Japanese/Grammar/Verbs

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Japanese verbs, (動詞; どうし), inflect heavily to indicate formality, tense or mood, primarily in their ending. There are two tenses, several levels of formality and three classes of verbs, depending on their inflection. The two tenses are perfective (often considered past tense) and present (or technically, non-past, as the future tense is not indicated). Out of the several levels of formality, two are the most common: plain and polite.

Japanese verbs are officially categorised into five classes,[1] but as two of these inflect much the same and another two only contain one verb each, these are usually merged into three when Japanese is taught as a foreign language. These are the consonant stem-, vowel stem- and irregular classes.[2]

Dictionaries use the plain present positive form (commonly known as dictionary form) as the headword for verbs.

Verbs are classed based on their conjugations. Their endings don't determine the class, but are a general indicator.

Form Endings
vowel-stem verbs (ichidan)[3] All of these end with (い)る or (え)る, but some with that ending are consonant stem verbs.
consonant-stem verbs (godan)[4] End in , , , , , , , or .
irregular verbs Only two verbs: する (e. to do) and () (e. to come).

Different inflections can also have suffixes. These may also be verbs with their own conjugations. Not all suffixes can be used on all verb inflections and others may only follow the verb stem. Examples are conjunctive + いる, せるさせる (causative), and られる (potential).

Ignoring the formality and the negative conjugations, the following is a list of verb conjugations

  • non-past
  • past
  • causative
  • causative-passive
  • conjunctive
  • conditionals
  • passive
  • potential
  • imperative
  • volitional
  • provisional

Ichidan class[edit]

Vowel-stem verbs end on a full syllable (hence the term: vowel-stem). In a sense, the final "" of the dictionary form is dropped and the respective endings just added on.

The Japanese term "(いち)(だん)" refers to the fact that the stem ending occupies only one row in the kana chart.

The following table shows a few forms of the verb "食べる" (たべる, e. to eat):

Form Word
Plain present positive 食べる
Plain past positive 食べた
Plain present negative 食べない
Plain past negative 食べなかった
Imperative 食べろ or
食べよ
Volitional 食べよう
Conjunctive 食べて
Conditional 食べれば

Godan class[edit]

Consonant-stem verbs end in the middle of a syllable (hence the term; consonant-verb). That syllable changes depending on the form. The plain form has an u sound (u, tsu, ru, ku, gu, bu, mu, su), the ~ます -masu form has an i sound (i, chi, ri, ki, gi, bi, mi, shi), and the negative form has an a sound (wa, ta, ra, ka, ga, ba, ma, sa). The potential form has an e sound (e, te, re, ke, ge, be, me, se) and the volitional form has an おう ō sound (ō, tō, rō, kō, gō, bō, mō, sō), so putting these together with the sounds above shows that verb conjugations follow the vowel syllabary of the Japanese character set: あ a, い i, う u, え e and お o.

The Japanese term "()(だん)" comes from the fact that the stem's last syllable spans all five rows of the kana chart in at least one form.

The following table shows a few forms of the consonant-stem verb "話す" (はなす e. to speak).

Form Word Row Syllable Morph Conjugation Suffix
Plain present positive 話す
Plain past positive 話した す -> し た/った/いた/んだ
Plain present negative 話さない す -> さ ない
Plain past negative 話さなかった す -> さ なかった
Imperative[5] 話せ す -> せ
Volitional[6] 話そう す -> そ
Conjunctive 話して す -> し て/って/いて/んで
Conditional 話せば す -> せ

The て-form (conjunctive) and past positive form of a consonant-stem verb change the root for euphony according to the last syllable of the root (example in parentheses):

stem て-form past example て-form past reading (meaning)
〜う って った 買う 買って 買った かう (to buy)
〜く いて いた 書く 書いて 書いた かく (to write)
〜ぐ いで いだ 泳ぐ 泳いで 泳いだ およぐ (to swim)
〜す して した 話す 話して 話した はなす (to speak, to talk)
〜つ って った 勝つ 勝って 勝った かつ (to win)
〜ぶ んで んだ 学ぶ 学んで 学んだ まなぶ (to study)
〜ぬ んで んだ 死ぬ 死んで 死んだ しぬ (to die)
〜む んで んだ 佇む 佇んで 佇んだ ただずむ (to stand still)
〜る って った 去る 去って 去った さる (to leave)

行く (いく) (to go) has an exceptional て-form 行って (いって).

