Basic Japanese: Verb Conjugation

Published February 11th, 2022

Verbs are crucial in language learning. Some may argue that it’s the very foundation of some languages. It would be hard to express yourself if you don’t know verbs.

In Japanese, knowing the various types of verbs and its basic conjugations is extremely significant. But don’t let that scare you off yet, because as soon as you master the basic conjugation, you will be able to express yourself in Japanese and get by in Japan. This article is a comprehensive guide to the basics of verbs and conjugations!

For more in-depth expansions and discussions, we talk about verb conjugations in our Nihongo Master Podcast Season 9 Episode 4!

Types of Verbs

In any language, some sentences require a verb. Verbs are action words like “to see” or “to write” or “to do”. There’s not much categorisation in English when it comes to verbs and their conjugation, but in Japanese, it all boils down to two categories: ru verbs and u verbs.

Ru Verbs

Ru-verbs are known as ichidan doushi (段動詞) They are easy to distinguish from the rest, most of the time, as they are verbs that end with ru (る). Ru verbs have the base of the verbs remain when conjugating. Examples are 見る (miru, to see) and 食べる (taberu, to eat).

However, there are some verbs ending with ru that are not ru-verbs, but in fact the next category of verbs.

U Verbs

U-verbs are also known as godan doushi (五段動詞). These are verbs that end with u (う) vowel sound at the end. When conjugating this type of verb, the stem’s final vowel changes to another vowel in the hiragana chart.

Examples are 書く (kaku, to write) and 話す (hanasu, to speak), 買う (kau, to buy) and 飛ぶ (yobu, to fly). Bear in mind that there are u-verbs that also end with ru, like 知る (shiru, to know). But these types of verbs still fall under the u-verb category. To know which they are, you have to memorise them.

Irregular Verbs

There is also a category for irregular verbs, and that category only has two: する (suru, to do) and 来る (kuru, to come). They have unique conjugations that are only for them, and the only way to know them is to memorise them.

A lot of nouns have these irregular verbs attached to them to make nouns. For example, 勉強する (benkyou suru, to study) is a combination of “studies” (勉強) and “to do” (する).

Stem Form (ます form)

The stem form is a type of Japanese verb form that’s often used to make other types of conjugation. It’s also known as the masu (ます) form. Just like how in English, the word “see” can become “see” or “saw” or “seen”, Japanese words rely on conjugation from the stem form.

For ru-verbs, you can get the stem form by just taking away the ru (る). For example, 見る (miru) becomes 見 (mi). 食べる (taberu) becomes 食べ (tabe).

For u-verbs, the stem form is achieved by taking the う (u) vowel sound out,

For example, 書く (kaku) becomes 書 (kak). 話す (hanasu) becomes 話 (hanash).

For its masu form, there is an additional step where you switch it with い (i). For example, 書く (kaku) becomes 書き (kaki). 話す (hanasu) becomes 話し (hanashi). Depending on the type of conjugation, you would either use the stem form or masu form.

The irregular verbs don’t have a set of rules to follow, you just have to memorise their conjugation. する (suru) becomes し (shi), and 来る (kuru) becomes き (ki).

These verbs are now in their stem form. Stem form is used in a lot of types of conjugation, like 〜たい (~tai), to say “I want”. This conjugation type is covered in Season 2 Episode 10 of the Nihongo Master Podcast. We have a recap article that you can read here too.

For the ます form, all you have to do is add the “masu” to the stem form. The masu form is the formal version of the plain form of the word.

Type of verb: Plain form – Stem form – Masu form

Ru-verbs: 見る – 見 – 見ます

U-verbs: 書く – 書き – 書きます

Irregular verbs: する – し – します

Past Tense

The past tense of verbs is the next step you should take on your verb conjugation learning journey. In this section, we will look at how to conjugate to the plain past tense, and the formal past tense.

Plain Past (た)

The plain past tense refers to the past tense form of the plain verb. This conjugation depends on the verb categories as well.

For ru-verbs and irregular verbs, you add た (ta) to the stem form. For example, 見る (miru) becomes 見 (mi), then becomes 見た (mita). する (suru) becomes し (shi) then becomes した (shita).

