Grammar Terminology

This document teaches almost nothing about Japanese grammar.  Instead, the goal is to quickly introduce you to some basic grammar terms I need to use in the guide in order to explain how Japanese works.

General Terms
Basic Parts of Speech
Other Important Terms
Other Interesting Terms


General Terms


Phrase: two or more consecutive words which can be treated as a single unit.


Subject: the word or phrase expressing whatever is performing the action

Predicate: the word or phrase expressing whatever action is being performed

Object: a word or phrase expressing whatever is being acted upon


Clause: a phrase which has both a subject and a predicate. May or may not be a complete sentence.


Example: "My cats like to meow loudly at people."

Subject: "My cats"  Predicate: "like to meow loudly"  Object: "at people"


Lexical Word: Any word that represents a concept or has a meaning all by itself. Most words in a language are lexical, and they are collectively called a language's lexicon.


Particle: Any non-lexical word, i.e. a word that has no meaning on its own but is only used for grammatical reasons. In English, these are mostly prepositions and pronouns.  Exactly what does and does not count as a particle is very debatable.


Basic Parts of Speech


Part of Speech (POS) or Lexical Category: Any term or category used to define what grammatical roles words are capable of fulfilling. The eight generally recognized English parts of speech are: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections.


Noun: a word denoting a person, place, thing, idea or feeling

Pronoun: a word which acts as shorthand for one or more nouns, usually in order to avoid repeating the noun/listing all the nouns {I, you, he, she, it, they, everyone, someone, each, every}

Verb: a word denoting an action

Adjective (adj.): any word that describes or modifies a noun

Adverb (adv.): any word that describes or modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb.  You may have been told all adverbs end in -ly. That's not true.

Adposition (adp.): a word used to attach extra objects to a sentence. All English adpositions are prepositions (they're placed before their objects) while all Japanese adpositions are postpositions (they're placed after their objects).


Example: "I think entertaining music contributes significantly to a video game."

Here "music" and "video game" are nouns, "I" is a pronoun (acting as shorthand for the speaker's name), "think" and "contributes" are verbs, "entertaining" is an adjective describing the noun "music", and "significantly" is an adverb describing the verb "contributes".

Finally, "to" is a preposition attaching the object "video game" to "contributes" (notice that the sentence would still make sense without "to a video game", hence this object is optional and a preposition is needed to attach it).


Conjunction: a word(s) that connects two clauses and/or describes the relationship between them {and, but, if, yet, so, for}

Interjection: a word or short phrase that isn't really part of a sentence, but instead is used as a quick exclamation {ow!, hey!, oh my god!} or as a space filler {um, uh, er…}




Inflection: modifying a word to change or add to its original meaning. A word with no inflection whatsoever is called a lemma, and the set of words which can be created by inflecting it are called a lexeme.

Pluralization: the process of changing a singular noun or pronoun {cat, I} into a plural one {cats, we}. This is probably the simplest and most intuitive type of inflection in English.

Declension:  the process of changing nouns, pronouns and/or adjectives to incorporate concepts such as tense, person, and mood. English doesn't do this at all, but Japanese does for adjectives.

Conjugation: the process of changing verbs to incorporate concepts such as tense, person, and mood.  This can be done either by changing the verb's ending or by adding a helping verb.


Stem: the portion of a verb that normally remains unchanged by inflection/conjugation.

Helping Verb/Auxiliary Verb: a word placed in front of the main verb in order to conjugate it.  {be, have, should, must, can, might}  Japanese has none of these, and instead allows the verb's ending to be changed in several ways at once.

Tense: the time(s), or period(s) of time during which an action occurs.  English and Japanese use most of the same tenses, though they express them differently.

Person: the type of subject performing the action.  In English, it states only the subject's relative position to the speaker.  Japanese never inflects for person.

Mood: the intent or nature of emotion involved in the statement.  Includes concepts like commands, requests, probability, necessity, conditional statements and hypothetical speaking.  English moods usually involve helping verbs.  Japanese moods are expressed with verb forms and "sentence ending particles".


Example: "If I had defeated him, that wouldn't have happened."

Tense: past perfect tense (happened only in the past)  Person: 1st person (the actor is the speaker)  Mood: conditional (if _, then _)


I refer to Tenses, Persons and Moods collectively as Verb Forms.  When describing Japanese, I rarely find it necessary to explicitly distinguish between the three, so Grammar Part 2: Conjugation just uses the term "forms" constantly.


