Info and tips on Japanese verb conjugation


Info and tips for Japanese learners

Japanese verbs: Basic information

In Japanese the base form of a verb given is the present informal form, which normally ends in -u. Examples:

  • べる “eat”
  • “go”
  • わた “cross”
Japanese has many suffixes that can be added to verbs to affect their meanings. These can express politeness, tense, voice (potential, causative, passive), mood (imperative, volitional, conditional), and whether the verb is positive or negative. For example:
  • おどらせる “make dance” – from おど “dance”
  • かなかった “did not write” – from “write”
  • めました “was able to read” (polite) – from “read”
However, unlike in many European languages Japanese verbs do not inflect for person, number or gender (so “I eat”, “you eat”, “he eats” etc. are all べる.

Present, Past, and -te form

Japanese verbs inflect for two tenses: present, and past. The present tense normally ends in -u and can have a present or future meaning. The past tense ends in 〜た or 〜だ. For example:

  • “exit” (or “will exit”)
  • “exited”
  • およ “swim” (or “will swim”)
  • およいだ “swam”
There is also a common verb form called the -te form which is used when a verb appears in the middle of a sentence or part of a compound phrase. These verbs, which end in 〜てor 〜で, do not have tense specified:
  • “exit” (-te form)
  • およいで “swim” (-te form)

Positive and Negative, Plain and Polite

Most verb forms can appear in either positive (“to do…”) or negative (“to not do…”) forms. For example:

  • べる “eat” (present positive)
  • べない “not eat” (present negative)
  • べた “ate” (past positive)
  • べなかった “did not eat” (past negative)
Verbs forms also have a polite form, ending in 〜ますin the present positive, e.g. べます “eat” (polite). These are used when addressing unfamiliar people, people of higher social status, or in certain social situations.

Potential, Causative, and Passive Verbs

Japanese verbs can be inflected in potential (“to be able to…”), causative (“to make…”), and passive (“to be done…”) forms. For example, the verb “drink” becomes:

  • める “to be able to drink”
  • ませる “to make drink”
  • まれる “to be drunk (of a beverage)”

Verbal Mood (Imperative, Volitional, Conditional)

The imperative mood is used in Japanese to give commands, while the volitional is used to express suggestions or intent:

  • “drink!” (imperative)
  • もう “let’s drink” (volitional)
Japanese also has conditional verb forms which express the meaning of “if…”. The -eba and -tara forms both translate to “if…” in English:
  • めば “if (someone) drinks/drank” (-eba form)
  • んだら “if (someone) drinks/drank” (-tara form)