For u-verbs, it gets a bit complicated. It depends on the last hiragana.

  • If it ends with う, つ or る, add った (tta) to the stem form. For example, 笑う (warau) becomes 笑 (wara), then becomes 笑った (waratta).
  • If it ends with む, ぶ, ぬ, change the last hiragana to んだ (nda). For example, 読む (yomu) becomes 読 (yo), then becomes 読んだ (yonda).
  • If it ends with く, change the last hiragana to いた (ita). For example, 書く (kaku) becomes 書 (ka), then becomes 書いた (kaita).
  • If it ends with す, change the last hiragana to した. For example, 話す (hanasu) becomes 話 (hana), then becomes 話した (hanashita).

Formal Past (ました)

The formal past tense is the past tense form of a formal verb. It’s so much simpler than the plain past tense, as all you have to do is add た (ta) after the masu form to make ました. For example, 見る (miru) becomes 見ます (mimasu) then becomes 見ました (mimashita). 読む (yomu) becomes 読みます (yomimasu) and then becomes 読みました (yomimashita).

Negative Form

The next category we’ll look at is negation. Similarly, ru and u verbs negate differently, and it’s also slightly different from the stem form. We’ll also break it down to plain negative and formal negative.

Plain Negative (ない)

The plain negative form is the negation of a pain verb word.

For ru-verbs, it’s very straight forward. Take the ru out and replace it with nai (ない), for informal, or masen, for formal. 見る (miru) becomes 見ない (minai). 食べる(taberu) becomes 食べない (tabenai).

For u-verbs, take the う (u) vowel sound out, and replace it with あ (a), then add ない (nai). 書 (kaku) becomes 書か (kaka) then becomes 書かない (kakanai). 話す(hanasu) becomes 話さ (hanasa) then becomes 話さない (hanasanai). There’s one exception to the plain negation, and that’s the u verb ある (aru), which becomes ない (nai).

For irregular verbs, add nai to the stem form. For example, する (suru) becomes しない (shinai).

Formal Negative (ません)

The formal negative is the negation of a formal verb word.

For ru-verbs, take take the ru out and replace it with masen (ません). 見る (miru) becomes 見ません (mimasen). 食べる(taberu) becomes 食べません (tabemasen).

For u-verbs, take the stem form, then add masen (ません). 書 (kaku) becomes 書き (kaka) then becomes 書きません (kakimasen). 話す(hanasu) becomes 話し (hanashi) then becomes 話しません (hanashimasen).

For irregular verbs, add masen (ません) to the stem form. For example, する (suru) becomes しません (shimasen).

Past Negative

The last conjugation on the list of basic verb conjugation is the past negative. This is a lot simpler once we know how to do the negation and past tense separately. It’s a matter of combining the two together. Similarly, we’ve split it up to plain and formal past negative.

Plain Past Negative (なかった)

The plain past negative is the plain negation in the past tense. It’s like saying “I did not…” To do this, for all types of verbs, you negate it first, then conjugate the past tense.

Regardless of the category, you take the word and change it to its plain negative form, then change the い at the to かった (katta). This creates なかった (nakatta), and it is the way to make an い ending into its past tense form.

Type of verbs: Plain form – plain negative form – plain past negative form

Ru-verbs: 見る – 見ない – 見なかった

U-verbs: 書く – 書かない – 書かなかった

Irregular verbs: する – しない – しなかった

Formal Past Negative (ませんでした)

The formal past negative is the negation of the formal form of the verb. This is conjugated similarly to the plain past negative. You negate the word first then conjugate to the past tense.

This applies to all categories: first change it to its formal negative form, then add deshita (でした). This makes masendeshita (ませんでした).

Type of verbs: Plain form – formal negative form – formal past negative form

Ru-verbs: 見る – 見ません – 見ませんでした

U-verbs: 書く – 書きません – 書きませんでした

Irregular verbs: する – しません – しませんでした

You’re now a verb expert!

And with that, we wrap up our comprehensive guide to Japanese verbs and its basic conjugations! There are many ways to conjugate a verb – we have the various types of conjugation on our blog as well as our Nihongo Master Podcast. Check both of them out now!