in-depth guide to japanese adjectives

Coloring in Your Japanese: An In-depth Guide to Japanese Adjectives and Conjugation

Why’s it so important to master Japanese adjectives?

Well, wouldn’t you like to describe how savory your favorite local cuisine is?

Or why “Shingeki no Kyojin” is so heartwrenching that you cried over every episode?

Then it’s high time you learned how to use these crucial parts of speech.

As soon as you start getting into full-on Japanese conversations, you’ll start to see the benefits of knowing how to use adjectives well.

Once you know these babies, you’ll be all set to engage in Japanese conversations with confidence.
 

 

Coloring in Your Japanese: An In-depth Guide to Japanese Adjectives

Introduction to Japanese Adjectives

Ah, adjectives. Often overlooked and underplayed. However, I learned their importance quickly when I began to study Japanese. Adjectives helped me describe my travel stories to my Japanese tutor, which filled in a lot of awkward pauses during study sessions.

As in English, Japanese adjectives come before the noun they’re describing. Think: bright lights, tall buildings or expensive food. There are two types of Japanese adjectives: い-adjectives and な-adjectives. With the exception of one, all い-adjectives and な-adjectives follow the same set of rules, so learning them is a cinch! Some textbooks will introduce a “third type of Japanese adjective” called a noun-adjective. These aren’t true adjectives, but are—as you guessed—nouns that modify a word just an adjective. Noun-adjectives use the particle の to modify another noun. For example, look at the following transformation:

病気 (びょうき) — sickness, illness.

病気の人 (びょうきのひと) — a sick person, a person who has an illness.

To make the most out of learning adjectives, find a learning style or technique that works best for you. Personally, I like to learn with a mixture of fun and practical resources. In order to memorize adjectives, I use flashcards and write down each word a couple of times while saying it out loud. Before you get started practicing, you’ll need to figure out what to practice!

Below I’ve provided a couple of key tips for identifying need-to-know adjectives.

Learn frequently-used adjectives

The cat is black… The building is tall… The new shoes are expensive…

Adjectives help you describe people, places, things and situations. They’re an essential part of conveying your thoughts and ideas, but for language learners the task can be a bit daunting. Usually we’re introduced to elementary adjectives like “dark” or “wide” — which are definitely essential, but won’t help you describe all your feels when your favorite manga spirals into a sudden plot twist.

Learn adjectives that are relevant to your life

Think of situations that will occur when you’re in Japan or speaking Japanese. Will you be asking for directions? If so, then you’ll benefit greatly from knowing adjectives such as “far” and “near.” Likewise, if you’re going to be shopping for clothes in Tokyo’s best boutiques or taste-testing local cuisine then adjectives like “expensive” and “reasonable,” or “spicy” and “refreshing” might suit you better. An example of useful adjectives are:

蒸し暑い (むしあつい) — hot and humid
香ばしい (こうばしい) — savory smelling
近い (ちかい) — short [distance], near, close
無一文 (むいちもん) — broke, penniless

Learn essential, common adjectives

There’s no getting around them. These are adjectives that you’ll need to know, especially if you’re studying for something like the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) or if you want to know what everyone’s talking about (which is kind of helpful). The good thing about these adjectives is that most learning resources will introduce them right off the bat! You can definitely expect to bump into these words from the very beginning:

高い (たかい) — high, tall, expensive
短い (みじかい) — short
遅い (おそい) — late, slow

Identify adjectives that you personally use most

I always turn to learning frequent adjectives when I’m feeling weighed down by “educational adjectives.” These are adjectives that you personally use in conversation on a frequent basis. Since I like to talk about gossip and fashion, my most frequent adjectives would probably be:

まずい — awkward, untimely, unpleasant
キモい (きもい) — gross, disgusting
(いき) — stylish, chic

Ultimately, the key is to add a mixture of useful, essential and frequent adjectives into your studies. This will help ensure that you’re getting a well-rounded vocabulary and that you won’t become bored with words like “good” and “bad” frequently popping up in your flashcards.

い-Adjectives

い-Adjectives (also called “True Adjectives” or “Pure Adjectives”) are adjectives that end in the kana character い. Note that not every adjective that ends in い is an い-adjective, but we’ll learn more about that in just a bit. Some examples of い-adjectives are:

速い (はやい) — fast
寒い (さむい) — cold
甘い (あまい) — sweet

い-adjectives come directly before the noun they’re describing, as you can see below:

彼女は速い走者だ。 (かのじょは はやい そうしゃだ。) — She’s a fast runner.
甘い食べ物が好きだよ。(あまい たべものが すきだよ。) — I love sweet food.

