Grammar Part 2: Conjugation

The vast majority of this page is about verb conjugation. More than anything else, this page illustrates how my approach to language instruction is different from the norm. Here I literally attempt to list every single verb form in the entire language (and some other stuff), whereas a normal textbook would likely spend multiple pages if not entire chapters on each one of these forms (and probably never mention a lot of them).
Obviously, I don't expect you to memorize them all anytime soon. I doubt anyone could without seeing all of them in source material a number of times. So feel free to digest this material at whatever pace you like.
However, the order definitely matters, so don't skip or skim any sections.
You should also be aware that what I describe here, which I call the "gaijin model", is not how the Japanese themselves describe Japanese verb conjugation. They use what I call the "jodoushi model", which is very good for older forms of Japanese but kinda bad with modern Japanese, so I introduce it in the Old Japanese supplment.


The Basic Verb Forms
Negative and Polite Forms
-te Forms
  Modal -te Forms
-i Forms
  Compound Verbs
Conjugation Examples
Advanced Verbs Forms and Uses
  -ra Form
  Conjunctive -te
  -tari Form
  Modal Implications of Conditional Forms
Adjective Conjugation
Spelling Conjugated Verbs
More Conjugation Examples


The Basic Verb Forms


Every Japanese verb, in its infinitive form, ends with a "u" sound.  This means it could end in any kana which happens to have a "u" sound.  I call that kana its verb type. For instance, かく is a ku-type verb, はしる a ru-type verb, つかう an u-type verb, and so on.
The type of a verb determines precisely which kana each conjugated form will be spelled with.  However, it has absolutely no effect on the meaning of those forms or the verb itself, so you can ignore the details of spelling conjugated verbs for quite some time (hence I put that section near the bottom).  For now, what you want to focus on is the ability to recognize a given form on any verb type.

The basic verb forms you absolutely must know are:


Verb Form Ends in... In English, it means... Example
Infinitive/Nonpast Form "u" "to _" or "will _" (nonpast = either present or future) なる
Negative Form "nai", occasionally just "n" "to not _" ならない, occasionally ならん
Polite Form "masu" no meaning, only formality なります
Past Form "ta", "tta" or "da" past tense, "_ed" なった
-te Form "te" or "de" can be a mild command, but usually part of a complex form なって
Imperative/Command Form "e" indicates a strong command なれ
Volitional Form "ou" indicates eagerness or willingness, a little like "I'll _" or "Let's _". なろう
Conditional Form "eba" "if _" なれば
Passive Form "areru" Usually "to be _ed" (details later) なられる
Potential Form "eru" "to be able to _" なれる
-i Form "i" can be a gerund, but usually part of a complex form なり
Causative Form "aseru" Usually "to make _" or "to let _" (details later) ならせる


When I say a verb form "ends in" something like "areru" I do not necessarily mean the kana あれる.  I mean the sounds.  Verbs in the passive form could end with the kana される, われる, られる, かれる, たれる, ばれる, まれる, なれる, or がれる, depending on verb type.  Again, recognition is what's important here.  Get to the point where seeing all of those kana as the same verb form comes naturally, then worry about how to conjugate each verb yourself.  Similarly, the meanings column is a bit ambiguous because Japanese conjugation is unaffected by grammatical person.  So my "to not _" could easily mean "I won't _", "You won't _", "He won't _", "They won't _" and so on.  Here are a few random examples:


I...      can read      run/will run      make _ eat      am seen      wrote      do/will do      


It's also very common for verbs to be conjugated into more than one form at a time:


I...      can't read      made _ eat      am seen      


Once you know all of the common forms, it's possible to conjugate a single verb several times in a row.


