Hiragana consists of a basic set of characters: five singular vowels, 39 distinct consonant-vowel unions and one singular consonant. Additionally, を wo is included (although pronounced the same as vowel お).
These basic characters can be modified in various ways. By adding a dakuten marker ( ゛), a voiceless consonant is turned into a voiced consonant. Hiragana beginning with an h can also add a handakuten marker ( ゜) changing the h to a p.
Hiragana are used to write the following:
- okurigana— inflectional endings for adjectives and verbs—such as る in 見る (miru, "see") and い in 白い (shiroi, "white").
- joshi —grammatical particles
- words that lack a kanji, where the kanji is obscure, difficult to typeset, or is considered too difficult to understand (as in children's books).
- furigana —phonetic renderings of kanji placed above or beside the kanji character. Furigana may aid children or nonnative speakers or clarify nonstandard, rare, or ambiguous readings.
Some lexical items that are normally written using kanji have become grammaticalized in certain contexts, where they are instead written in hiragana. For example, the root of the verb 見る (miru, "see") is normally written with the kanji 見. However, when used as a suffix meaning "try out", the whole verb is written in hiragana as みる, as in 食べてみる (tabetemiru, "try eating [it] and see").