Saturday, July 29, 2017


In Japanese, verbs work in a different way than they do in English. In English, we use words like "will," "would," "not," and so on to change the meaning of the phrase. In Japanese, the verb, its conjugation, and added suffixes do that instead.

Inflections, Conjugations, Stems & Affixes

We call it an inflection when a word changes form (is inflected) to have a different meaning than its base form (which in Japanese is often called dictionary form). The inflection of verbs is called a conjugation.

In a word like "eating" in English, we call "eat" the stem and "ing" the inflectional affix (or suffix, because it goes at the end). It's called stem because it's rooted in place and doesn't change, and it's called affix because it's attached to words.

If we take another conjugation of the verb "eat," like the word "eaten," we can see "eat" is the stem, because it stays the same, while "en" is a different affix. And then we have "eated" "ate," which is irregular, so let's skip that one, but you get the point.

Stems & Affixes in Japanese Verbs

Most words in Japanese are written with kanji, and verbs are words, so verbs are written with kanji too. However, unlike nouns and adverbs, verbs have conjugations, and those conjugations are not written in kanji.

In Japanese, the inflectional affixes are always written in hiragana. This means that most verbs start with a kanji stem part and end in a hiragana affix part that show how it's being conjugated. Some examples:
  • ka-ku 書く
    To write.
  • tata-ku 叩く
    To strike
  • michibi-ku 導く
    To guide
  • yo-mu 読む
    To read
  • nozo-mu 望む
    To wish
  • uraya-mu 羨む
    To envy
  • bakuhatsu-suru 爆発する
    To explode

There are also verbs with stems that are usually written without kanji, like na-ru なる. Verbs with stems usually written in katakana, like mote-ru モテる. And verbs with a kanji-hiragana mixed stem, like tabe-ru 食べる. But most of them have a stem of just kanji.

Common Conjugations

When a regular verb is conjugated the stem never changes, only the affix changes. (irregular verbs are irregular so they don't follow this rule). If in Japanese the stem is usually in kanji and the affix in hiragana, that means, by extension, that the kanji of a verb never changes.

Below we have a couple conjugations of the verb "to write." Notice how the kakanji stem does not change but the hiragana does:
  • ka-ku 書く (dictionary form)
    To write.
  • ka-ita 書いた (past form)
  • ka-kareru 書かれる (passive form)
  • ka-ki 書き ("masu stem")

Some notes about "verbs," doushi 動詞, their "conjugation," katsuyou 活用, and their "conjugated forms," katsuyoukei 活用形:

The "base form," gen-kei 原形, is technically the "predicative form," shuushi-kei 終止形, but it's often called "dictionary form," jisho-kei 辞書形, simply because that's the form of the verb that will be written in its entry in a "dictionary," jisho 辞書.

The last form in the examples above is usually called the "masu stem" by English Japanese learning resources, or "stem of the masu form," masu-kei no gokan ます形の語幹. This is because its most common use is to become the stem for the masu suffix. Its actual name is "continuative form" or ren'you-kei 連用形.

One-Sided Conjugations

As we have clearly seen above, the predictable, extremely regular Japanese verb conjugations are much easier to figure out than the myriad of random irregular verbs found in English. However, there is a detail: there are more conjugations in Japanese than there are in English.

You might be wondering: "how is such thing even possible?!" Well, it's actually very easy. Turns out English only has 5 different conjugations:
  1. do
  2. does
  3. did
  4. doing
  5. done

So it doesn't take a lot to have more conjugations than English, though it does create a problem. After all, in the example I'm going to post below, how am I even suppose to translate the conjugation from Japanese to English if said conjugation does not even exist in English? Luckily, there's a way!

What happens is that in most cases Japanese uses an extra conjugation where in English we would use an auxiliary verb instead. So we can translate those extra conjugations by using those auxiliary verbs. See examples:
  • ka.kanai 書かない
    Not to write
  • ka.kitai 書きたい
    Want to write.
  • ka.keru 書ける
    Able to write.
  • ka.kou 書こう
    Let's write.
  • ka.kaseru 書かせる
    Force to write.
    Allow to write.
    Cause to write.