Now for some miscellanea:


Negative and Polite Forms


Verb Form Ends in... In English, it means...
Negative Form "nai" "to not _"
Colloquial Negative Form "ne" or "nee" "to not _", usually used by young men
Past Negative Form "nakatta" "did not _"
Negative Conditional Form "nakereba", "nakya", "neba" or "nai to" "if not _"
Negative Command Form infinitive plus "na" "don't _"
Negative Volitional Form infinitive plus "mai" "unwilling to _" or "unlikely to _"
Negative -te Form "naide" can be a mild negative command or part of a complex form
Adjectival Negative Form くない instead of い "not _", for adjectives and some verb forms
Polite Form "masu" no meaning, only formality
Negative Polite Form "masen" "to not _" with formality
Past Polite Form "mashita" "did _" with formality
Past Negative Polite Form "masendeshita" "did not _" with formality
Volitional Polite Form "mashou" "let's _" with formality


-te Forms


Verb Form In English, it means...
-temo "even if", "no matter" (often forms English's "_ever" pronouns; e.g. どこ_ても = whereever I _)
-te iru or -teru "to be _ing"
-te ita or -teta "was _ing" or "have been _ing"
-te aru "to be _ing" or "to be/exist in a [verb]ed state"
-te hoshii "want _ to _", indicates a desire for someone else to perform the action (contrast with -i tai)
-te oku or -toku "to _ in advance/for later"
-te shimau, -chimau
or -chau
can mean "to finish _ing"/"to end", can indicate the action is regrettable or unfortunate,
or (especially with -chau) may be used just because it sounds cute
-te yagaru indicates contempt for the subject or hatred of the action
-te miru "to try _ing", specifically "to try _ and see what happens"
-te iku or -te yuku "to keep _ing"
-te tamaru "to be able to stand _ing", often used to mean things like "how can I _?" or "I can't just _"
-te kakeru "to start _ing" or "to almost _"
-te kiru "to finish _ing" or "to completely _"
-te kuru "to go/come and _" or "to _ and go/come"
-te wa or -cha "if/then/in the case of _", probably identical to the word じゃ


There are some other verbs and adjectives which can be placed after the -te form, but their meanings in this case are identical to their normal meanings and thus there is absolutely no need to list them. Admittedly, the -te kuru form is usually like this, but it happens to be extremely common and occasionally gets used a bit oddly.


Modal -te Forms


Here are what I call the "modal" -te forms, because they're the closest thing I know of to explicit grammatical modes in Japanese. Unsurprisingly, these are probably the hardest ones to explain or understand.  It may be best to find an example or two in source material before trying to make sense out of these.


Verb Form In English, it means...
-te ageru or -tageru literally "to give", sometimes adapted as "_ for you"
indicates an action the speaker performed for the benefit of another
may express benevolence or generosity
-te kureru literally "to give", sometimes adapted as "_ for me"
indicates an action someone performed for the speaker's benefit
may express gratitude or appreciation
-te morau literally "to take", sometimes adapted as "have you _"
indicates an action the speaker performed for his or her own benefit, often as the expense of someone else
may express dominance or control


-i Forms


Verb Form In English, it means...
-i being a gerund, it's often best defined as "the act of _ing", and occasionally as "one who _s"
-i masu this is the same Polite Form defined earlier
-i tai "want to _", indicates a desire to perform the action oneself (contrast with its passive form, -te hoshii)
-i nasai or -i na a softer (usually feminine) command form, often with a chiding nuance
-i tamae a command form used by those with higher social status
-i [adjective] "[adjective] to _", for example 読み難い = "hard to read"
-i ni [verb] "[verb] in order to _", for example 走りに行く = "to go somewhere to run"


Compound Verbs


The last important -i form is simply putting a verb after it, which creates what I call a "compound verb."  Since this can be done between virtually any two verbs, many of the -te forms listed above can also be made using the -i form, and it's worth showing a whole table of examples.  So here I've listed a few very common ones, plus all the ones I know of that have special meanings.  You may notice that Japanese compound verbs often correspond to English phrasal verbs.