If the verb stem ends on "う" such as in the verb 買う(かう, e. to buy) then its negative stem becomes -わ as in 買わない ("to not buy"). This is because the root is treated as kawu (despite the "wu" syllable not existing in modern Japanese).

Irregular verbs[edit]

Two common verbs do not share a conjugation pattern with any other verb. They are therefore commonly classed as "irregular" verbs. Formally, they are called "変格" (へんかく) verbs, as opposed to the regular "正格" (せいかく) verbs. These are "する" (e. to do) and "()る" (e. to come). The following table shows some of their conjugation forms.

Form する 来る
Plain present positive する くる
Plain past positive した きた
Plain present negative しない こない
Plain past negative しなかった こなかった
Imperative せよ or しろ こい
Volitional しよう こよう
Conjunctive して きて
Conditional すれば くれば

Many verbs end on "〜する" and can be grouped in three categories:

  • Verbalised nouns. These are nouns which form verbs by appending "〜する". Examples: 勉強(べんきょう)する, 注意(ちゅうい)する, "過労死(かろうし)する, 長生(ながい)きする and (あたい)する.
  • Verbs that cannot stand alone without the "する" suffix. Examples: (はっ)する, (せっ)する and (たっ)する.
  • Verbs that cannot stand alone, end on an "ん" and therefore take the voiced "ずる". Examples: (ぞん)ずる, (かん)ずる, (さき)んずる and (おも)んずる. These verbs are commonly inflected the same as the ichidan forms, with "ずる" being replaced by "じる" thus: (ぞん)じる, (かん)じる, (さき)んじる and (おも)んじる.

The only commonly-used combination with "来る" is "やってくる", meaning "to come".[7]

Polite forms[edit]

The polite (or formal) forms are simple as all of the consonant-stem verbs sit in the い-line (行く→行き) and the inflections are the same for consonant- and vowel-stem verbs.

The following table shows the polite forms for "行く" (いく, e. to go):

Form Word
Polite present positive 行きます
Polite past positive 行きました
Polite present negative 行きません
Polite past negative 行きませんでした
Polite volitional 行きましょう
Polite conjunctive 行きまして[8]
Polite conditional 行きますれば[8]

The imperative (〜ませ) is not used in formal forms except for a few polite verbs (see below).

Other irregularities[edit]

A small number of verbs tend to be conjugated differently from the groups that they are normally placed in.

Polite language[edit]

The verbs below are all consonant stem verbs but conjugate differently. While the regular forms also exist, they are seldom used.

Verb polite present positive Imperative
くださる くださいます ください
なさる なさいます なさい
いらっしゃる いらっしゃいます いらっしゃい
おっしゃる おっしゃいます おっしゃい

The conjunctive and past forms of the first two verbs, "くださる" and "なさる", also have the alternative forms "くだすって/くだすった" and "なすって/なすった", in addition to the normal regular conjugations "くださって/くださった" and "なさって/なさった". These alternative forms have, however, fallen into disuse. While they are often encountered when reading texts from a few decades ago, the regular conjugations are usually used today.

The first three of the above verbs are also the only ones where the imperative form "ませ" of the auxiliary verb, "ます", is used to add an extra level of politeness:

くださいませ, なさいませ, いらっしゃいませ

Additionally, ございます, which originally came from the now-defunct yodan (四段, e. four-row) classical Japanese verb "ござる", is also used, although in modern usage, it is always used with the ます auxiliary verb ending. There is no imperative form (i.e. you cannot use ませ like above).

得る[edit]

得る (うる/える, e. to get, or to be able to) is the only surviving nidan (二段, e. two-row) class verb in modern Japanese. It has conjugations as in the below table:

Form Word Reading
Non-past 得る うる/える
Past 得た えた
Negative non-past 得ない えない
Negative past 得なかった えなかった
Imperative 得ろ えろ
Volitional 得よう えよう
Conjunctive 得て えて
Conditional 得れば うれば

"得る" can be read both as "える" in its terminal form (at the end of the sentence, or in situations such as attaching to べき). The "うる" reading is also used in those situations and in the attributive form (e.g. when attached to nouns). It is therefore incorrect to say "えるもの" as the correct form would be "うるもの". The combination "あり得る" is normally read "ありうる" in the present forms. All other conjugations follow the table above.

