勉強

Verb groupings: why I only like this one…

Jun 23, 2023 | Grammar

tl;dr: It may be a bit pedantic, but I like classifying verbs as “godan” (“group 1”), “ichidan” (“group 2”) or “irregular” (“group 3”). Some textbooks use the names “u-verbs” and “ru-verbs”, which can either help or confuse you.

I’ve read multiple Japanese textbooks and resources on how to group verbs. The primary difference is in the naming of the groups. Every textbook organizes verbs in a certain way and then may possibly go into great detail to justify the exceptions, which is where things may get confusing. I would like to show you why I prefer one naming convention over the others and why this could help reduce confusion for you.

Thought process

This section describes an abstract thought process in categorizing verbs. If you want to skip below to discussions of actual groupings, feel free to do so.

The overall idea

Here’s a rhetorical exercise. Write down all possible Japanese verbs in dictionary form and then conjugate them into all possible forms. It starts to get tedious super fast even with just a handful of verbs! However, like all things in nature, we are pattern seekers and we start to notice patterns. The question is, how can we create a minimal set of groups of verbs so that in each group there are consistent conjugation rules? That way, if we know a verb belongs to a particular group, we know how to conjugate that verb based on the rules of that group. That’s the basic idea of classifying Japanese verbs (or any other language).

Challenges

The tricky part is in handling exceptions. For example, imagine a verb that conjugates almost exactly the same as a group of verbs, except for one particular form where it’s completely different. Should we still put that verb in the same bucket as the other verbs and then put an asterisk on it (to note that there is one difference)? Or do we force it into another bucket? In fact, there is a common Japanese verb that matches this description (will be revealed later). How do we classify it? How do we handle these “irregular” verbs vs. “regular” verbs? What is the threshold (i.e., how many differences) at which we determine a verb is “irregular”?

Summary of findings

I’ve determined that most Japanese textbooks will divide verbs into three groups. For now, we will call them group 1, group 2 and group 3 (which is what most textbooks use). Group 1 and group 2 have their own set of conjugation patterns revolved around changing the verb conjugational stem. Group 3 are the “highly irregular” verbs that just needs memorizing. Now within group 1 and group 2, there are some exceptions but we still call them group 1 or group 2 because they otherwise follow the group’s patterns.

Every textbook just calls group 1 and group 2 differently. Some even categorize exceptions slightly differently (more on that later). Nonetheless, this is the big picture.

With these thoughts in mind, we are now ready to examine how different Japanese textbooks address these challenges.

Textbook examples

I will now show you several ways of grouping verbs as I have encountered in various resources.

group 1, group 2, or group 3 verbs

Most resources out there put Japanese verbs into one of three groups: group 1, group 2 or group 3. The names of these groups are generic and therefore it can be hard to remember why a group is named group 1 or group 2. On the other hand, because the naming is generic, we just accept that a verb is in a particular group and we don’t overanalyze why it’s in that group, which can actually be a good thing.

Group 3 verbs are “irregular” verbs with so many irregularities that we simply just need to memorize the conjugations. Luckily there are only two verbs (by most textbooks) that are in group 2: する (suru) and 来る (くる / kuru).

Group 1 verbs follow a particular set of consistent conjugation rules while group 2 verbs follow another set of consistent conjugation rules. We just accept the fact as is. In both group 1 and group 2, to get to the -masu form we need to obtain the conjugational stem. For group 1, the conjugational stem comes from converting the “u” ending sound of the dictionary form to the appropriate “i” ending sound, then adding masu. For group 2, the conjugational stem comes from dropping the る (ru) ending from the dictionary form.

So why could group 1, group 2 and group 3 be confusing names? Because learning resources out there are inconsistent: sometimes group 1 is actually group 2 and group 2 is actually group 1. That’s confusing! Can’t we agree on a standard? So how do we address this?

u-verbs, ru-verbs, or irregular verbs

As pattern seekers, we notice something: all verbs in group 2 end in る (ru). All verbs in group 1 rhyme or end in a “u” sound (う, く、む、etc.). So why not simply call group 1 “u-verbs” and group 2 “ru-verbs”? It makes the naming so much easier. That’s the rationale of all this.

So that’s all? Not so fast!

All verbs in group 1 end in a “u” sound. But this can also mean verbs ending in る (ru)! Recall that if you know a verb is a ru-verb, then you know it ends in る (ru). However, the converse is not true: if you encounter a verb that ends in る (ru), in the absence of other information you cannot automatically determine whether it’s a u-verb or ru-verb!

Now I will explain the gotchas of this naming convention. While the naming can be helpful to beginners, it can also be confusing.

First of all, all verbs in dictionary form rhyme or end in a “u” sound! If a verb ends in る (ru), it could either be a u-verb or ru-verb without knowing anything else.

If anything, ru-verbs are simply verbs that end in る (ru) but do not fit the conjugation patterns of u-verbs, so essentially they are “exceptions” to the u-verbs. I think that’s a better way of thinking about ru-verbs. Basically you have u-verbs which are “normal” verbs, ru-verbs which are verbs that end in る (ru) that are “exceptions” to the u-verbs and you have irregular (group 3) verbs (note they also end in る / ru) which are complete exceptions.

