勉強

Conjugate verbs to all forms easily

May 23, 2023 | Grammar

Conjugating Japanese verbs is actually pretty straightforward. We can conjugate any verb by following the rules for a particular conjugated form that we want. There are some exceptions that we will have to memorize but there are a lot less of these exceptions when compared to other languages like English or Spanish (e.g., irregular verbs and stem-changing verbs).

Must-know: dictionary form

The starting point of conjugating any verb in Japanese is the dictionary form. This form allows us to look up the verb in a dictionary and learn how to conjugate it. So for any verb in Japanese, we should know its dictionary form. Note that a verb in dictionary form always ends/rhymes in a “u” sound (i.e., the う row of the hiragana table).

All conjugated forms derive from the dictionary form so we need to know the dictionary form. But as we will find out soon, we can take shortcuts and memorize other forms so we don’t have to start from the dictionary form all the time. If applicable, we can just skip to a particular memorized conjugated form to derive another form, which can be much faster than always starting from the dictionary form for deriving every conjugated form.

Group 1, 2 or 3?

If we want to conjugate a verb, then in addition to the dictionary form, we need to know whether the verb is in group 1, 2, or 3. If the verb is 来る (くる / kuru) or する (suru), then we know it is in group 3. If the verb does not end in る (ru), then it is definitely in group 1. Now if the verb ends in る (ru), we need to memorize whether it is in group 1 or group 2.

Just memorize the -masu form

For me, instead of memorizing the fact that a verb is in group 1 or group 2, I just memorize its -masu (ます) form. If we know a verb’s dictionary form and -masu form, then we know whether it is in group 1 or group 2. For example, consider the group 1 verb 走る (はしる / hashiru / to run) and group 2 verb 食べる (たべる / taberu / to eat). The -masu form of 走る (はしる / hashiru) is 走ります (はしります / hashirimasu). (If it were in group 2, then it would be はします / hashimasu. That sounds wrong…) The -masu form of 食べる (たべる / taberu) is 食べます (たべます / tabemasu). (If it were in group 1, then it would be たべります / taberimasu. That sounds wrong…) So if we memorized 走る (はしる / hashiru) and its -masu form 走ります (はしります / hashirimasu), then we will know that 走る (はしる / hashiru) is in group 1. Similarly for 食べる (たべる / taberu) and its -masu form 食べます (たべます / tabemasu), the verb 食べる (たべる / taberu) must be in group 2.

This is the smallest amount of memorization/information that we need to conjugate any verb: either 1) the dictionary form and whether it’s in group 1, 2, or 3; or 2) the dictionary form and -masu form. I prefer memorizing the dictionary form and -masu form.

The benefit of memorizing the -masu form is that it becomes easy to recall verbs for polite speech. Rather than just simply memorizing the dictionary form of the verb 走る (はしる / hashiru) and then having to derive its -masu form by realizing it’s in group 1 and then converting the る (ru) to り (ri) to get 走ります (はしります / hashirimasu)…we could just simply memorize 走ります (はしります / hashirimasu). Then from there, getting はしりました (hashirimashita), はしりません (hashirimasen) or はしりませんでした (hashirimasen deshita) is pretty straightforward since we just swap out the ます (masu) with ました (mashita), ません (masen), or ませんでした (masen deshita).

Memorizing the -masu form is also useful because if we drop the ます (masu), then we get the stem of the -masu form, which ends in a syllable that rhymes with i (i.e., the い row of the hiragana table). For example, the -masu stem of 飲む (のむ / nomu) is 飲み (のみ / nomi) because ます (masu) is removed from 飲みます (のみます / nomimasu). The -masu stem is useful because it is used in a variety of expressions. An example would be 雨が降りそうです (あめがふりそうです / ame ga furi sou desu / It seems like it will rain), which uses 降り (ふり / furi) from 降ります (ふります / furimasu).

It’s also a good idea to memorize the -te form

Memorizing the dictionary form and -masu form of a verb is enough to conjugate to other forms because we know whether the verb is in group 1, 2 or 3. Knowing which group the verb is in tells us how to conjugate it to other forms, including the -te form.

For the -te form, if the verb is in group 1, then there is a specific ending depending on what sound the dictionary form ends in, which is not as straightforward as just adding て (te). For instance, the -te form of 走る (はしる / hashiru / to run) is 走って (はしって / hashitte) and not はして / hashite; the -te form of 歩く (あるく / aruku / to walk) is 歩いて (あるいて / aruite) and not あるて / arute; the -te form of 飲む (のむ / nomu / to drink) is 飲んで (のんで / nonde) and not のて; and so on. If the verb is in group 2, then it’s straightforward: just add て (te) to the end. For example, 食べる (たべる / taberu) becomes 食べて (たべて / tabete).

However, I think it’s a good idea to simply memorize the -te form of verbs. First and foremost, the -te form is used so much. It will be to our benefit to memorize the -te form so we can form expressions with the -te form quickly.

In the beginning, it can be difficult to memorize all the -te form rules for group 1. Rather than (or in addition to) rote memorizing the rules, just memorize the verbs already conjugated in -te form. As we start memorizing more -te form endings, we begin to pick up patterns and eventually internalize the rules anyway. This is especially true if we memorize the -te form of example verbs for each different dictionary ending. Then we can always reference back. For example, if we know the -te form of 歩く (あるく / aruku / to walk) is 歩いて (あるいて / aruite) in our heads, then we can figure out that the -te form of 聞く (きく / kiku / to listen) is 聞いて (きいて / kiite).

