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Verbs are really the essence of Japanese. Despite the fact that there are essentially only two tenses (present and past), there are far more verb forms in Japanese than in English-- or even in Latin. These forms convey shades of meaning, emotion, condition, and other factors that are usually imparted through the addition of extra words to English sentences. You must understand verbs if you are to master even basic Japanese.
The following sections cover some of the aspects of Japanese verbs that are most important. You will need outside references to get the full picture, plus lots of practice with reading and listening.
There is no word for "not" in Japanese. This means that sentences are negated in different ways than in English, where we just stick a "not" in the appropriate place. But don't worry; it's not too hard.
Sentences are negated by using a different form of the verb. If you are using polite language, where verbs all end in -masu, it is stunningly easy. Present-tense negation means changing -masu to -masen. Past-tense polite verbs all end in -mashita, which is negated by making it -masendeshita.
So, for example, "I eat dinner at 6 pm" is Watashi wa roku-ji ni ban-gohan o tabemasu. To negate it ("...do not eat..."), just use tabemasen. Past tense ("...ate..."): tabemashita. Past negative ("...did not eat..."): tabemasendeshita.
Life's a little more complicated with plain-form (casual, or "dictionary form") verbs, but they are all predictable, at least. Present-tense plain verbs end in -nai. Past tense plain-form verbs have the same endings as the -te form of verbs, except you use -ta instead of -te. Past-tense plain form uses -nakatta. All the gory details are given below, where I write out complete conjugations of a couple of verbs.
One thing that's great about Japanese is how logical all the verb forms are. There are two major classes (plus a third that only contains two verbs), and they all conjugate exactly predictably. All you have to know is the root verb (taberu in the case of "eat," used above) and which of the two classes it belongs to (semi-regular or "ru-dropping" in the case of taberu), and you're set! You know all the conjugal forms of that verb. (When you see the list below, you will be amazed at how many forms there are, but don't be daunted. They're all predictable).
One of the first "verbs" you will learn is desu. This is a polite form (the corresponding casual form is da, which is really a contraction of de aru), and it is used in sentences where the subject is "equated" to the predicate-- such as "I am a student" (Watashi wa gakusei desu).
It is important to realize, however, that desu is not really a verb. It is in fact a "copula," which is just a fancy term for "the grammatical structure that is used when the subject is equated to the predicate." (So it's basically an equals sign). Now, I know that I promised not to get into theoretical linguistics, but this is worth mentioning. Almost all languages have a copula because it's so important to be able to make sentences that are like equations. But not all languages have a copula that is a verb, and even if they do, it may not be the same as the verb used for existence (the verb "to be"). "Be" is the English copula.
In English, "be" meaning "exists" is the same as "be" meaning "equals." These two sentences both use the verb "to be":
The fish is white ("be" as "equals")
The fish is in the tank ("be" as "exists")
It seems like a silly distinction-- "be-as-equals" versus "be-as-exists"-- but that's only because of your perspective as an English speaker. Many languages, including Japanese, have separate words for these two types of "be."
Desu (or da) is not strictly a verb. It conjugates like a verb so you can tell what tense the sentence is, but it has no "verbiness" to it when relating to other grammatical structures in the sentence. You'll see examples of this later. Desu's negative is expressed as dewa arimasen, its past as deshita, and its negative past as dewa arimasendeshita.
I should add also that it's a little misleading to think of the copula as desu, just because you usually learn this form first as a polite foreign student. In fact, the copula is de aru. This is the preferred form in writing, and it is contracted to da in casual speech. De aru is especially confusing because it is very similar to aru, one of the verbs that mean "be-as-exists."
"Be-as-exists" is further subdivided into two true verbs. Aru is for inanimate objects (nonliving and plants), and iru is for animate objects (animals and people). These have predictable -masu forms, but aru has two exceptional forms: its present negative is nai and its past negative is nakatta.
No need to worry about details now, but just keep in the back of your head that desu is not really a true verb. You'll see more of this in the "Adjectives" chapter, when desu is used solely for politeness with certain "adjectives" that already contain a real verb in them.
English verbs are much fussier than Japanese verbs about temporal relations. We have many different verb forms to express the exact time relationships between events. "Go," "will go," "am going," "have gone," "had gone," "will have gone," and "went" all express different concepts and for the most part cannot be substituted for each other in English. My personal favorite is "will have been going." That's four verbs stacked up! I have the feeling that Japanese people would find this construction difficult to understand, as well as totally ludicrous.
We English speakers are very careful to express ideas in the right temporal order. For example, we say, "I was nervous because I had not asked permission." Using "had not asked" places that action farther in the past then "was nervous." But when you think about it, this is overly precise. Since you are saying "because," it is obvious that not asking occurred before being nervous-- it is the cause. And yet, we use these definite verb forms that give unambiguous temporal order.
