IxrecJapanese Grammar Primer

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About

This is a short grammar primer. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide. Each grammar structure can have dozens of different uses. We only teach the most common to get you started. If the explanation here doesn’t explain a usage in your immersion, don’t worry about it.

Recommended Knowledge

Before learning grammar with this guide, you should do the following to prepare:

  1. Read through the Tatsumoto's Japanese guide to get a foundation in AJATT.

  2. Get comfortable reading Hiragana and Katakana (see the guide above).

  3. Have 10 hours of immersion under your belt.

  4. Have a Japanese popup dictionary for easy word lookups. For the current recommended popup-dictionary, click here.

  5. Learn these words and feel comfortable reading them in kanji.

Mindset

Memorizing grammar does not work

Languages are big. Each language has thousands of different patterns you need to learn in order to speak naturally. These patterns are called "grammar."

Most grammar guides focus on teaching you how to speak by translating from English to Japanese. However, Japanese is so different from English, you would need to learn hundreds of grammar rules to speak correctly. Trying to follow all of these rules leads to very slow, awkward, and unnatural Japanese.

Instead, we focus on understanding the language first. You don’t need to learn the complex translation rules. You just need to understand grammar in context. When you can understand Japanese, you build an instinct for the grammar rules, just like you have in your native language.

Read this article to learn more.

The “why” will slow you down

“You can’t learn anything new, until you are open enough to forget everything you think you know” — James Victore

The first step to learning Japanese is to forget everything you think you know about how language works. Japanese is so different from other languages, any attempt to relate it to your native language just leads to frustration.

Keep an open mind and don’t worry about “why” Japanese works the way it does. Every language has quirks and inconsistencies, including your native language. You just don’t notice because you’re so used to it.

Now you need to get used to Japanese. Accept the language as it is instead of wishing it was easier or different, and you’ll develop the same instincts you have in your native language.

How to use this guide

Do not try to memorize this guide or drill grammar rules. You don’t learn grammar from reading a guide. Grammar is learned by seeing real language used in real context.

The purpose of this guide is to show you basic grammar concepts, so you can notice them in your immersion. To use this guide effectively:

  1. Read through the guide once. If things don’t make sense, don’t force yourself to understand.

  2. As you immerse in real Japanese, look for the concepts taught in this grammar guide. When you see grammar in your immersion, refer back to this guide to understand it better. You don’t need to refer back constantly. Don’t linger and don’t look things up too often. We must learn to tolerate the ambiguity.

  3. Re-read this guide for 5-10 minutes per day to keep the ideas fresh. Re-read the guide in full every 50 hours of immersion.

  4. When you feel very comfortable with this guide, move on to a full grammar reference. Use that reference each time you find a grammar point in immersion that you don’t understand. When reading a grammar reference, press Ctrl-F to find the relevant grammar point in the list.

Grammar Primer

The Predicate

Why Japanese is Hard

You may have learned in English class that sentence fragments are “incorrect” English. In Japanese, they’re the normal way to talk.

The subject of the sentence (who the sentence is about) is usually dropped in Japanese. To understand who the sentence is about, you need to infer (guess) based on context.

Because there’s often no subject, the core of the sentence is the “predicate”.

Predicates & Particles

What is a predicate?

The predicate of a sentence tells you what the subject does or what happens to the subject.

Example: “Billy is a chef”

Subject: Billy

Predicate: “is a chef”

Main Predicates

There are 3 main types of predicates we are going to look at:

  1. い-adjectives

  2. Verbs

  3. Noun Sentences (Noun + だ)

Particles - Connecting to the Subject

Particles are markers made up of 1 or 2 kana that explain the relationship between the predicate and the other parts of the sentence. Each of the following is a different particle:

が・を・で・に・は・も・と・や・か・の・から・まで・ね・よ

Each particle means something different and describes a different relationship between the parts of the sentence.