Miscellaneous irregularities[edit]

The vowel stem verb "呉れる" (くれる e. ) imperative form "くれ" (rather than the expected "くれろ"). Other "くれる" verbs of other unrelated meanings conjugate to the usual "くれろ".

The consonant stem verb "ある" expresses existence, but absence is expressed with the adjective "ない". Note that many textbooks also treat "ない" as a verb. The reader may also wish to be aware that more formal "ぬ" negative form and its conjunctive form, "ず", are still used: "あらぬ"/"あらず".


Summary of verb conjugations[edit]

辞書形
dictionary form
ます形
polite forma
否定形
negative formb
て形
"te" form
た形
perfective form
~う -uc ~います -imasu ~わない -wanai ~って -tte ~った -tta
~つ -tsu ~ちます -chimasu ~たない -tanai
~る -ru ~ります -rimasu ~らない -ranai
~く -kud ~きます -kimasu ~かない -kanai ~いて -ite ~いた -ita
~ぐ -gu ~ぎます -gimasu ~がない -ganai ~いで -ide ~いだ -ida
~ぶ -bu ~びます -bimasu ~ばない -banai ~んで -nde ~んだ -nda
~む -mu ~みます -mimasu ~まない -manai
~す -su ~します -shimasu ~さない -sanai ~して -shite ~した -shita
(~い)る -irue ~ます -masu ~ない -nai ~て -te ~た -ta
(~え)る -erue
する suru します shimasu しない shinai して shite した shita
くる kuru きます kimasu こない konai きて kite きた kita
  • ^a Since the polite ~ます -masu form ends with ~す -su, the polite past form mostly follows the ~す -su rules. So for example the polite form of 話す hanasu is 話します hanashimasu, and the polite past form is 話しました hanashimashita, but the polite negative form is 話しません hanashimasen. See other examples of the polite form at the Japanese grammar Wikipedia entry.
  • ^b Since the negative ~ない -nai form ends with ~い -i, any further inflection of the negative form will behave as an i-adjective. For example, 話さない hanasanai "not talking" becomes 話さなかった(です) hanasanakatta(desu) "didn't talk".
  • ^c Two exceptions are 問う tou "to question" which conjugates to 問うて toute and the even less common 請う kou "to request" which conjugates to 請うて koute.
  • ^d The only exception is 行く iku which conjugates to いって itte.
  • ^e Not all verbs ending with いる iru or える eru are vowel stems, some are consonant stems instead like 走る hashiru "run" and 帰る kaeru "return". A full list of the many exceptions can be found at the Japanese consonant and vowel verbs Wikipedia entry.
辞書形
dictionary form
可能形a
potential form
条件形b
conditional form
意向形c
volitional form
~う -u ~える -eru ~えば -eba ~おう
~つ -tsu ~てる -teru ~てば -teba ~とう -tō
~る -ru ~れる -rerud ~れば -reba ~ろう -rō
~く -ku ~ける -keru ~けば -keba ~こう -kō
~ぐ -gu ~げる -geru ~げば -geba ~ごう -gō
~ぶ -bu ~べる -beru ~べば -beba ~ぼう -bō
~む -mu ~める -meru ~めば -meba ~もう -mō
~す -su ~せる -seru ~せば -seba ~そう -sō
(~い)る -iru ~られる -rareru ~れば -reba ~よう -yō
(~え)る -eru
する suru できる dekiru すれば sureba しよう shiyō
くる kuru こられる korareru くれば kureba こよう koyō
  • ^a All of the potential forms end in える eru or いる iru so they follow the vowel-stem (一段動詞 ichidandoushi) rules. 話せる hanaseru becomes 話せます hanasemasu.
  • ^b Conditional form is like saying "if ..." or "when ...".
  • ^c Also called the conjectural/tentative/presumptive form, it is the plain form of ~ましょう -mashō. ~ましょう -mashō is used as an inclusive command ("let's ..."), but becomes an inclusive query ("shall we ...?") when ka is added (食べましょうか tabe mashō ka "Shall we eat?"). -ō to omoimasu indicates the speaker's conjecture ("I think (I will)") and -ō to omotte imasu indicates the speaker's current intentions ("I'm thinking (I will)"). -ō to suru/-ō to shite iru/-ō to shite imasu indicates intention ("(be) about to").[9]
  • ^d The exception is 分かる wakaru "to understand" which already expresses ability innately without a conjugation.
Example
dictionary word
Example
polite form
Example
negative form
Example
present form
Example
perfective form
あら arau "wash" あらいます araimasu あらわない arawanai あらって aratte あらった aratta
matsu "wait" ちます machimasu たない matanai って matte った matta
toru "take" ります torimasu らない toranai って totte った totta
kaku "write" きます kakimasu かない kakanai いて kaite いた kaita
いそ isogu "hurry" いそぎます isogimasu いそがない isoganai いそいで isoide いそいだ isoida
shinua "die" にます shinimasu なない shinanai んで shinde んだ shinda
yobu "call out" びます yobimasu ばない yobanai んで yonde んだ yonda
nomu "drink" みます nomimasu まない nomanai んで nonde んだ nonda
はな hanasu "speak" はなします hanashimasu はなさない hanasanai はなして hanashite はなした hanashita
miru "see" ます mimasu ない minai mite mita
たべ taberu "eat" たべます tabemasu たべない tabenai たべ tabete たべ tabeta
する surua "do" します shimasu しない shinai して shite した shita
勉強 benkyou "study" 勉強します benkyoushimasu 勉強しない benkyoushinai 勉強して benkyoushite 勉強した benkyoushita
くる kurua "come" きます kimasu こない konai きて kite きた kita