There are other benefits to memorizing the -te form. If we can quickly recall the -te form, then the plain past tense (た / ta) form–which is also used often–is easy: just conjugate to the -te form and swap out て (te) with た (ta). This also makes learning the たら / tara conditional easier: conjugate to the -te form, swap out て (te) with た (ta) and add ら (ra) (or do it in one step and go from て / te to たら / tara).

Finally, as we become more fluent in Japanese, we don’t really take time to think, we just simply talk. We don’t conjugate the -te form in our heads unless it’s an obscure verb that we’ve never heard of before. We’ve already memorized and internalized. So just memorize the -te form of verbs and save one step to getting closer to becoming fluent!

It’s not a bad idea to memorize the -nai form either

I think it’s a good idea to memorize the -nai form. While it’s relatively simple to go from dictionary form to -nai form, since the -nai form is also encountered so frequently it’s best to just memorize the -nai form. For example, to give polite negative commands, we need to know the -nai form (e.g., 心配しないで下さい / しんぱいしないでください / shinpai shinaide kudasai / Please don’t worry). Memorizing the -nai form will help us conjugate some other forms faster as well, like the plain past negative (ない / nai to なかった / nakatta) or negative -te form (ない / nai to なくて / nakute).

Memorizing the -nai form is also useful because in the case of group 1 verbs ending in う (u), we substitute with a わ (wa) instead of replacing with あ (a). For example, 言う (いう / iu) becomes 言わない (いわない / iwanai), not いあない / ianai. This pattern shows up in a few other conjugated forms.

Now it’s easier to conjugate other forms

After memorizing the dictionary, -masu, -te and -nai forms, conjugating other forms is easier. Check out the cheatsheet below.

How to read the shorthand below: For example, take the volitional form: dictionary form -> (お)う/(o)u or よう/you. This means for group 1, change the る (ru) ending of the dictionary form to the corresponding “o” sound, ろ (ro) and add う (u). For group 2, replace the る (ru) ending of the dictionary form with よう (you).

Plain form

AffirmativeNegative
Present Indicativedictionary form: already conjugatednai form: (あ)ない/(a)nai or ない/nai, where (あ) or (a) is わ (wa) if the dictionary form ends in う (u)
Past Indicativete form → た/tanai form → なかった/nakatta
Want (たい/tai form)masu form → たい/tai (then conjugates like an i-adjective)
Potentialdictionary form → (え)る/(e)ru or られる/rareru (then conjugates as a group 2 verb)
Volitionaldictionary form → (お)う/(o)u or よう/you
たら/tara Conditionalte form → たら/taranai form → なかったら/nakattara, i.e., plain past negative なかった/nakatta → なかったら/nakattara
ば/ba Conditionaldictionary form → (え)ば/(e)banai form → なければ/nakereba
Passivenai form → (あ)れる/(a)reru (then conjugates as a group 2 verb)
Causativenai form → (あ)せる/(a)seru or させる/saseru (then conjugates as a group 2 verb)
Causative-passivecausative → passive, i.e., (あ)せられる/(a)serareru or させられる/saserareru (then conjugates as a group 2 verb)
Imperativedictionary form → (え)/(e) or ろ/rodictionary form + な/na

Polite form

AffirmativeNegative
Present Indicativemasu form: (い)ます/(i)masu or ます/masumasu form → ません/masen
Past Indicativemasu form → ました/mashitamasu form → ませんでした / masen deshita
Want (たい/tai form)plain want + です/desu, i.e., たいです / tai desu (then conjugates like an i-adjective)
Potentialmasu form of plain potential, i.e., (え)る/(e)ru or られる/rareru → (え)ます/(e)masu or られます/raremasu (then conjugates the same as polite indicative)
Volitionalmasu form → ましょう/mashou
たら/tara Conditionalmasu form → ましたら/mashitara, i.e., ました/mashita → ましたら/mashitaramasu form → ませんでしたら / masen deshitara, i.e., ませんでした / masen deshita → ませんでしたら / masen deshitara
Passivemasu form of plain passive, i.e., (あ)れます/(a)remasu (then conjugates the same as polite indicative)
Causativemasu form of plain causative, i.e., (あ)せます/(a)semasu or させます/sasemasu (then conjugates the same as polite indicative)
Causative-passivemasu form of plain causative-passive, i.e., (あ)せられます/(a)seraremasu or させられます/saseraremasu (then conjugates the same as polite indicative)
Imperativete form + ください/kudasainai form + でください / de kudasai

te form

AffirmativeNegative
te formgroup 1: う/u or る/ru → って/tte, く/ku → いて/ite, ぐ/gu → いで/ide, す/su → して/shite, ぬ/nu or ぶ/bu or む/mu → んで/nde; group 2: る/ru → て/tenai form → なくて/nakute

This list wasn’t exhaustive but hopefully it shows that the rules for group 1 and 2 are pretty straightforward. For group 3, we just have to memorize them but they’re still relatively straightforward because it’s just the verb stem that primarily changes for these verbs and the endings are still similar to the conjugations of group 1 and 2.

We will memorize everything eventually

At the end of the day, we will eventually memorize–or rather internalize–everything in the end. When we approach fluency, we don’t really think about how to speak, we just speak. We’re going to memorize everything in the end anyway. So yes, memorize the dictionary and -masu forms at minimum, and memorize the -te and -nai forms as well, and eventually memorize other forms as we start using them more often.

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