Verb Form In English, it means...
-i komu "to _ into" or "to _ over"
-i dasu "to _ out" or "to _ away"
-i naosu "to re_" or "_ again" or "to correct something by _ing"
-i au "to _ each other"
-i ageru "to _ up" (notice this has nothing to do with -te ageru)
-i sugiru "to overdo _" or "to do _ too much" or "to do _ too often"
-i tate "something which has just been _ed"
-i makuru "to do _ with reckless abandon," or when that makes no sense "to _ to a ridiculous extent"
-i kakaru "to be on the verge of _ing" or "to _ at/to/toward someone or something"
-i ppanasu "to _ and then leave that way"
-i kaneru and -i kanenai "to be unable to _" and "to be unable to not _"
-i sokoneru "to be prevented from _ing" and "to fail to _"


Conjugation Examples


That is all of the verb forms you might have to learn to reach Conversational Fluency.  Now here's a bunch of examples of conjugating multiple times in a row:


走る to run → 走って run → 走っていく to keep running → 走っていこう let's keep running


言う to say → 言われる to be said → 言われ act of _ being said → 言われたい to want _ to be said → 言われたくない to not want _ to be said


作る to make → 作って make → 作ってくれる to make _ for me → 作ってくれて make _ for me → 作ってくれてありがとう thank you for making _ for me


笑う to laugh → 笑い act of laughing → 笑いあう to laugh at each other → 笑いあえる to be able to laugh at each other → 笑いあえれば if _ can laugh at each other


見る to see → 見 act of seeing → 見に行く to go to see → 見に行って go to see → 見に行ってあげる to go see _ for someone → 見に行ってあげて go see _ for someone → 見に行ってあげてしまう regrettably go see _ for someone → 見に行ってあげてしまった regrettably went to see _ for someone


With enough experience, things like たくない, しまった and ってあげる will start to feel like single steps, and even conjugations like 見に行ってあげてしまった will become natural, despite the fact that English can never conjugate a single verb that much.


Now for a bunch of example sentences using conjugated verbs. The format here is the same as before, though since I'm using a lot more verb forms, it's worth explicitly stating that each step of conjugation is done on a separate line in the breakdown (though you may have noticed that already).


(B D T) この道を歩く

(B D T) 話が終わってしまった

(B D T) 早く学校に行け

(B D T) 朝飯を食べた

(B D T) 部屋でゲームを遊びました

(B D T) その発想を書いといた

(B D T) 後で買いに行くかも

(B D T) 先生はすぐ私達を帰させる

(B D T) そんなこと言わないで

(B D T) これを見て楽しいか?

(B D T) 明日は勝負しようぜ

(B D T) 彼に言って欲しい

(B D T) 食べきってやがったか

(B D T) みんなを勉強させよう!

(B D T) 家に入りなさいよ

(B D T) 暗号使ったから読みにくい

(B D T) ゆっくりすれば問題ない

(B D T) 行けるから場所言って

(B D T) 走りすぎてやばいよ

(B D T) 習わなければダメだって

(B D T) 授業に戻りたまえ

(B D T) この任務を果たすか果たせないのか

(B D T) してあげましょうって?

(B D T) 起きさせるけど殴り合いに終わるぞ

You may be wondering if there are any rules there are governing the order which forms can be applied to verbs. There definitely are, but I don't think it's worth the effort to try and come up with a set of rules myself, or make you learn one. The language is very consistent with what orders it chooses, so by the time you've mastered the forms themselves, you'll have naturally picked up more than enough of the ordering rules.


Advanced Verbs Forms and Uses


Up until now, I've been defining each form with one sentence or less. Now we're going to look at the forms where that simply isn't an option, as well as some additional uses of forms you already know. For the most part, this is because these forms affect the meaning of the entire sentence and not just that of the verb, which makes them significantly more difficult.


-ra Form


Either the infinitive plus "nara" or the past plus "ra" (usually "tara").  "nara"  usually means "if _" and applies to the entire clause, not just the verb, while "tara" tends to mean "if/when" and applies to just the verb.  The conditional "eba" form is different from both in that it has no temporal implications.  It's hard to explain this with examples, but:


店に行けば買うかも。 = If _ goes to the store _ might buy it.

店に行くなら買うかも。 = If _ is going/will go to the store then _ might buy it.

店に行ったら買うかも。 = "_ might buy it if/when _ goes to the store." or "If _ went to the store _ might buy it."


Conjunctive -te and -i


Yet another use of the -te form (and slightly less often, the -i form).  If a verb in the -te form isn't part of some complex form, and a mild command makes no sense, then the -te is meant to act as a conjunction (specifically "and") between this verb and whatever verb comes next.  Two or more verbs may be connected in this way (keep using -te until the last one), and there may or may not be other words between them.  Also, these -te verbs effectively borrow their tense/mood/etc. from the final verb in the sentence.