They can also be used alone, without a noun proceeding them:

今日は少し寒いね。(きょうは すこし さむいね。) — Today is a bit cold.
速いです。(はやいです。) — It’s fast.

How to Conjugate い-Adjectives

What makes い-adjectives so unique is the way that they’re conjugated. Conjugating an adjective means taking it from its plain form (fast) and changing its tense (was fast).

If you’re familiar with Japanese verbs, then learning how to conjugate い-adjectives is easy-peasy. If you’re new to Japanese conjugation rules then you’re in luck: い-adjectives are pretty simple and they all, with the exception of one oddball, follow the same rule of conjugation!

The rule? When conjugated, the character い is dropped and replaced with another ending.

Let’s take the adjective 安い (やすい) meaning “cheap.”

CasualNormal-Polite
Present安い
やすい
安いです
やすいです
Past安かった
やすかった
安かったです
やすかったです
Negative安くない
やすくない
安くありません
やすくありません
Past Negative安くなかった
やすくなかった  
安くありませんでした
やすくありませんでした

To say something “was cheap,” drop the last い in the word and add the suffix かった. This way, you’ll get 安かった (やすかった) — was cheap.

For example, take a look at this complete sentence: カメラは安かった (かめらはやすかった) — the camera was cheap.

We can follow the same rules for negative statements and form sentences like the following:

昨日、外は寒くなかった (きのう、そとは さくむなかった) — it wasn’t cold outside yesterday.

Very easy, right?

な-Adjectives

Now that you’ve conquered one type of adjective, it’s time to try your hand at another: な-adjectives (also called “Quasi Adjectives” or “Adjectival-Nouns”). These adjectives end in all sorts of characters including い. Some examples of な-adjectives are:

きれい — pretty, clean
元気 (げんき) — healthy, lively
 好き (すき) — like*

*Like in Japanese is an adjective, rather than a verb. Think of it as saying something is “favorable” or “desirable.” Instead of saying “I like something,” you’ll be expressing that something is desirable to you.

The character な is always placed between な-adjectives and nouns.

好きな料理 (すきな りょうり) — A favorite dish
彼は元気な子供ですね。(かれは げんきな こどもですね。) — He’s a lively child.

The character な can be dropped if no noun proceeds the adjective.

浴室はきれいですか? (よくしつは きれいですか?) — Is the bath clean?
好きです。(すきです。) — I like it.

How to Determine if an Adjective Is a な-Adjective

Before we continue, it’s good to know how to differentiate between an い-adjective and a な-adjective.

Look at how the adjective is written

  • In their plain form, all い-adjectives will end with the character い. See the following examples:

面白い (おもしろい) — interesting
新しい (あたらしい) — new
楽しい (たのしい) — fun

  • Most な-adjectives consist of only kanji characters or end in a kana character that isn’t い. See the following examples:

便利 (べんり) — convenient
静か (しずか) — quiet
有名 (ゆうめい) — famous

Look at the conjugation

The previous rules work for the majority of adjectives, but not all of them. When in doubt, look at the adjective’s conjugation. As you continue to study Japanese, you’ll hear な follow な-adjectives and you’ll use it automatically. If you watch dramas, you may develop the habit of looking off into the sunset and whispering to yourself, “きれいな…” (“beautiful…”).

Beware of い-adjectives

い-adjectives can be changed to な-adjectives. This is done when the last い is dropped from the い-adjective and replaced with な. This is only done when the adjective is placed right before the noun it describes. This is done with common い-adjectives such as big, 大きい (おおきい), and small, 小さい (ちいさい). For example:

大きな木 (おおきな き) — big tree
小さなカップ (ちいさな かっぷ) — tiny cup

Other than in songs, poetry and expressions, you won’t see い-adjectives take the form of な-adjectives — but it’s good to be aware.

How to Conjugate な-Adjectives

Do you know how to conjugate です? Then you already know how to conjugate な-adjectives!

な-adjectives can’t be conjugated alone. Instead, their tenses are indicated by conjugating です. For example, if you wanted to say something was convenient, you’d take the adjective convenient, 便利 (べんり), and use the past form of です to create 便利でした (べんりでした)—was convenient.

CasualNormal-Polite
Present
です
Pastだった
でした
Negativeではない
ではありません
Past Negativeではなかった
ではありませんでした

Some other examples are:

きれいでした — it was clean

お好み焼きは好きな料理だった。(おこのみやきは すきな りょうりだった。) — Okonomiyaki was (my) favorite dish.

Japan’s One and Only Irregular Adjective

Japan’s lonesome irregular adjective is いい.

いい is an い-adjective that means “good.” It’s derived from the word 良い (よい), meaning good.

