5 Japanese Grammar Rules That Aren’t as Hard as They Look
Some people say Japanese is a difficult language to learn.
In my opinion, it’s not as hard as they make it out to be.
And the proof is in the grammar.
This quick-and-dirty guide will de-mystify Japanese grammar rules and demonstrate why they’re easier than they look.
- 1. Japanese Sentence Structure
- 2. Japanese Verb Conjugation
- 3. Japanese Adjective Conjugation
- 4. Conjugating Japanese Words According to Politeness
- 5. Japanese Particles: The Basics
1. Japanese Sentence Structure
Japanese sentence structure is certainly different from its English counterpart. But it’s no less logical. Once you get the hang of it, you might even think it makes more sense than English!
In English, the sentence structure is subject + verb + object.
In Japanese, it’s subject + object + verb.
Take the following sentence, for example:
He ate sushi.
Following the English structure, it’s subject (he) + verb (ate) + object (sushi).
But in Japanese, that same sentence would be:
Word-for-word translation: He sushi ate.
See the difference in order?
At this point, you may get weirded out as a beginner.
A little practice will make it second nature, I promise.
Just remember that, according to Japanese grammar rules, verbs always come at the end of a sentence.
2. Japanese Verb Conjugation
Conjugation is just another word for “plug and play.”
In English, for example, “eat” becomes “eating,” “ate,” “will eat,” “did eat,” “was eating” and so on.
In every language, there are different types of verbs—and Japanese is no different.
When it comes to conjugating Japanese words, remember that stem + base + ending = conjugation.
Now, let’s move on to Japanese verbs!
食べる (たべる) or “to eat” is an example of a Japanese vowel-stem verb.
When you conjugate it, 食べる becomes:
Though the exact translation of certain words may differ depending on the context, you’ve probably noticed a pattern.
All of the above begin with 食べ (たべ)-, which would be the stem of the verb. The second part of the above words is the ending of the verb.
So you plug the stem 食べ– and the ending – た and you get 食べた (again, the past form of 食べる), for instance.
On the other hand, here’s how you’d conjugate the consonant-stem verb, 書く
(かく) (to write):
In this case, the verb stem 書 ( か ) is followed by – い , a base.
Unlike European languages, which have many irregular verbs that require lots and lots of memorization, Japanese only has two: 来る (くる – to come) and する (to do). I suggest you go here for a more in-depth guide on conjugating Japanese verbs.
Essentially, to conjugate in Japanese, you just need to learn which bases and endings go with which types of verbs. All of these bases and stems can be boiled down to a single chart that fits on one page.
The Verb “Desu”
です , the Japanese verb for “is,” is perhaps the most common verb in the language. But since it only has a few basic conjugations, it isn’t treated the same as other verbs.
By the way, I’m using the informal form of verbs to keep things as simple as possible.
Here are some of the ways to conjugate です:
Things may start looking a little complicated if you’re completely new to Japanese but don’t worry. It’s not.
Conjugating です follows the same intuitive rules as any other verb: stem + base + ending.
3. Japanese Adjective Conjugation
Adjectives are conjugated in much the same way as verbs. Simply add an ending and you’ve got a new meaning.
Since we’ve been talking about eating, we might as well keep talking about food.
(This sushi is delicious.)
To conjugate the adjective おいしい , we can use adjective stems and adjective endings, like these:
- おいしくない — not delicious
- おいしかった — was delicious
- おいしくなかった — wasn’t delicious
- おいしかったら — if it’s delicious
- おいし過ぎる (おいしすぎる) — too delicious
As you can see, it’s the same process as verb conjugation—just plug in stems, bases and endings. And since many of the adjective endings are the same as verb endings, adjective conjugations become that much easier to memorize.
4. Conjugating Japanese Words According to Politeness
Expressing politeness is another unique feature of Japanese.
Depending on who you’re talking to (whether you’re speaking to elders, children or equals), you’ll want to convey different levels of respect.
In English, we use the same concept. When speaking to a boss, we’d be more polite than when speaking to a subordinate, siblings or friends. Typically, we use different words.
But in Japanese, levels of respect and formality are integrated into the language. Fortunately, to learn these formal speech patterns, you just need to learn a few simple conjugations.
For example, when speaking with friends in an informal context, it’s perfectly acceptable to use 食べる without any suffix.
But to increase the level of politeness, you simply add the ending – ます , which can then be plug-and-play conjugated just like other verb forms.
For instance, 食べる would become:
- 食べます (たべます) — polite form of “eat”
- 食べました (たべました) — ate
- 食べません — don’t eat
- 食べませんでした (たべませんでした) — didn’t eat
The point here is that conjugation is really one of the most basic, biggest rules underlying Japanese grammar rules. Once you understand how to plug stems, bases and endings together, playing around with the language becomes easy and fun.
And the more you interact with the language by using something like FluentU’s immersion program to watch authentic Japanese videos, the better you’ll understand all these concepts.
Now, on to another defining feature of Japanese grammar: particles!
5. Japanese Particles: The Basics
Particles are another feature of Japanese grammar rules that often strike Westerners as unusual or different.
Think of particles as “markers” that tell the relationship of a word to the whole sentence. As with conjugation, learning particles just takes some practice and memorization.
All you need to know is that particles always go after the word they are modifying.
For instance, consider again the sentence, “He ate sushi.”
In the above sentence, there are two particles, は and を .
- The は particle is the topic marker. It tells us what we’re talking about.
- The を particle is the object marker and tells us the object of the transitive verb 食べた.
Other particles can function as prepositions, question markers and so on:
- The particle の is like an ‘s or the word “of” in English. That is, it denotes possession. “His pen” becomes 彼のペン (かれのぺん).
- The particle に is like the directional “to” in English. “He went to the store” becomes 彼は店に行った (かれは みせにいった).
- The particle から is a directional indicator, “from.” “He came from the store” becomes 彼は店から来た (かれは みせからきた).
- The common particle か
turns any sentence into a question. “Did he eat sushi?” becomes 彼は寿司を食べたか？
Notice that there are no tricks when you turn sentences into questions. In English, for example, you need to add words and move things around every time you create a question. When “He ate” is turned into a question, it becomes “Did he eat?”
In Japanese, however, you simply add the particle “か” to the end of any statement and it becomes a question. As with conjugation, particles simply need to be plugged into a sentence at the right place. There are no irregularities or hidden surprises.
Hopefully, you start to get the sense that Japanese is a very logical language. Once you understand how conjugation works, it’s simply a matter of practice before everything falls into place.
Learning Japanese grammar rules as soon as possible can make your life much easier. And with grammar on your tool belt, your language ability will skyrocket!