走って勝った = _ ran and won
落ち着いて考えれば = If _ calms down and thinks
起きて、学校に行って、帰って、眠りたいだけ = _ just wants to wake up, go to school, come home, and sleep


As a side note, a -te form by itself can sometimes be an indicator of uncertainty rather than a mild command.  I believe that's a result of this conjunctive -te, but that's debatable.

The quasi-particle し can also be placed after a verb (in various forms) or an adjective to do basically the same things.


-tari Form


Spelling it is easy: it's the past form with り added.  Understanding it isn't much harder.  I interpret it as a series of actions taken as a single whole.  It may also help to see it as a tendency or disposition to perform the action, or as an action repeated or spread out over a long period of time.  Strangely, English tends to implicitly take care of this nuance for you, so translating it is simply a matter of using the generic mood.  Also, this form is just as conjunctive as the -te form.


忘れたりけど、まだできる。 I may forget things, but I can still do it.

君は戦ったり勝ったり幸せになる。 You find happiness in fighting and winning.


Modal Implications of Conditional Forms


The basic idea is that after certain verb forms (usually conditionals) you can place a word meaning either "good" or "bad."  Sometimes, this makes perfect sense if you understand conditionals to begin with.  Other times, it seems odd because the meanings of certain popular combinations have drifted much closer to modal words like "should" or "must."  The main ones to be wary of are:


Conditional-esque Form(s) "good"/"bad" Word(s) Meaning
〜temo いい "may _" or "can _"
〜eba/[infinitive] ga いい "should" or "can (without difficulty)"
〜te ならない "must", "need to" or "have to"
〜nakereba/neba/nakya/nakute/nai to いけない/ならない/だめ    "must", "need to" or "have to"
〜nakereba/neba/nakya/nakute/nai to いい "don't need to" or "don't have to"


Some of the conditional forms listed above will look new or strange. This is largely because [infinitive]が and [negative]と are used almost exclusively for these modal uses. That and "nakute" is a result of adjective conjugation (the next section).


The genuinely tricky part is that the word for good/bad might be implied, giving you lines like "if I don't go..." which actually mean "I have to go." This is probably the single easiest way to get a line completely wrong without even knowing you're missing something.


Adjective Conjugation


Japanese is kinda weird in that it lets adjectives have tense and mood to some degree, but it's not hard to learn since you already know verb conjugation. Yes, it technically should be called adjective declension, but it's so similar to conjugation that I prefer to call it that instead.  By the way, all Japanese adjectives end in either い or な, hence "-i adjective" and "-na adjective".  First, -i adjectives:


Default form 早い(はやい) fast
Negative form 早くない not fast
Past form 早かった was fast
-te form 早くて or 早いし fast (always a conjunctive -te, never a command or part of a complex form)
Adverb 早く fastly/quickly
Noun form 早さ fastness/speed
Apparent form 早そう seems fast/seemingly fast/likely to be fast
Negative Apparent form 早くなさそう seems not fast/seemingly not fast
Conditional form 早ければ if _ is fast


As for な adjectives (which are often just nouns with な attached), the only forms they can have are な, じゃない, だった, そう and さ.  It should be obvious what those mean without a separate chart.  The gobi だ can also become だった or じゃない in a verbless clause or sentence.


Now the weird part: a few verb forms are technically adjectives.  Specifically, the negative (nai) form, the -i tai form, and the -te hoshii form (but definitely not the -i form) can be further conjugated this way, as well as ない and じゃない themselves.  In fact, the "past negative" -nakatta and "negative conditional" -nakereba forms listed above (as well as the "negative adverb" -naku form) are merely the most common ways in which adjective conjugation affects verb forms.  So expect to see lots of stuff like -i たくない and -te ほしかった.


There's also a "-garu form" where the い changes to がる, and the result is a verb meaning "to feel that _ is _". I didn't list this because it's only ever used on a small subset of adjectives that can be easily interpreted as feelings. For instance, 寂しがる means "to feel that _ is lonely" and 不思議がる means "to feel that _ is strange/mysterious", but no one would ever say 早がる.