いい appears in hiragana, while 良い is usually written in kanji. いい doesn’t conjugate, while 良い follows い-adjective’s conjugation rules:

CasualNormal-Polite
Present良い
よい
良いです
よいです
Past良かった
よかった
良かったです
よかったです
Negative良くない
よくない
良くありません
よくありません
Past Negative良くなかった
よくなかった   
良くありませんでした
よくありませんでした

The meaning between the two words changes slightly when conjugated.

良かったです (よかったです) would literally mean It was good,” but usually expresses that “something turned out all right,” or is used to say “thank goodness.”

Adjective Endings

In Japanese, a suffix is added to a verb or adjective to change its meaning. For example, by adding the suffix -くてたまりません (unbearably) to the adjective hot, 暑い (あつい), you’ll get:
暑くてたまりません (あつくて たまりません) — unbearably hot.

Many suffixes that are used with verbs can be used with adjectives. Now that you know some adjectives, it’s time to dress them up and really express yourself:

過ぎる (すぎる) — Too [adj]

Rules:

  • For い-adjectives, drop the final い.
  • For な-adjectives, omit です.

Examples:

  • 今日は暑過ぎる。(きょうは あつすぎる。) — It’s too hot today.
  • 私のフランス語は下手過ぎる。(わたしの ふらんすごは へたすぎる。) — My French is too poor.

そう — Looks like, seems like [adj]

Rules

  • For い-adjectives, drop the final い.
  • An い-adjective turns into a な-adjective when you add そう to it.
  • For な-adjectives, omit です.
  • いい becomes 良さそう (よさそう).
  • ない (negative form) becomes なさそう.

Examples

  • 彼女は高そうなドレスを着ていた。(かのじょは たかそうな どれすをきていた。) — She wore an expensive-looking dress.
  • 調子が良くなさそうですよ。(ちょうしが よくなさそう ですよ。) — You don’t look well.

くなる — Become [adj]

Rules

  • For い-adjectives, drop the final い.
  • For な-adjectives, omit です.

Examples

  • 明日は寒くなるでしょう。(あしたは さむくなるでしょう。) — It’ll probably become cold tomorrow.
  • 飲みやすくなる。(のみやすくなる。) — It’ll become easier to drink.

さ — the suffix “-ness” [adj]

Rules

  • This adds a degree or quality to an adjective.
  • For い-adjectives, drop the final い.
  • な-adjectives don’t often use this ending with some exceptions including (but not limited to): 便利さ (べんりさ) — convenience, 重要さ (じゅうようさ) — importance, 静かさ (しずかさ) — peacefulness.

Examples

  • 優しさ弱さを混同するなかれ。(やさしさと よわさをこんどうするなかれ。) — Don’t confuse kindness with weakness.
  • 私はホテルの快適さ便利さを楽しむのが好きよ。(わたしは ほてるの かいてきさと べんりさをたのしむのが すきよ。) — I like to enjoy the comfort and convenience of hotels.

ければ — If it is [adj]

Rules

  • For い-adjectives, drop the final い.
  • For な-adjectives, omit です and then add ならば or であれば.

Examples

  • 熱ければ、冷まして飲みなさい。 (あつければ、さまして のみなさい。) – If it’s hot, let it cool down before drinking it.
  • 明日暇であれば、一緒に行きましょうね。 (あした ひまであれば、いっしょに いきましょうね。) – If you’re free tomorrow, let’s go together

くなければ — If it is not [adj]

Rules

  • For い-adjectives, drop the final い.
  • For な-adjectives, use でなければ.

Examples

  • それがおいしくなければ、食べません。(それが おいしくなければ、たべません。) — If it’s not delicious, don’t eat it.
  • 病気でなければ、彼は来るだろう。(びょうきでなければ、かれは くるだろう。) — If he’s not ill, he’ll come.

All right, you just took in a lot of information. You may be feeling overwhelmed at the thought of more types of adjectives to learn. Maybe it’s time to take a quick break and finish that anime you were watching.

I’m a person who relies on repetition to help memorize new vocabulary and grammar. If you’re having trouble attaching so many adjective endings to your new list of vocabulary, try introducing just one or two suffixes for the time being. Think of which adjective ending you’ll use often. If you’re constantly breaking the ice with the weather, try すぐい (too): “Summers in the city are too hot, don’t you think?” “I loved Canada, but it was a little too cold.”

If you don’t know which adjective ending to choose first, then I’d suggest another great adjective ending, そう (seems like, looks like). If you’re talking about an upcoming anime (“Attack on Titan” season 2, anyone?) then そう will help you could say, “It looks exciting!” Or maybe you happen to spot some savory dish being cooked on the streets in Asakusa. “That looks delicious!” would definitely come in handy.

And viola! Now you can describe your cake and eat it too.

 

 

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