We’ll teach a few particles alongside each predicate so you can see real examples that build on each other.

The い-adjective Predicate

What’s an Adjective?

An adjective describes a noun. In the sentence “The delicious food”, “delicious” is the adjective because it describes an attribute of the food.

Japanese has two types of adjectives: い-adjectives and な-adjectives.

い-adjectives can be used as predicates and create a complete Japanese sentence. な-adjectives cannot be predicates and must be used with a noun, so we’ll teach them later in the guide along with noun predicates.

い-adjectives - The Most Basic Sentence

Because Japanese sentences often drop the subject, an い-adjective alone can create a Japanese sentence.

美味しい = [Something] is delicious

That single word above is a full Japanese sentence because い-adjectives have built-in the idea of “is”. Without more context, we won’t know what is delicious, but we know something is.

寒い (is cold)・新しい (is new)・忙しい (is busy)・難しい (is difficult)

Notice how they all end in い. This is why they are referred to as い-adjectives.

が particle - Marking the Subject

In the example above, we know something is delicious, but we don’t know what it is?

ケーキが美味しい = The cake is delicious

Subject: ケーキ

Particle: が = tells us that the cake is the subject

Predicate: 美味しい = い-adjective meaning “is delicious”

学校が寒い = The school is cold ・ 本が新しい = The book is new

宿題が難しい = The homework is difficult ・ 私が忙しい = I am busy

Note: が marks the subject but has no direct translation to English.

The Verb Predicate

Verb predicates are easier for English speakers to wrap their heads around. Just like in English, there is a “dictionary form” of the verb and various conjugations.

However, there are many more conjugations in Japanese than in English and these conjugations can be stacked on top of each other.

The Dictionary Form

The dictionary form is very similar to the “to” form of verbs in English. To look up a Japanese verb in a dictionary, you’ll need to remove its conjugations and convert it to its dictionary form.

Example: 教える = “To teach”

The dictionary form can refer to two different tenses: general and future. You’ll need to infer which one based on context.

Example: ジョンが教える = “Jon teaches” or “Jon will teach”

を particle - Object marking particle

The を particle marks the object, person, or thing that receives the action of a predicate.

Example: ジョンが本を買う = Jon buys a book. / Jon will buy a book [in the future].

で particle - Where does it happen?

The で particle marks the location where an action takes place.

Example: 本屋で本を買う = [Somebody not mentioned] buys a book at the bookstore. / [somebody not mentioned] will buy a book at the bookstore. [in the future]

Example: ジョンが家で本を読む = Jon reads the book at home. / Jon will read the book at home. [in the future]

に particle - When does it happen?

The に particle can mean many things, but the most common is to mark “when” something happens.

Example: 3時に行く = Somebody will go at 3 o’clock [In the future]

Example: ジョンが家で3時に本を読む = Jon reads the book at home at 3 o’clock.

Noun Sentences (Noun + だ)

What is a Noun?

Nouns are people, places, or things. Book, school, and house are all examples of nouns.

Unlike い-adjectives and Verbs, “To be” is not built into nouns, so we need to add だ.

だ - The Copula - “To Be” (is/am/are)

The “copula” is the name for the verb “to be”. “Is”, “am”, and “are” are all conjugations of the copula.

In Japanese, です is the polite form of the copula, but we’re going to focus on its casual form だ. We use it at the end of the sentence to mark a noun as the predicate.

本だ = It is a book. (literally “Book is”)

学校だ = It is a school (literally “School is”)

な-adjectives

As we saw above, が can be used to describe attributes of nouns. These attributes can be い-adjectives, other nouns, or な - adjectives.

い-adjectives are used directly with no copula.

ジョンが忙しい: Jon is busy.

Noun attributes need the copula だ.

ジョンがアメリカ人だ: Jon is American.

な - adjectives act the same way as noun attributes so we need the copula.

ジョンが元気だ: Jon is healthy.