Some miscellaneous comments:

Spelling Conjugated Verbs


Ichidan versus Godan


一段 ichidan and 五段 godan are the two major categories the Japanese break their verbs into.  Ichidan consist of about half of the "ru" type verbs, and are labeled as "1ru" in the chart below.  All other verbs are godan, including the other "ru" verbs which I labeled "5ru."  Thankfully, ichidan verbs always end in either "eru" or "iru," which makes their odd forms a little easier to recognize.


As for telling what's ichi and what's go, you're screwed.  There's absolutely no way to tell other than memorization or experience (although edict entries will conveniently indicate them with v1 and v5).


Now that you know that, all the verb types in the following chart should make sense to you.


Conjugation Chart


Verb Type Nonpast Negative Polite Past -te Form Command Volitional Conditional Passive Potential -i Form Causative
irregular する しない します した して しろ・せよ しよう すれば される できる させる
irregular くる こない きます きた きて こい きよう くれば こられる これる き・きし こさせる
"1ru" type 食べる 食べない 食べます 食べた 食べて 食べれ・食べろ 食べよう 食べれば 食べられる 食べられる 食べ 食べさせる
"5ru" type 走る 走らない 走ります 走った 走って 走れ 走ろう 走れば 走られる 走れる 走り 走らせる
"tsu" type 待つ 待たない 待ちます 待った 待って 待て 待てよう 待てれば 待たれる 待てる 待ち 待たせる
"bu" type 遊ぶ 遊ばない 遊びます 遊んだ 遊んで 遊べ 遊ぼう 遊べば 遊ばれる 遊べる 遊び 遊ばせる
"mu" type 読む 読まない 読みます 読んだ 読んで 読め 読もう 読めば 読まれる 読める 読み 読ませる
"ku" type 書く 書かない 書きます 書いた 書いて 書け 書こう 書けば 書かれる 書ける 書き 書かせる
"nu" type 死ぬ 死なない 死にます 死んだ 死んで 死ね 死のう 死ねば 死なれる 死ねる 死なせる
"gu" type 泳ぐ 泳がない 泳ぎます 泳いだ 泳いで 泳げ 泳ごう 泳げば 泳がれる 泳げる 泳ぎ 泳がせえる
"su" type 示す 示さない 示します 示した 示して 示せ 示そう 示せば 示される 示せる 示し 示させる
"u" type 使う 使わない 使います 使った 使って 使え 使おう 使えば 使われる 使える 使い 使わせる


Columns for the more complex forms are completely unnecessary once you know that the polite form is a "su" type verb, the negative form is an adjective, and the causative/passive/potential forms are all "1ru" type verbs.  Now for another list of little details to watch out for:

More Conjugation Examples


You know the drill by now.  Expect more complex and potentially confusing conjugation this time.  The translations will now use slashes and parenthesis to help clarify intent.


(B D T) 本当に書いてくれたらいいけど

(B D T) 怖かった現実に圧倒されて倒れてしまった

(B D T) 大人しくなったら許してあげよう

(B D T) 欲しくて欲しくて考えられないよ

(B D T) 返してもらわなきゃ

(B D T) 難しかったから死にそうな顔をしてた

(B D T) 美しさの問題じゃないって思っていますけど

(B D T) 恥ずかしがってませんか?

(B D T) 早くこれを開いて帰させろ

(B D T) すぐ食べ終えるなら行って

(B D T) 騙されやすいでしょ?

(B D T) あいつがよく夢見たり、現実を無視したり

(B D T) そこまで無理そうな事言っちゃバカみたくない?

(B D T) 自分で始まらないなら私は無理矢理始めるわよ

(B D T) こういう方程式を説明してくださいませんか

(B D T) 諸君は死にたいと思うまい

(B D T) そう言われればなんか真実を言わせたくなるよな

(B D T) 開きっぱなしならどんな生き物でも簡単に入れるわよ

(B D T) 早くしろ、でなければサメの餌になる

(B D T) 集中しなきゃと皆からうるさく勧められまくってる

(B D T) 君に来られようとしたら真面目な話なんてできなくなるんじゃない




Next is Grammar Part 3: Clauses.