form, you won't find it there. In dictionaries, verbs will appear with an ending with a ‘u’ sound at the end.
For example: the dictionary form of 食べますis食べる.

Finding Verb Stems

To find the stem of a verb, we have to determine if it’s a Group I “u” or a Group II “ru” verb first. Though generally when learning Japanese, you learn theますform first as it is more polite, finding stems will be easier if you have the Plain or Dictionary form of the verb, which is easy enough to look up.
So assuming you have the dictionary form:

  • 1) する and くる are automatically exceptions.
  • 2) If the verb does not end in “る,” it is automatically a “u” or a Group I verb.
  • 3) If it does end in “る,” generally the following rule applies
    • a) If the character before ends in an “i” or “e” sound, it is a “ru” or a Group II verb.
    • b) If the character before ends in anything else, it is a “u” or a Group I verb.
There are some exceptions to 3a, but the verbs are usually less commonly used, and so this rule works fairly consistently.

Determining whether a verb is a Group I verb or a Group II verb not only affects what the stem of the verb is, but how you conjugate it once you find the stem.
Once determining this to get the stem of the verb:

If it’s a Group II “ru” verb:

  • If it was originally in ます form, remove the “ます.”
    So the stem of “たべます” is “たべ.”
  • If it is in dictionary form, remove the “る.”
    So the stem of “ねる” is “ね.”

If it’s a “u” verb:

  • If it was originally in ます form, remove the “ます.”
    So the stem of “およぎます” is “およぎ.”
  • If it is in dictionary form, change the last character to its “i” form (Examples: change “く” to “き” or “む” to “み.”)
    So the stem of “はなす” is “はなし.”

    Exceptions:
  • If the verb is "します” or “する,” then the stem is “し.”
  • If the verb is “きます” or “くる,” the stem is “き.”
English Hiragana (dictionary form) Kanji (dictionary form) Kanji (ます form)
To Do する する します
To Come くる 来る 来ます
To Eat たべる 食べる 食べます
To Sleep ねる 寝る 寝ます
To Swim およぐ 泳ぐ 泳ぎます
To Speak はなす 話す 話します

Basic Verb Conjugation

Once you have the stem of the verb, you can conjugate various endings to produce different versions of the verb for different situations.

NOTE: On verbs and adjectives, there is commonly hiragana (okurigana) attached to the word. On these words, even if the word is conjugated to a different form (such as past tense for example), the reading for the kanji will remain the same.

So far, we’ve learned verbs to be classified as either a Group I or “u” verb, or a Group II or “ru” verb. To be a little more specific:

  • Group I verbs are also called 五段活用(ごだんかつよう・Godan Katsuyou)verbs; meaning that once you have the stem, there are 5 standard ways to alter the stem to conjugate the verb.
  • Group II verbs are also called 一段活用(いちだんかつよう・Ichidan Katsuyou)verbs; meaning that once you find the stem, all you do is add various okurigana to the stem to conjugate the verb.

For Group I verbs
For the Group I examples, we’ll use the verb 飲む (のむ・To Drink) which has the stem のみ

  • Negative Form: “あ/a”
    By changing the last part of the stem to its "a" ending, this form can be used to express a more casual negative ending by then adding “ない”.
    Example: Change “のみ” to “のま”. Add “ない” to “のま” to get “のまない.”
  • Polite Form: “い/i”
    By changing the last part of the stem to the “i” sound (its default form), you can add ますor ませんto express the verb in polite form.
    Example: Add “ます” to “のみ” to get “のみます.””
  • Plain Form: “う/u”
    By changing the last part of the stem to the “u” sound, you get the dictionary form, which is a more casual way to use the verb.
    Example: Change “のみ” to “のむ.”
  • Potential Form: “え/e”
    By changing the last part of the stem to the “e” sound, if used on its own, it can be used as a command. However this is very informal and considered rude.
    Sometimes, by adding ない, you can imply that the subject cannot perform the verb stated.
    Example: Change “のみ” to “のめ.” Leave “のめ” as is for the commanding tone. Add “ない” to “のめ” to get “のめない.” Add “る” to “のめ” to get “のめる.”
  • Invitational Form: “お/o”
    By changing the last part of the stem to the “o” sound, by addingうto the end, you can use it for the purpose of inviting someone to also perform the action.
    Example: Change “のみ” to “のも.” Add “う” to “のも” to get “のもう.”

For Group II verbs
Group II verbs are a little different, as once you have the stem you do not need to modify it, just add different okurigana in order to change the context.
For the Group II examples, we’ll use the verb 寝る (ねる・To Sleep) which has the stem ね

  • Negative Form: add “ない.”
    For Example: Add “ない” to “ね” to get “ねない.”
  • Polite Form add “ます.”
    For Example: Add “ます” to “ね” to get “ねます.”
  • Plain/Dictionary Form: add “る.”
    For Example: Add “る” to “ね” to get “ねる.”
  • Potential Form: add “られる.”
    For Example: Add “られる” to “ね” to get “ねられる.” – Colloquially, the ら is dropped.
  • Invitational Form: add “よう.”
    For Example: Add “よう” to “ね” to get “ねよう.”

て Form

Having a てending to a verb generally implies that there is going to be something following the verb, or that the verb is associated with something. The てform is commonly used when listing actions or requesting something (by adding ください), among other things.

  • For the exceptions, するbecomes してand くるbecomesきて.
  • If your verb is a Group II verb, to get the てform, you just add てto the stem of the verb.
  • Otherwise for Group I verbs:
    • If the verb stem ends in a るand is not a Group II verb, you remove the る and replace it with って. For example, はしる (To Run) will become はしって
    • If the stem ends in a つor う, also replace the ending character with って For example, わらう (To Laugh) becomesわらってand もつ (To Hold) becomes もって
    • If the stem ends in a ぬ, ぶ, or む, you remove the ending char1acter and addんで For example よぶ (To Call) becomes よんでor たのむ (To Ask a Favor) becomes たのんで
    • If the stem ends in くreplace it with いて and if it ends in ぐ replace is with いで For example あるく (To Walk) becomes あるいて and およぐ (To Swim) becomes およいで
    • If the stem ends in す, including verbs in polite form with the endingます, replace the す with して For example, ためす (To Test) becomes ためして
    • If the word 行く (いく・To Go) is the verb, the –te form is 行って
  • Also for adjectives:
    • If it is a いadjective, replace the い with くて For example 難しい (むずかしい, difficult) becomesむずかしくて
    • If it is a な adjective, add で to the end. For example, 静か (しずか, quiet) becomes しずかで

た Form

たform is something that ends in either た or だ, and is used when referring to the past. This form is commonly used when expressing a past action (leaving it with the たorだ ending). Once finding the てform, to get the たform, just replace the て with た if the word ends with て, or replace the last character with だ if the last character is で.


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