Particle Break

We need more particles to make interesting example sentences so here’s a quick rundown.

は - Marking a Topic

What’s a topic? How is it different from a subject? That’s hard to explain and best left to immersion. Here’s a quick example to show you the difference:

が = Marks the subject and puts emphasis on what comes before it.

ジョンがアメリカ人だ (Jon is an American / But the emphasis is on “Jon”)

は = Marks the topic and puts emphasis on what comes after it.

ジョンはアメリカ人だ (Jon is an American / But the emphasis is on “American”)

For now, just make note that they are different, and you use は to mark the topic and が to mark the subject.

NOTE: When は is used as a particle, it’s pronounced as わ (wa).

も - Also or Too

も can be used to indicate the idea of “also” or “too”.

Person A: ジョンはアメリカ人だ (Jon is an American)

Person B: ジェフもアメリカ人だ (Jeff is an American too)

と - Listing nouns in a complete list

と is a particle that can list nouns in a complete list.

英語と日本語を教える= [ I ] teach English and Japanese [But nothing else]

や - Listing nouns in an incomplete list

や is a particle that can list nouns in a incomplete list.

英語や日本語を教える= [ I ] teach English and Japanese [among other things]

か - Mark a question

The か particle can turn a statement into a question by putting か at the end of it.

寒い = [ it is ] cold.

寒いか? = Is it cold?

行く = [Someone not mentioned] Will go

行くか? = Will [ someone not mentioned ] go?

の - The possession marking particle

の indicates what something belongs to.

ジョンの本だ = Jon’s book (Jon ‘s book it is)

の indicates that what comes after it [book] belongs to the thing before it [Jon], with だ at the end indicating “is”.

Compound Nouns

We can combine nouns and adjectives to make more descriptive compound-nouns.

Noun + Noun: combined with の

大学: College

先生: Teacher

大学の先生: College teacher

ジョンは大学の先生だ: Jon is a college teacher

Noun + い-Adjective: no particle required

忙しい人: Busy person

ジョンが忙しい人: Jon is a busy person.

Noun + な Adjective: combined with な

元気な人: Healthy Person

ジョンが元気な人だ: Jon is a healthy person

Noun + Verb

買う: buy

本: book

買う本: purchased book

ジョンが買う本だ: The books Jon buys

Verb Conjugation - More Than Tense

In English, we only conjugate verbs to show when they happened. In Japanese, there are A LOT more types of conjugations:

  1. Tense
  2. Potentiality
  3. Politeness level
  4. Status and relationship
  5. Negation
  6. Causation
  7. Conditionals
  8. Plus More

Recognize. Don’t Memorize.

It’s too complicated to try and memorize all these different conjugations. Instead, focus your efforts on learning to recognize and understand the patterns. After hundreds of hours of immersing in Japanese, you’ll develop an instinct for how and when each conjugation is used.

Regular Verb Conjugations

Most Japanese verbs have a stem and are considered “Regular Verbs”. Here are some examples of “Regular Verbs” in their root (dictionary) form:

買う

読む

行く

教える

To buy

To read

To go

To teach

The red part of the words above are the “Verb stems” and they don’t change during conjugation.

There are many different patterns for how to conjugate verbs, but most of them are predictable once you experience them in immersion.

Past tense conjugations

Past tense conjugations express things that have already happened. The key to identifying past tense conjugations is that they end in た or だ. This is generally easy to distinguish from the copula “だ” because the copula does not attach to verbs.

買う = 買った

読む = 読んだ

行く= 行った

教える=教えた

bought

read (past)

Went (“go” past)

Taught

As stated above, notice that the verb stems do not change.

Negative form conjugations

In English, we apply “not” or “do not” to create negatives (“I eat” vs “I do not eat”). In Japanese, negations are their own conjugation. You can recognize the negative form, because it will end in ない.

買う = 買わない

読む = 読まない

行く= 行かない

教える=教えない

Will not buy

will not read

Will not go

Will not teach

て (てる/ている) form - Present tense “doing form”.