Secondly, some textbooks out there describe a more complicated than necessary process to figuring out whether a verb is a u-verbs or ru-verbs. If a verb doesn’t end in る (ru) then it’s a u-verb. This is fine. If a verb “rhymes” with える (eru) or いる (iru) then it is “most-likely” a ru-verb. Now this is a good tip. This says that there is a little bit more to ru-verbs (or group 2) than simply ending in る (ru). However, “most-likely” stops the rule from becoming super useful because there are “exceptions” to this. Suddenly what you think is a ru-verb is actually a u-verb despite “rhyming” with える (eru) or いる (iru)!

I don’t think this is helpful overall. It’s useful to learn the fact that ru-verbs “rhym” with える (eru) or いる (iru). Other than that, this makes the rules more complicated.

This is where using the names group 1, 2 and 3 may be actually more helpful. If a verb doesn’t end in る (ru), then it’s a u-verb. Otherwise if it ends in る (ru), then you just have to memorize whether it’s in group 1 (u-verb) or group 2 (ru-verb). You can make an educated guess based on the following facts: 1) if a verb “rhymes” with える (eru) or いる (iru) then it is “most-likely” a ru-verb, and 2) statistically speaking there are more u-verbs than ru-verbs. But at the end of the day, you still have to memorize!

Finally, if you can read kanji and okurigana (trailing hiragana after kanji), then you can mostly tell whether a verb is group 1 or 2. If the verb is written in kanji with two okurigana and is more than two kana long, then it is most likely a ru-verb. For example: 代える (かえる / kaeru / to replace) vs. 帰る (かえる / kaeru / to return). This doesn’t work for 2-kana verbs though: 居る (いる / iru / to exist) vs. 要る (いる / iru / to need). Note that this is a rule of thumb and there are still exceptions!

But at the end of the day, even if you know all the rules, you will run into exceptions and just have to memorize anyway!

godan, ichidan or irregular verbs

Instead of group 1, group 2 or group 3, the names are godan, ichidan and irregular. I will explain why I like this naming convention the best.

godan or godan-doushi means five-row verbs or class-5 verbs. ichidan or ichidan-doushi means one-row verbs or class-1 verbs. What does this mean?

When you conjugate godan verbs, you have to change the stem of the verb to one of the 5 rows of the kana table. For example, to conjugate 話す (はなす / hanasu / to speak) to the -masu form, you change the す (su) ending to the corresponding one in the い-row (i-row) of the kana table, which is し (shi), and then append ます (masu) to form 話します (はなします / hanashimasu / speak). In another example, to conjugate 話す (はなす / hanasu / to speak) to the potential form (assume plain potential), you change the す (su) ending to the corresponding one in the え-row (e-row) of the kana table, which is せ (se), and then append る (ru) to form 話せる (はなせる / hanaseru / can speak).

When you conjugate ichidan verbs, you don’t need to change the stem of the verb, which corresponds to only one row of the kana table. For example, to conjugate 食べる (たべる / taberu / to eat) to the -masu form, you drop the (る) ending then append ます (masu) to form 食べます (たべます / tabemasu / eat). To conjugate 食べる (たべる / taberu / to eat) to the potential form (assume plain potential), you drop the (る) ending then append られる (rareru) to form 食べられる (たべられる / taberareru / can eat).

This all means that group 1 is simply named godan and group 2 is simply named ichidan. I like this naming convention better because now you don’t need to memorize what group 1 or group 2 means. If you know 五 (ご / go) and 一 (いち / ichi), then you know godan and ichidan and then you know what that group means.

Group 3 then are the “irregular” verbs, verbs that don’t follow conjugation patterns. Virtually all modern Japanese textbooks classify the verbs する (suru) and 来る (くる / kuru) as the irregular verbs.

Wouldn’t you agree that this is easier to understand?

So why would godan, ichidan and irregular verbs be confusing names? I think it probably has to do with what godan or ichidan mean, especially to a beginner student of Japanese. However, I argue that you just need to memorize. Once you memorize, you won’t be able to confuse with the namings group 1 or group 2.

Exceptions outside of irregular verbs

Verbs belonging to group 3 or irregular verbs are by definition exceptions, so we simply have to memorize their conjugations. This is definitely true since the stem of する (suru) and 来る (くる / kuru) can read differently depending on the conjugation. For example, the plain negative form of 来る (くる / kuru) is 来ない (こない / konai)!

Nonetheless, does this mean there are no exceptions within group 1 or group 2? Certainly not!

There is actually a fairly common verb that is an exception: 行く (いく / iku / to go). The te-form of 行く should be いいて (iite) based on conjugation rules but it’s actually 行って (いって / itte). So what do we do? Demote it to group 3? Or keep it in group 1? I’ve seen a learning resource out there that actually places 行く (いく / iku / to go) into group 3 for a total of three irregular verbs. I don’t like this because while it’s true that 行く has an exception, there are actually more verbs out there with exceptions. For example, the plain negative form of ある (aru / to exist-inanimate) is nai (ない)! So why does 行く (いく / iku / to go) get special treatment, because it’s so common? I like keeping group 3 to the two irregular verbs because those verbs are truly highly irregular and almost all textbooks do that anyway so it’s more or less a standard.

Takeaway

It may be a bit pedantic, but I like classifying verbs as “godan” (“group 1”), “ichidan” (“group 2”) or “irregular” (“group 3”). I think this is the least confusing among the alternatives.

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