Japanese doesn't worry so much about time relationships. You get that from context. For instance, there is no present perfect ("have gone") or past perfect ("had gone") tense. And the future ("will go") is the same as the simple present ("go"). There is also a present progressive ("am going") and a simple past ("went").
In Japanese, the sentence "If my husband had seen it, he would have been surprised," is the same as the sentence, "If my husband saw it, he was probably surprised." (Shujin ga sore o mitara odoroita deshou).
Thus, time is not the focus of Japanese verbs. What is the focus? Verbs express very subtle and important details about the speaker's beliefs, wishes, and general knowledge of the situation. You must use different verb endings and/or associated particles to express:
volition ("I expect to do this soon")
strong volition ("I intend to do this")
desire to do something
recommendations/suggestions to the listener
belief that something may occur
strong belief that something will occur
ability to do something
asking permission to do something
commands (which come in at least four forms, depending on politeness level and other things)
invitations/offers to do something
belief that an occurance was regrettable
We can express all these concepts in English, of course. But we don't generally do so by changing the ending on the verb. We would just add extra words to the sentence.
As a thoughtful aside, I wonder what it's like for a Japanese speaker to try to grasp English verb forms. What must it be like to encounter a language that doesn't have so many verb forms related to the speaker's knowledge and beliefs, but instead places great importance on temporal relationships?
I've made enough oblique references to the vast array of verb conjugations that it's time I wrote some out explicitly. Below you will find the conjugations of two types of verbs.
U-dropping verbs are all verbs that do not end in -eru or -iru, plus a few that do. Ru-dropping verbs are most verbs that end in -eru or -iru. They conjugate slightly differently (ru-dropping ones are actually easier, even though they're sometimes called "semi-regular," while u-dropping verbs are called "regular"). There are also two irregular verbs-- kuru (to come) and suru (to do). You just memorize these forms.
Conjugation of a u-dropping verb: kaku, to write (note that the meanings of polite forms are the same as the equivalent plain form):
Plain (abrupt) form, present, affirmative: kaku (write, will write)
Plain form, present, negative: kakanai (will not write)
Plain form, past, affirmative: kaita (wrote, have written, had written, did write)
Plain form, past, negative: kakanakatta (did not write, have not written, had not written)
Polite form, present, affirmative: kakimasu
Polite form, present, negative: kakimasen
Polite form, past, affirmative: kakimashita
Polite form, past, negative: kakimasendeshita
Te form, affirmative: kaite --used for a variety of forms, including progressive forms (am writing, was writing), polite commands (kaite kudasai), asking permission (kaite mo ii desu ka?), and many others.
Te form, negative: kakanakute
Imperative: kake (don't use this; see the Politeness chapter)
Conditional, plain form, affirmative: kakeba or kaitara (if I write, if I will write, etc) -- the -ra form is preferable in cases where "when" is more appropriate than "if"
Conditional form, plain, negative: kakanakereba or kakanakattara (if I do not write, if I did not write, etc)
Conditional form, polite, affirmative: kakimashitara
Conditional form, polite, negative: kakimasendeshitara
Presumptive form, plain, affirmative: kaku darou (will probably write)
Presumptive form, plain, negative: kakanai darou (will probably not write)
Presumptive form, polite, affirmative: kaku deshou
Presumptive form, polite, negative: kakanai deshou
Volitional form, plain: kakou (let us write)
Volitional form, polite: kakimashou
Potential form, plain, affirmative: kakeru (able to write)
Potential form, plain, negative: kakenai (not able to write)
Potential form, polite, affirmative: kakemasu
Potential form, polite, negative: kakemasen
Passive form, plain, affirmative: kakareru (is written)
Passive form, plain, negative: kakarenai (was written)
Passive form, polite, affirmative: kakaremasu
Passive form, polite, negative: kakaremasen
Causative form, plain, affirmative: kakaseru (is made to write, was made to write)
Causative form, plain, negative: kakasenai (is not made to write, was not made to write)
Causative form, polite, affirmative: kakasemasu
Causative form, polite, negative: kakasemasen
Causative-passive form, plain, affirmative: kakasareru (was made to write and was adversely affected by it)
Causative-passive form, plain, negative: kakasarenai (was not made to write and was adversely affected by it)
Causative-passive form, polite, affirmative: kakasaremasu
Causative-passive form, polite, negative: kakasaremasen
Exalted: okaki ni naru
Humble: okaki suru or okaki itasu
Got all that? OK, you're ready for an ru-dropping verb: let's do taberu, to eat.
Plain (abrupt) form, present, affirmative: taberu (eat, will eat)
Plain form, present, negative: tabenai (will not eat)
Plain form, past, affirmative: tabeta (ate, have eaten, had eaten, did eat)
Plain form, past, negative: tabenakatta (did not eat, have not eaten, had not eaten)
Polite form, present, affirmative: tabemasu
Polite form, present, negative: tabemasen
Polite form, past, affirmative: tabemashita
Polite form, past, negative: tabemasendeshita
Te form, affirmative: tabete --used for a variety of forms, including progressive forms (am eating, was eating), polite commands (tabete kudasai), asking permission (tabete mo ii desu ka?), and many others.
