the “scariest” japanese grammar rules de-mystified

Taming the Lion: The “Scariest” Japanese Grammar Rules De-mystified

Some people say that Japanese is a hard language.

But those people have probably never studied it.

Yes, Japanese is very different from English and other Western languages. The writing system is different, the grammar is different and the sentence structure is different.

But it isn’t really that hard.

And the proof is in the grammar.

Here are a few reasons why it’s actually easier to learn than other languages:

  • There are only two main tenses: present and past. Verb endings and context help indicate other meanings.
  • Verbs always come at the end of a sentence.
  • There are almost no masculine and feminine forms of words, as there are in some other Western languages.
  • There are very few irregularities in the language and only two irregular verbs.

In less than 15 minutes, this quick and dirty guide will de-mystify Japanese grammar rules and demonstrate why the language’s grammar is so easy.
 


 

Taming the Lion: The “Scariest” Japanese Grammar Rules De-mystified

Learn a foreign language with videos

The First So-called “Scary” Rule: Sentence Structure

Japanese sentence structure is certainly different from English sentence structure. But it’s no less logical. And once you get the hang of it, you might even think it makes more sense than English. So let’s get started!

In English, the sentence structure is subject + verb + object. But in Japanese, the verb comes last, so sentences are ordered subject, object, verb. Take the following sentence, for example:

He ate sushi.

It clearly shows English structure: subject (he) + Verb (ate) + Object (sushi). But in Japanese that same sentence would be:

彼は寿司を食べた。(かれは すしをたべた。)
Literally: He sushi ate.

See the difference in order? Subject, Object, Verb. That’s how all Japanese sentences are organized.

At this point, many beginners get weirded out.

But don’t!

A little practice will make it second nature, I promise.

As mentioned, just remember that verbs always come at the end of a sentence.

The “Scariest” Rule: Stem + Base + Ending = Conjugation

Conjugation is just another word for “plug and play.”

In English, look at it this way: “Eat” becomes “eating,” “ate,” “will eat,” “did eat,” “was eating” and so on.

In Japanese, the same would be that 食べる (たべる) becomes 食べている (たべている), 食べた (たべた), 食べる (たべる), 食べた (たべた), 食べていた (たべていた) and so on.

Though the exact translation of certain words may differ depending on the context, you have probably noticed a pattern. All the above translations 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 ­ and you get 食べた, which is “ate” in English.

Simple plug-and-play.

You may have noticed that in English the past tense of “eat” isn’t “eated.” And this brings up a good point. In every language, there are different types of verbs.

This is true for Japanese as well.

There are three types of verbs in Japanese: vowel-stem, consonant-stem and irregular verbs.

The verb 食べる is a vowel-stem verb.

Here’s how you would conjugate the consonant-stem verb, 書く (かく) (to write):

書いている (かいている), 書いた (かいた), 書く (かく), 書いた (かいた), 書いていた (かいていた) and so on.

In this case, the verb stem 書 (か) is followed by – -, a base.

This is conjugation in a nutshell. If you only take one thing away from this article, this should be it!

Here it is again: Stem + base + ending = conjugation.

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 won’t go over them here, but I will say that learning them is a piece of cake.

To learn conjugation, 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

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. です comes in four flavors: is, isn’t, was, wasn’t.

By the way, for those nitpickers out there, I’m using the informal form of verbs to keep things as simple as possible.

Here’s one easy way to conjugate this: です, でない, でした, でなかった.

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.

Conjugating Adjectives

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, why not keep it up and talk about food?

この寿司はおいしい (このすしは おいしい)
(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, おいしかった, おいしくなかった, おいしかったら, おいし過ぎる (おいしすぎる) and so forth. Respectively, these mean: “not delicious,” “wasn’t delicious,” “if it’s delicious” and “too delicious.”

As you can see, it’s the same process as verb conjugation, just plugging 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.

Politeness

Expressing politeness is another unique feature of Japanese.

Depending on who you talk 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’ll be more polite than when speaking to a subordinate, to siblings, or to our 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 the word 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, “eat,” “ate,” and “didn’t eat” would become 食べます (たべます), 食べました (たべました), 食べませんでした (たべませんでした).

The End of Conjugation

Does all this sound a bit complicated?

If so, it’s probably because Japanese is a foreign language. Languages do require a bit of work, after all.

The point here is that conjugation is really one of the most basic, biggest rules underlying Japanese grammar. Once you understand how to plug stems, bases and endings together, playing around with the language becomes easy and fun.

Now, on to another defining feature of Japanese grammar: particles!

Particles: Even Easier Than Conjugation

Particles are another feature of Japanese grammar 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.”

彼は寿司を食べた。(かれは すしをたべた。)

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?(かれは すしをたべたか?).

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.

“He ate,” turned into a question, becomes “Did he eat?”

In Japanese, however, you simply add the particle か to the end of any statement and it becomes a question. And, as with conjugation, particles simply need to be plugged into a sentence at the right place. There are no irregularities or hidden surprises.

Japanese Grammar De-mystified

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 and time before everything falls into place.

Learning Japanese grammar as soon as possible can make your life much easier. And with grammar on your tool belt, you’ll see your language ability skyrocket!
 


 

Oh, and One More Thing…

For a fun way to learn Japanese grammar (and more!) naturally, definitely try out FluentU to get yourself comfortable listening to native Japanese speakers.

FluentU is an innovative site (and app) that takes real-world videos—like commercials, anime, music videos, TV shows and home videos—and transforms them into powerful Japanese learning tools.

The FluentU app has a broad range of contemporary videos—just take a look at one small sample:

2014 11 22 22.17.301 Dive into the Deep End with Japanese Listening Practice

You’ll get reading practice too, as every video is subtitled. FluentU makes these native Japanese videos approachable through interactive captions. These interactive captions will show you the definition of a word (and simultaneously pause the video) whenever you hover your mouse over it.

2014 11 22 22.21.10 Dive into the Deep End with Japanese Listening Practice

All definitions have multiple in-context usage examples, and they’re written for Japanese learners like you. You’ll also find audio pronunciations, synonyms, helpful images and more. Tap again to add words you’d like to review later to your running vocab list.

2014 11 22 22.21.42 Dive into the Deep End with Japanese Listening Practice

And that’s not all. FluentU’s learn mode lets you learn Japanese even better by turning your selected videos into personalized language lessons. You’ll go through exercises that show the video clips as the prompts, multimedia flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”

2014 11 22 22.48.14 Dive into the Deep End with Japanese Listening Practice

The best part?

Every time you use FluentU, the site keeps track of the grammar and vocab you’ve learned and the words you struggle with, personalizing video suggestions and learning sessions based on your unique set of knowledge.

It’ll then recommend the natural next step in the progression of your learning. You’re delivered a 100% personalized experience. 

The FluentU app is now available for iPhone and Android, and it’s also available as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet. Access the full video library for free with a FluentU trial!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.

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