Other Important Terms


For some reason, these terms come up a lot when explaining differences between English and Japanese.


Phrasal Verb: a specific verb and adposition which, when used together, have a unique meaning.  English has a lot of these (to write up, to work through, to fight on, etc).  Japanese has a few.


Transitivity: The minimum number of objects a verb needs in order to make grammatical sense.  A verb requiring 0 objects is called intransitive (e.g., to run), a verb requiring 1 is called transitive (e.g., to say something), and a verb requiring 2 is called ditransitive (e.g., to give someone something).  Adpositions are used to add objects which aren't grammatically necessary.


Demonstratives: words like “this” and “that” which can be pronouns or adjectives (compare “this is blue” to “this flower is blue”).  Japanese always uses two separate words, which may be tricky to grasp at first.


Other Interesting Terms


I won't expect you to know any of these since I rarely use them myself (except for a few of the tenses, which I redefine when they come up later), but it's probably good to have heard of them at least once.


Concrete Noun: a word defining a person, place, or thing {America, road, human}

Abstract Noun: a word defining an idea or feeling {psyche, concept, morbidity}


Articles: the words “the,” “an,” and “a.”  These are considered adjectives.

Comparative Adjectives: adjectives used to contrast two nouns or noun phrases.  In English, these are formed with the adverb “more” or the suffix “-er.”  Japanese uses ほう and より.

Superlative Adjectives: adjectives used to contrast one noun with ‘everything else.’  In English, these are formed with the adverb “most” or the suffix “-est.”  Japanese uses もっとも and 一番.


1st person: a grammatical person in which the speaker is the subject {I, me}

2nd person: a person in which the speaker is talking to the subject {you, yours}

3rd person: a person in which the speaker is talking about but not to the subject {he, she, it}


Correlative Conjunction: two or more words that surround the phrase(s) they conjunct. {if…then, both…and, either…or, neither…nor, not only…but…also/too}


Personal Pronouns: pronouns that take the place of a specific noun and serve no secondary grammatical purpose.  {I, me, you, he/she, it, we, they, that, those, this, these}

Relative Pronouns: pronouns referring to a previous noun within the same sentence, thereby denoting a subordinate clause (see document 4a).  {These events which you were involved in…}

Interrogative Pronouns: pronouns that ask a question.  {who, what, when, where, why}

Indefinite Pronouns: pronouns that represent general categories of people or things.  {everyone, everything, someone, something, anyone, anything}

Reflexive Pronouns: effectively what personal pronouns look like when “reused” later in the same sentence.  {myself, yourself, themselves}

Distributive Pronouns: pronouns that represent one item or person in a group separately from the others.  {each, every, the other}

Negative Pronouns: pronouns specifying an indefinite noun that is absent from a certain group.  {none, nobody, nothing}


Generic mood: used to make very general statements about a particular class of things

Declarative or Indicative mood: a simple statement of fact, without any special qualifications or implications.  Considered the “default” mood in all languages.

Conditional mood: used to speak of an event whose realization is dependent on a certain condition (i.e., hypothetical and ‘if, then’ statements).

Imperative mood: expresses direct commands, requests, and other impositions of will.

Interrogative mood: used for asking questions (“do you” instead of “you do”).

Negative mood: expresses a negated action.  English negations use the auxiliary “not.”

Potential mood: a mood of probability, indicating that in the opinion of the speaker, the action or occurrence is considered likely.


Infinitive: the default or dictionary verb form.  In English, it’s “to run,” “to be,” etc., although the “to” in front is optional.

Gerund: a verb form used as a noun meaning “the action of _ing.”  For example, “skiing, walking, typing, conjugating, etc.”  Obviously, English gerunds use the -ing form.

Participle: a verb form that only specifies one grammatical detail (present or past tense), while shifting the designation of other details onto an auxiliary verb, thereby allowing for more complex tenses.

Present Participle: the –ing form with an auxiliary.  Used in passive voice and complex tenses.  “I am being watched.”  “I will be watching it when…”

Past Participle: the –ed form with an auxiliary.  Used in passive voice and complex tenses.        “I was defeated.”  “I had arrived there when…”


Active Voice: as usual, the subject is the one performing the action.

Passive Voice: instead the action is being done to the subject, not by it.  “I was defeated.”


Simple Present Tense: an action taking place in the present.  “I go to school.”  In all languages I know, this is also the infinitive.

Simple Past Tense: an action taking place in the past.  “I went to class.”

Simple Future Tense: an action taking place in the future.  “I will go home.”