^a The only example of this form. See the Wikipedia entry on Japanese irregular verbs for more.

  • ^a All of these verbs end in える eru so conjugation from here follows the vowel-stem (一段動詞 ichidandoushi) rules. る ru can simply be replaced with ます masu to make it polite.
  • ^b Used to command someone not to do something. An example is 入るな hairu na "Do not enter."
  • ^c The imperative form can be used as a command, e.g. 黙れ damare "shut up!", やめ yame "stop!" or 止まれ tomare "Stop (sign)". Non-volitional verbs (e.g. ある aru, わかる wakaru, できる dekiru) have no imperative form and くれる kureru "to give" is an exception that conjugates to くれ kure (the plain form of ~てください -te kudasai "Please (do)...").
    A politer way of telling someone to do something is to use (masu stem)~なさい -nasai instead (e.g. 飲みなさい nominasai "Drink up.", しなさい shinasai "Do (what was said)."), or more informally, (masu stem)~な -na. Imperative form: たくさん食べな takusan tabena "Eat a lot." Prohibitive form: たくさん食べるな takusan taberu na "Don't pig out!"

See the adjective inflection Wikipedia page for present negative, past and past negative forms of i and na adjectives.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. These are
    • 五段(ごだん)
    • 上一段(かみいちだん) (the single-row conjugation verbs ending in iru)
    • 下一段(しもいちだん) (the single-row conjugation verbs ending in eru)
    • (ぎょう)変格(へんかく) (only ()
    • (ぎょう)変格(へんかく) (only する)
  2. These go by various names in English. The the consonant stem class is also called godan class or five-row class while the vowel stem class is also called ichidan class or one-row class. The irregular verbs are not known as such in Japanese, but 変格(へんかく), literally: different case, indicating that it's different from normal, but not irregular in itself.
  3. 一段動詞(いちだんどうし), also known as a type II verb.
  4. 五段動詞(ごだんどうし), also known as a type I verb.
  5. The plain imperative as seen above is quite rude, and its use is generally limited to close male friends or colleagues if the intent is not to insult.
  6. The volitional indicates a presumption or suggestion on the speaker's part to do something, and in addition to being used in a few verb phrase constructions, a verb in volitional form corresponds to "let's {verb}"
  7. "やる" is a common prefix with flexible meaning that implies action.
  8. a b The polite conjunctive and -conditional are rarely used. The plain forms are usually used in their place.
  9. Rita Lampkin (14 May 2010). Japanese Verbs & Essentials of Grammar, Third Edition. McGraw-Hill Education. pp. 14–40. ISBN 978-0-07-171363-4. http://books.google.com/books?id=x_RVQgAACAAJ.