Center for Japanese Language Education,the University of Tokyo

Verbs and their inflections

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When you have just begun to study Japanese, learning verbs may seem very easy. "Nomimasu/ nomimashita/ nomimasen/ nomimasendeshita". Present and past, affirmative and negative, all forms share the part "nomimas", and you only need small changes at the end. It seems that you can say almost anything with this. Japanese should be quite simple... However, when you proceed in studying Japanese, there are various forms such as "nomu", "nomanai", "nonde", where the unchanged part is only "nom" (in case of "nonde", only "no"). It is so difficult to learn so many changes! What you have learned until now, "Nomimasu/ nomimashita/ nomimasen/ nomimasendeshita", were all somewhat similar because they were in the same group of "nomimas"; but actually, there are groups other than "nomimas". Sigh... So, this is why some people feel studying Japanese at this stage is difficult, but this stage 窶? the stage of learning the basics of verb inflection 窶? is the most important. On this site, I would like to elaborate on verbs, emphasizing some key points to study at this stage.

1. Verbs change in various ways

On the site "What are the characteristics of Japanese?" I elaborated on some grammatical characteristics of Japanese, and as one of them, I mentioned that this language puts various elements after the verb.

Not only negative and tense, but also the elements such as potential, causative, passive, and modality ("may" "must" "let's" in English) are put after verbs. Let's go over the examples with the same word "nomu" (drink). "nomanai" (negative), "nonda" (past), "nondeiru" (progressive), "nomeru" (potential), "nomaseru" (causative), "nomareru" (passive), "nomudaroo" (conjectural), "nomoo" (intention) etc. are changed forms.

I did not mentioned on the site "What are the characteristics of Japanese?", but when connecting two clauses, the verb in the first clause changes according to the next clause, such as "nomeba" (if I drink, ...), "nomunode" (because I drink, ...).

It is very common to put various elements together, such as "nom-e-na-katta-node" (because I could not drink; potential+negative+past+reason).

If you regard the forms that include all of these elements as inflected verb forms, it could be said that Japanese verbs change in many different ways.

2. The four basic forms

This is why it is essential to learn such changes of verbs (called "inflections") when studying Japanese. It may seem difficult, but actually it is easy if you get a hold of the rules as you familiarize yourself with them. Today, I will give you some advice.

It is true that there are so many verb forms if you count complex cases like "nom-e-na-katta-node", but there are only few basic forms . The most basic forms are the following 4 types. I will describe them using the verbs "nomu" (drink) and "taberu" (eat).

(1) Dictionary form (e.g. "nomu" "taberu")
(2) Masu-form (e.g. "nomimasu" "tabemasu")
(3) Nai-form (e.g. "nomanai" "tabenai")
(4) Te-form (e.g. "nonde" "tabete")

(1) is the infinitive form, which you find in a dictionary, (3) is the negative form, (2) and (4) are the most frequently used forms. Now, I will call them the four basic forms. (The four basic forms are not "Nomimasu/ nomimashita/ nomimasen/ nomimasendeshita" that you learned at the very beginning. These are categorized in group (2). Besides group (2), there are groups (1) (3) and (4).) Once you learn the four basic forms, it is not difficult to apply them to other forms. On the other hand, without learning them, it is difficult to improve. Learning the four basic forms 窶? especially, te-form, which is the most complicated窶? is the most important point at the very beginning stages of studying Japanese. When I mentioned earlier that "the stage when you learn the basics of verb inflection is the most important", I meant the stage at which you learn these four basic forms. This stage is the first turning point to success or failure in studying Japanese. Don't worry, though. There are rules for inflection (please learn them in a class), so once you learn the rules, there is no problem. It is only when you do not learn the rules, or underestimate the importance of them, that can lead you to failure (and I must say that I am writing this text for those students who I meet once in a while).

3. Inflection types - Type I and Type II -

I have mentioned earlier the four basic forms of "nomu" and "taberu".

nomu / nomimasu / nomanai / nonde"
"taberu / tabemasu / tabenai / tabete"

You can see that the inflection is different for "nomu" and "taberu". "How come? What about the rule?" you might think. Actually, the inflection types of "nomu" and "taberu" are different. "Nomu" is classified as Type I, and "taberu" as Type II. Vowels change in Type I, but the verb does not change in Type II. (For those familiar with traditional grammatical terms, Type I is "godan verbs", and Type II is "ichidan verbs".) Each Type has rules of inflection.