Te form, negative: tabenakute
Imperative: tabero (don't use this; see the Politeness chapter)
Conditional, plain form, affirmative: tabereba or tabetara (if I eat, if I will eat, etc) -- the -ra form is preferable in cases where "when" is more appropriate than "if"
Conditional form, plain, negative: tabenakareba or tabenakattara (if I do not eat, if I did not eat, etc)
Conditional form, polite, affirmative: tabemashitara
Conditional form, polite, negative: tabemasendeshitara
Presumptive form, plain, affirmative: taberu darou (will probably eat)
Presumptive form, plain, negative: tabenai darou (will probably not eat)
Presumptive form, polite, affirmative: taberu deshou
Presumptive form, polite, negative: tabenai deshou
Volitional form, plain: tabeyou (let us eat)
Volitional form, polite: tabemashou
Potential form, plain, affirmative: taberareru or tabereru (able to eat)
Potential form, plain, negative: taberarenai (not able to eat)
Potential form, polite, affirmative: taberaremasu
Potential form, polite, negative: taberaremasen
Passive form, plain, affirmative: taberareru (is eaten) -- note same as potential form
Passive form, plain, negative: taberarenai (was not eaten)
Passive form, polite, affirmative: taberaremasu
Passive form, polite, negative: taberaremasen
Causative form, plain, affirmative: tabesaseru (is made to eat, was made to eat)
Causative form, plain, negative: tabesasenai (is not made to eat, was not made to eat)
Causative form, polite, affirmative: tabesasemasu
Causative form, polite, negative: tabesasemasen
Causative-passive form, plain, affirmative: tabesaserareru (was made to eat and was adversely affected by it)
Causative-passive form, plain, negative: tabesaserarenai (was not made to eat and was adversely affected by it)
Causative-passive form, polite, affirmative: tabesaseraremasu
Causative-passive form, polite, negative: tabesaseraremasen
Exalted: otabe ni naru or otabe nasaru or meshiagaru
(Note that the exalted and humble forms of this verb are a little different than usual-- I'll say a bit more about honorifics in general in the Politeness chapter).
Whew! You see that there are nearly a jillion forms. The only saving grace is that they are almost totally predictable. There are very few exceptions in Japanese. So it's a somewhat painful process to get to the point where you know exactly which verb form to use and how to conjugate the verb stem in real time, but once you do, you can say any form of any verb where you know the stem (and whether it's u-dropping or ru-dropping, if it isn't clear).
Verbs are not this complicated in English. Keep in mind also that many of these verbs have different meanings depending which auxiliary words they are used with (like particles or adverbs). Also, many of them have multiple meanings that are only clear when you see the word written in kanji. More on that in the Written Japanese chapter.
Remember I said above that you can conjugate any verb once you know its "stem" and whether it is u-dropping or ru-dropping. The basic stem of a u-dropping verb is everything before the "u" and the stem of an ru-dropping verb is everything before the "ru" (there are other stems, actually, such as the "combining stem," but that's getting technical. Maybe there will be more on this later). Knowing the stem (or the plain form) means you can conjugate the verb into all its multitude of other forms.
The thing is, you can't go backwards in many cases. If you hear the -masu or -te form of a verb, you don't know the stem!
Say I tell you that there is a verb kaerimasu. What's the plain form? It could be kaeru, if the verb were u-dropping (one of the rare ones where it ends in -eru but is u-dropping nonetheless). Or it could be kaeriru, an ru-dropping verb. (In fact it's the first-- kaeru means "to go home", "to return", or "to change").
-Te forms are also a bit ambiguous. You change to the -te form from the plain form through a simple algorithm.
change -ku to -ite
change -gu to -ide
change -mu, -nu, and -bu to -nde
change -su to -shite
change -ru, -tsu, and -u preceeded by a vowel to -tte
change -ru to -te
suru becomes shite
kuru becomes kite
So if I tell you kaite, you can guess kaku, although it might be kairu (ru-dropping). (It's the first). And who knows with yonde-- that could be yomu, yobu, or yonu. (In fact, the first two are real verbs-- "to read" and "to call").
There are also a few exceptions-- for instance, iku (to go) becomes itte instead of iite, which means it's the same as the -te form of iu (to say).
It's really important to know whether a verb is u-dropping or ru-dropping. Iru can be u-dropping (to need) or ru-dropping (to be). The same for kiru-- to cut (u-dropping) or to wear (ru-dropping).
Polite form of kiru (to cut): kirimasu. Polite form of kiru (to wear): kimasu. (Don't confuse this with the polite form of the irregular verb kuru, which is also kimasu).
Verbs, verbs, verbs!!
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