Inflectifullinessly Japanesing

Because of how extremely regular the Japanese verbs are and how predictable their conjugations are, some Asian linguistic genius of ages past figured out how to have a mind-boggling huge number of conjugations for a single verb without having to make up conjugation rules for each and every one of those conjugations. His idea? Conjugations that stack!

That's right. In Japanese we can take a conjugation and conjugate it again, affixing affixes to affixes. Most inflections end in ru る so they are conjugated as if they were verbs that end in ru る. Some affixes end in i い because they're actually an auxiliary adjective (like nai and tai), those are conjugated like i-adjectives. To demonstrate, one example:
  • tabe-ru
    To eat.
    (dictionary form, or non-past form)
  • tabe-sase-ru
    To force to eat.
    (causative form)
  • tabe-sase-rare-ru
    To be forced to eat.
    (causative passive form)
  • tabe-sase-rare-ta-i
    To want to be forced to eat.
    (causative passive tai form)
  • tabe-sase-rare-ta-kuna-i
    To not want to be forced to eat.
    (causative passive negative tai form)
  • tabe-sase-rare-ta-kuna-katta
    To have not wanted to be forced to eat.
    (causative passive negative past tai form)

If this is too hard to follow in plain text form, take a look at this extremely detailed and almost totally unnecessary diagram:

Japanese verb conjugation diagram with a list of rules showing how stems and affixes work and their meanings for learning reference

There are also other suffixes and verb forms besides the above, but this is main gist of it.

Also, you don't need to worry about extremely long verbs conjugations. They usually do not stack as many times as the number of colors in the rainbow. The most complex case you might encounter is potential negative past, literally "couldn't" in English, like ka-te-na-katta 勝てなかった, "couldn't win."


In English, the verb generally comes in the middle of the sentence. In Japanese, the verb generally comes at the end. Observe:
  • watashi ga banana wo tabeta
    I ate a banana.

Also, in English, the pattern Subject-Verb-Object decides who is the subject and who is the object of the verb. In Japanese, various particles are used in order to determined the roles of each word.
  • ga が particle.
    Marks the subject.
  • wo を particle.
    Marks the direct object.
  • ni に particle.
    Marks the indirect object.
  • wa は particle.
    Marks the topic. Which might be any of the three things above, but could be something else, too.

One example:
  • kyou wa watashi ga kanojo ni tegami wo todoketa
    Today (topic) I (subject) she (goal) letter(theme)
    Today, I delivered a letter to her.


Leave your komento コメント in this posuto ポスト of this burogu ブログ with your questions about Japanese, doubts or whatever!

All comments are moderated and won't show up until approved. Spam, links to illegal websites, and inappropriate content won't be published.

  1. This is SO helpful. Really, you are the best. :)

  2. > Its actual name is "continuative form" or ren'you-kei 連用形.

    This is probably a long shot since this is a really old post. But I was wondering if you could explain what's the logic beging using the い base of verbs to connect clauses in japanese. For example「広島に行き、それから京都に行った」I know it means the same as using the te-form, but I was wondering about the details, when do you see this besides books, and what's the difference in feeling?

    1. Basically, when the te-form is used as a conjunction, it can express various sorts of relationships between its clause and the matrix clause. For example, in パンを買って食べる, to buy and eat a bread, there's a temporal implication: you're going to eat it immediately after buying it.

      When you're telling a series of events that have happened in the past, one thing obviously happened after the other, but that doesn't mean they're closely related to each other, in which case the te-form gets avoided, and the "い base" is used instead.

      The more events you have, and the more complicated they are, the less likely you are to use the te-form. Also, the "い base" can be used to say two things happen in parallel, rather than in sequence. Like if you said you were "learning Japanese, and browsing the internet," it doesn't mean you did these things necessarily in that order, you're just listing things you did.