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K ([personal profile] karanguni) wrote2017-01-19 09:34 pm
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Japanese 103: Basic Grammar


  • Get a general sense of how verb conjugation works: stem + modifier
  • Learn the difference between ichidan and godan verbs
  • Drill a lot

By this point, you've probably struggle-boated through a lot of dictionary lookups and attempts at translating with no ropes. Now for grammar! It's a little backwards to have got you working on real texts before bringing in any actual ability to parse them, but in this case I think reading over constructions first helps: you've done the dirty work, and the bricks-and-mortar will (hopefully) come along more easily for it. Less fear of reading "real stuff" and more actually reading it and coping with uncertainty around what's still unknown.

So onwards!

Advanced warning that most of this post is exploratory: I'm going to talk a bit about Japanese verbs in general before ever touching something concrete. It's all going to be very far from what you'll get in most English textbooks and grammars.

My hope is that what this post will do is give anyone reading a starting point into the grammar that is grounded on the 五十音 table. We'll work from the top down, going by sound as opposed to tenses and verb forms.

P.S: this is all also in the google doc from the previous lesson.

On Verbs

Luckily for all involved, Japanese is fairly easy to read because verbs are - with a few, notable exceptions - incredibly regular. Once you conquer verbs, particles, auxiliary stuff, and nouns will fall like dominos.

Because they're so regular, they're also fun to drill and easy to look up. I'm going to lay out a lot of information, but in a way that's a little bit closer to the way it's taught natively than what you'll see in textbooks.

English language textbooks are going to, by and large, start out with the Big Few Irregular Verbs - する (to do) ・ ある (to exist - inanimate) ・くる(to come) ・だ (to be, is). They're irregular because they don't conjugate the way all other verbs do.
That's well and good: those verbs are incredibly common and important. But, I figure, if you're going to spend time learning grammar - learn the standards. So we're going to treat the exceptions as things, like kana, to be Blindly Memorised. Because they are! We'll cover them next lesson.

Regular Verbs - ichidan and godan

In the meantime, we're going to start with the two types of regular verbs: 一段(いち・だん) and 五段(ご・だん). The いち one and ご five are significant: 一段 verbs have a single, unchanging stem that's used in all conjugations. 五段 verbs have stems that require mutation in order to achieve different conjugations.

Let's see what this means in a table...

Conjugated Form of...

Ichidan たべる To eat

Godan いく To go


















That a - i - u - e - o line sure looks familiar, don't it?

  • Ichidan verbs have a stem that doesn't change when conjugated. They often end in る, which is why some English textbooks refer to them as -ru verbs.
  • Godan verbs do require a stem change, and step through the five vowel sounds to do so. English textbooks call these -u verbs because of that.

I'm going to stay away from the -ru and -u verb terminology because it makes not much sense. For one, some godan verbs end in -ru anyway! For another, what does -u mean? Nothing.

Q: How do I tell if something's ichidan or godan?

A: Practice and exposure. When you see ~いる or ~える, it's likely to be ichidan. Other than that, it's a matter of listening and reading a lot. Plenty of guides out there offer means and ways to help.

Sidenote: What The Hell Is This Table, K

The table lays out ways of getting a verb into a verb form. Japanese conjugates and agglutinates to do what it does. If you've done a classical language, this is all going to be pretty familiar. Take a stem, modify it a bit, throw some stuff on it, boom.

I'm going to lay out grammar based on the table because there are plenty of resources out there for when you want to learn precisely how to get to a particular verb form you're interested in. It's really good for two things in particular:
  • It builds on the 五十音;
  • It covers a bunch of the common verb forms;
  • It reminds us that there are more to verbs than just tense!
  • It reminds us that Japanese has a plain (dictionary) form and a polite form.

Sidenote: Dictionary versus Polite Form?!

Yup! Japanese comes in flavours. Plain, dictionary Japanese conjugates one way, polite Japanese in another. There's no real English equivalent. It's exactly what it says on the tin: a difference in formality and style with just some grammar to spice it up. There's more to it, but we don't need to worry about it for now.

Gotta Start Somewhere: Negative + Negative Past

Let's start with the top, あ-sound row of the table and practice negation. We'll get the most bang for your buck by practicing both plain and polite forms. This is a good time to just drill like a drone and memorise the sounds.


行く (い・く) To go





To not go



Negative past

Did not go



Dictionary Form

  • Negative: あ stem + ~ない

  • Negative past: あ stem  + ~なかった

Polite Form

  • Negative: い stem + ません

  • Negative past: い stem + ませんでした


う line verbs conjugate わ・い・う・え・お and not あ・い・う・え・お






  • 言う(い・う)

  • 起こる(お・こる)


食べる (た・べる) To eat





To not eat



Negative past

Did not eat



Ichidan verbs are even easier. Since the stem never changes, just take the stem (all you have to do is drop the る) and stick on the conjugation.

Dictionary Form

  • Negative: stem + ~ない

  • Negative past: stem  + ~なかった

Polite Form

  • Negative: stem + ません

  • Negative past: stem + ませんでした


  • いる

  • できる

  • 癒える(い・える)

All practice verbs come from either the song or the passage you picked! You'll notice there aren't many from your passage - that's because formal Japanese (moar polite! moar polite than polite Japanese!) has a whole different set of special-use verbs and conjugations. It's why I picked a song - it's easier to find actual examples of beginner grammar.

Drilling Practice

Pick as many as you want to drill from https://nihongoichiban.com/2011/08/21/list-of-all-verbs-for-the-jlpt-n5/ and practice.

Try to practice the whole range of sounds for godan verbs. For example:

  • - to meet

  • - to open

  • - to take out/to hand in

  • - to stand

  • - to die

  • - to live/to reside at

Most of all, let me know if this isn't helpful or is just plain confusing. It might function better as something supplementary to what's in regular textbooks!

As usual, feel free to ask all the things or post progress in the comments.

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