The て form has many uses but we’re going to focus on just one: the “doing form”. In English, we add “ing” to change a verb into the doing form. “Eat” when you are doing it becomes “eating”.

In Japanese we add てる/ている or でる/でいる to the verb stem:

買う = 買ってる

読む = 読んでる

行く= 行ってる

教える=教えてる

買う = 買っている

読む = 読んでいる

行く= 行っている

教える=教えている

Buying

Reading

Going

Teaching

Conjugating Sounds

In the previous conjugations, we simply chop off the last character and attach the new conjugation to the stem. The next 3 conjugation patterns are more tricky.

Instead of chopping off the ending, we modify it to make it sound different. That means, there will be a different hiragana than in the root form. Instead of looking for a specific hiragana, listen for the sound instead.

For example, we may ask you to listen for the え sound. That means that the last character of the root form will change into め, け, れ, せ etc.

Don’t try to memorize and produce these sound-based conjugations. Just look for them in your immersion. Even if you are reading, you can “listen” for these sounds in your head. Over time, you’ll develop an instinct for them.

Potential form conjugations

The potential expresses that something is possible. To recognize this form listen for the sound える and look for られる.

買う = 買える

読む = 読める

行く= 行ける

教える=教えられる

Can buy

Can read

Can go

Can teach

Volitional form conjugations

Depending on the context, the volitional can mean "I will do," "let's do", or "shall we do?". You can spot volitional form conjugations by listening for the sound おう and looking for よう.

買う = 買おう

読む = 読もう

行く= 行こう

教える=教えよう

Let’s buy

Let’s read

Let’s go

Let’s teach

I will buy

I will read

I will go

I will teach

Shall we buy?

Shall we read?

Shall we go?

Shall we teach?

ば Hypothetical conditional form

The hypothetical is the “if X” form. You can recognize the conditional by listening for the sound えば. The same “listen for the sound” that applies to potential and volitional applies here also.

買う = 買えば

読む = 読めば

行く= 行けば

教える=教えれば

If I bought

If I read

If I went

If I taught

Irregular Verbs - する / 来る

We covered regular verbs with verb stems above. However, する and 来る are the two irregular verbs that don’t follow the same patterns as the regular verbs.

Dictionary

Past

Negative

Volitional

Potential

ている

する

した

しない

しよう

できる

してる

To do

Did

Won't do

Will do

Can do

Doing

来る

きた

こない

こよう

こられる

きてる

Come

Went

Won't come

Will come

Can come

Coming

Notice none of the する conjugations start with す, and no くる conjugations start with く. They have no noticeable verb stem like regular verbs do.

Conjugating Other Predicates

In Japanese, you can conjugate any predicate, not just verbs.

Conjugating い-Adjectives

い-Adjective conjugation patterns are usually the same as the verb conjugations we learned above.

Dictionary

Past (た)

Negative (ない)

Potential (ば)

美味しい

美味しかった

美味しくない

美味しければ

Delicious

Was delicious

Not delicious

If it’s delicious

寒い

寒かった

寒くない

寒ければ

Cold

Was cold

Not cold

If it’s cold

Conjugating the Copula and な-adjectives

Nouns, when paired with the copula, and な-adjectives conjugate the same way in Japanese. Unlike verbs and い-adjectives, the “is” is not built into nouns and な-adjectives. So we must conjugate using だ (the copula).

Is (だ)

Was (だった)

Is not (じゃない)

本だ

本だった

本じゃない

is book

was a book

is not a book

有名だ

有名だった

有名じゃない

is famous

was famous

is not famous

Existence in two verbs - いる / ある

There are two verbs in Japanese that signify something existing. いる and ある.

いる is used to note that something exists that is living. Things like people, cats, dogs etc. (Note: This is the same “いる” we were introduced to above when we learned “ている”, although its function is different).