How many types are there? Some of you may say "If there are 10 or 20 types of inflection, I will never study Japanese!" but there is no need to worry. Most of the verbs can be classified into Type I or II. Besides these two types, there is Type III, but this consists of only two words, "suru (do)" and "kuru (come)" ( and their compound words ) so it is easy to distinguish them. Further, these can be regarded as exceptions. All other verbs can be classified into Type I or II. Some languages have dozens of verb inflection types, so in this sense, Japanese is an easy language to learn.

4. How to distinguish inflection types

Now, the important thing is how to distinguish the inflection types of verbs. You must understand how to distinguish them, or else you cannot inflect the verbs correctly. How can you do this? But again, there is no need to worry. There are rules that you can follow to distinguish inflection types.

If the last three letters of the dictionary form are "-eru" or "-iru", then the verb is Type II. Otherewise, the verb is Type I.

For example, "okiru (get up, wake up)" and "neru (go to bed, sleep)" are Type II, "hanasu (speak)" and "kiku (listen, hear)" are Type I. Once you know the inflection type, then inflect the verb according to the rules.

5. Familiarize yourself with the dictionary form

In this way it is easy to distinguish inflection types from dictionary forms, but from masu-forms it is impossible to distinguish them. If the masu-form is "-emasu", then the verb is Type II, but if the masu-form is "-imasu", there is no way of distinguishineg the verb type. For example, "okimasu" could be type I ("oku" in dictionary form), or Type II ("okiru" in dictionary form). In this case, both verbs exist, "oku" is to put, and "okiru" is to get up or wake up. Needless to say, there are many cases where just one of the two types exist, but, you cannot tell which.

As a conclusion, you need to distinguish inflection types from dictionary forms, and it is impossible to distinguish them from masu-forms in principle. This means that if you learn the dictionary forms, you can automatically distinguish the inflection types. This is why you should learn verbs in the dictionary form to expand your verb vocabulary.

Masu-forms are used at the very early stage of studying Japanese, so some students tend to think that masu-form is the most familiar form, and they learn verbs in masu-form, think in masu-form, and inflect the words always in masu-form, even after learning the dictionary form. However, it is advisable to think in dictionary form. This is very useful when you look up a word in a dictionary or when you distinguish the inflection type. Japanese native speakers think in dictionary form, and getting used to it is also very effective for international students when they want to improve their Japanese skill. (In our center, we teach dictionary forms from an early stage. This has been very efficient.)

6. Exceptions to the rules of distinguishing inflection types

I can hear some of you say, "Okay, I understood so far, but aren't there exceptions to the rules of distinguishing inflection types?" Well, to be honest, there are quite a few exceptions. There are some words where the last three letters in dictionary form are "-iru" or "-eru" but belong to Type I. But although there are quite a few exceptions in Japanese on the whole, the words used at the beginner level from those exceptions are only 5-10 words, such as "kaeru (return)", "hairu (enter)", "hashiru (run)", "kiru (cut)", and "shiru (know)". I do not think these are too many, what do you think? (In traditional grammatical terms, the exceptions listed above are ra-gyo godan verbs where the vowel before "ru" is "i" or "e". The inflection itself is regular, but their forms may be mixed up with ichidan verbs.)

7. Learning the te-form could be the turning point of Japanese learning

As I have explained so far, the inflection type of a verb can be distinguished from its dictionary form, and then it is possible to make the four basic forms according to the rules. But the most difficult of the four forms is the te-form. The te-form has many sub-types within Type I. Please learn about these further in class. Again, it has clear rules, so I advise you to practice repeatedly with the rules in mind. The te-form can be seen in many usages such as "-teiru (be ...ing)", "-tekudasai (please ...)", "-temoii (may)", so to be able to use the te-form with ease in the early stages of studying Japanese is a must to improve later on. The Te-form is the most difficult and most frequently used form of the four basic forms, so learning it or not is the most important turning point at the beginning stage for successfully learning Japanese.

I have elaborated on the importance of verb inflection. To learn grammatical rules logically, and to put them into use by practicing them and getting familiar with them are both necessary. Try your best!

Points: Advise for Japanese learners (2)
Verb inflection is one of the most important points at the beginning stage.
1. Distinguish the inflection types (there are rules).
* Distinguish according to the dictionary form.
2. Learn the formation of the four basic forms of each inflection type thoroughly (there are rules).
3. Familiarize yourself with the dictionary form.

* The contents of this page are almost the same as the article "Learn the characteristics of Japanese language and study effectively (2) : Verb and its inflection" by KIKUCHI Yasuto (Professor of the International Center, the University of Tokyo) in International Center News, The University of Tokyo, No.34.

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