Having trouble remembering how to conjugate Japanese verbs, or when to use formal pronouns? Here, Ann Arbor, MI teacher Elaina R. shares some tips and tricks to help you learn Japanese grammar rules…
When you’re learning a foreign language, you may have a tendency to apply your own grammar rules to your new language, often with hilarious results. Arguably the hardest part about learning a new language is trying to remember new grammar rules. Luckily, there are several basic concepts that can help you remember Japanese grammar rules.
Here are a few language-learning tricks that will help you understand Japanese grammar.
1. Talk Like Yoda (Verbs Come Last)
In English, sentence order is subject-verb-object (I eat oranges). In Japanese, the sentence order is subject-object-verb (I oranges eat).
“I eat oranges” is watashi wa orenji o taberu, or 私わオレンを食べる.
In Japanese, watashi (私) means I, orenji (オレン) means orange, and taberu (食べる) means eat.
To remember this rule, talk like Yoda, who for whatever reason speaks in subject-object-verb order.
May the force with you be!
2. When In Doubt, Be Polite
In Japanese, it’s better to err on the side of caution and be overly polite.
It’s much better to accidentally speak formally to a friend, versus unknowingly being rude to someone in public. So, when in doubt, go with –masu（ます) verb endings and –desu (です) adjective/noun endings.
This is especially true when talking about members of the family in Japanese.
Learn Japanese family vocabulary with this helpful infographic!
3. Learn to Conjugate Japanese Verbs
Consonant-Stem vs. Vowel-Stem Verbs
Consonant-stem and vowel-stem verbs are conjugated differently, so first you need to learn the difference between the two. Thankfully, it’s really easy!
Vowel-stem verbs end with –iru (いる) or –eru (える). If the verb ends with something else, it’s probably a consonant-stem verb.
Keep in mind that this is an oversimplification. There are some exceptions, but in general, this distinction works.
Stem + Ending = Vowel-Stem Verb Conjugations
For vowel-stem verbs, let’s take the Japanese word kangaeru (かんがえる) (to think). To conjugate the verb, slice off the -ru to get the stem.
Notice that the stem (kangae) ends with a vowel. That’s why it’s called a vowel-stem verb. Makes sense, right?
Add the appropriate ending to get the conjugation
kangaemasu (かんがえます) = polite form
kangaemashita (かんがえました) = formal past tense
Stem + Base + Ending = Consonant-Stem Verb Conjugations
The word for “to swim” is oyogu (およぐ) in Japanese. Notice that it does not end in –ru (る), so for the purposes of this article, we will assume that it’s a consonant-stem verb (which it is).
To conjugate a consonant-stem verb, start by slicing off the last letters to get the stem: oyo (およ).
Then add the base by changing the final vowel from a –u to –i. In this case, –gu (ぐ) changes to –gi (ぎ); so all of the verbs will begin with (およぎ).
Add the appropriate endings to get the conjugated verbs
oyogimasu (およぎます) = polite form
oyogimashita (およぎました) = formal past tense
As you can see, Japanese grammar rules aren’t that complicated once you get the hang of them.
With consistent practice, you’ll be able to remember, understand, and apply Japanese grammar rules.
Keep at it, and work with your Japanese tutor. Before you know it, you will have a basic understanding of the Japanese language!
Elaina R. teaches singing in Ann Arbor, MI. She is acquainted with many languages and speaks English, Japanese, Italian, and German. As a singer, she pays particular attention to pronunciation. She earned a Bachelor of Music from the University of Southern California, and she is currently working on her Master of Music from the University of Michigan. Learn more about Elaina here!
Photo by Wally Gobetz