人がいる

猫がいる

ジョンがいる

There is a person

There is a cat

John is here

ある is used to note that something exists that is not living. Things like cars, pencils, apples etc.

本がある

手紙がある

There is a book

There is a letter

Enough for now. Strengthen this foundation

The grammar points described in this guide should be enough to get you started with Japanese. As you immerse, refer back to this guide often until you can recognize and understand these grammar points in your immersion.

Remember, this guide is just the basics of Japanese grammar. Once you have that foundation, move on to a full grammar reference guide.

Quick Reference

Don’t worry about mastery or memorizing. Browse casually daily and pair with a healthy immersion schedule and this will all solidify in time. Japanese is very different from English (and most other languages) so things will require time, patience, and exposure to feel comfortable. It’s completely normal to feel lost at times, that will fade away in time.

い-adjectives

Dictionary

Past (た)

Negative (ない)

Potential (ば)

美味しい

美味しかった

美味しくない

美味しければ

Delicious

Was delicious

Not delicious

If it’s delicious

寒い

寒かった

寒くない

寒ければ

Cold

Was cold

Not cold

If it’s cold

な-adjectives

Function like nouns, and modify other nouns with な between the two nouns.

綺麗な場所だ = It is a pretty place (Pretty place is)

な adjectives can also function as nouns

場所は綺麗だ = The place is pretty. (Place pretty is)

な adjectives conjugate like nouns paired with the copula, so see な adjective conjugations for reference.

Conjugating the Copula with Nouns & な adjectives

Nouns and な adjectives conjugate with the copula だ as such.

だ (is) ー だった (was) ー じゃない (is not) ー
本だ (is book) ー 本だった (was a book) ー 本じゃない (is not a book)
有名だ (is famous) ー 有名だった (was famous) ー 有名じゃない (is not famous)

Regular Verb conjugations

Dictionary form with stem colored

買う

読む

行く

教える

To buy

To read

To go

To teach

Past tense conjugations

買う = 買った

読む = 読んだ

行く= 行った

教える=教えた

bought

read (past)

Went (“go” past)

Taught

Negative form conjugations

買う = 買わない

読む = 読まない

行く= 行かない

教える=教えない

Will not buy

will not read

Will not go

Will not teach

Potential form conjugations

買う = 買える

読む = 読める

行く= 行ける

教える=教えられる

Can buy

Can read

Can go

Can teach

Volitional form conjugations

買う = 買おう

読む = 読もう

行く= 行こう

教える=教えよう

Let’s buy

Let’s read

Let’s go

Let’s teach

I will buy

I will read

I will go

I will teach

Shall we buy?

Shall we read?

Shall we go?

Shall we teach?

ば Hypothetical conditional form

買う = 買えば

読む = 読めば

行く= 行けば

教える=教えれば

If I bought

If I read

If I went

If I taught

て (てる/ている) form - Present tense “doing form”.

買う = 買ってる 買う = 買っている

読む = 読んでる 読む = 読んでいる

行く= 行ってる 行く= 行っている

教える=教えてる 教える=教えている

Buying

Reading

Going

Teaching

Irregular Verbs - する/ 来る

Dictionary

Past

Negative

Volitional

Potential

ている

する

した

しない

しよう

できる

してる

To do

did

Won't do

Will do

Can do

doing

来る

きた

こない

こよう

こられる

きてる

come

went

Won't come

Will come

Can come

coming

Particles:

が - The subject marking particle (emphasis on what comes before)

は - The topic marking particle (emphasis on what comes after. pronounced わ as a particle)

を - Object marking particle

で - Where does an action happen?

に - When does it happen?

も - Also or Too

と - Listing nouns in a complete list

や - Listing nouns in an incomplete list

か - Mark the unknown (make a statement a question)

の - The possession marking particle

Existence in two verbs - いる and ある

いる = Existence of living things

ある = Existence of non living things.