I can tell you already have a pretty good body of Japanese knowledge.
Sentence structure will provide a skeleton for that body.
Until then, you’ll just be a big, boneless blob — and who wants to talk to a blob?
Japanese sentence structure will give you the strength and poise to do all kinds of linguistic gymnastics.
Next time you chat with a native Japanese speaker, wouldn’t you like to finally pull your thoughts together and express yourself in Japanese? Want to stop speaking like a character in a children’s book?
Well, it’s much easier than you might think.
Too many Japanese beginners get thrown off by convoluted explanations which do more harm than good. At first, Japanese sentence structure often looks backwards and confusing without someone to walk you through step-by-step.
This quick introduction will help you figure it all out and get you started making simple Japanese sentences.
By the end, you will see how to plug all your basic grammar, common phrases and newly-acquired Japanese vocabulary into some simple formulas for sentences — and you will get one step closer towards advancing beyond beginner Japanese!
Japanese Sentence Structure: A Beginner’s Guide to Forming Japanese Sentences
Japanese vs. English Sentence Structure: A Basic Overview
Japanese sentence structure is very different from English, but it’s not hard to master. Compared to other languages I’ve studied, Japanese isn’t heavily grammatical. The words don’t change a great deal to express tense, number, aspect or much else. That’s good news for you! It’s just a matter of mastering the sentence structure.
When it comes to basic sentence structure, Japanese is a SOV language while English is SVO.
SOV means “subject-object-verb.” This is a language where the verb is at the end of the sentence. You’ll see examples of this in Japanese as you read on. SVO stands for “subject-verb-object.” This means that the verb follows the subject, like English. The verb is like the link between the subject and the other parts of the sentence.
If you’re a little confused, don’t worry. Let’s look at an example:
“Jimbo eats an apple.”
“Jimbo” is the subject, “eats” is the verb and “an apple” is the object. Japanese is SOV, which means that the subject comes first, followed by object or objects and the sentence ends with the verb:
“Jimbo an apple eats.”
I know it sounds weird, but you will definitely get used to it. That’s part of the wondrous and crazy journey of having your brain turned upside down by the Japanese language.
Another bit of good news is that Japanese grammar is much simpler than English grammar, and this helps with learning Japanese sentence structure. There are no plurals, no determiners (a/the), very few changes to word endings and only two tenses.
The Nuts and Bolts of Japanese Sentence Structure
Structures of Japanese Verbs
As I just said, Japanese verbs have only two tenses: past and non-past. Like English, you make past tense by changing the end of the verb. Unlike English, Japanese verbs are highly regular. There are only two significantly irregular verbs, する (to do) and くる (to come). Negative forms are also made by changing the end of the verb.
Although there are only two tenses, verbs in Japanese change to express nuances. Japanese sentence structure is a type that’s called agglutinative. This is a fancy $2 word used by linguists which means, in layman’s terms, “You add a bunch of stuff to the end of verbs.” Each verb has a root form that ends with てor で. You can add to these root form endings to give more meaning. But this isn’t really essential for making easy Japanese sentences, so we’ll pass over it for now.
While English has prepositions, Japanese has post-positions. Prepositions are words that show relationships between parts of a sentence, such as “to,” “at,” “in,” “between,” “from” and so on. They come before nouns in English. But in Japanese they come after:
“I went to Spain.”
へ means “to,” so this sentence is literally, “Spain to went.”
Did you hear from her?
彼女 means “her,” so what you’re saying is “her from” rather than “from her.”
Word Order of Japanese Adjectives
Like English, adjectives come before nouns. A blue car in English is still a blue car in Japanese, but instead you’d say 青い車 (あおいくるま).
One thing that’s a little tricky is that some adjectives change to express negative or past tense. The word for cold is 寒い (さむい) but if you’re talking about yesterday being cold, you would say 寒かった (さむかった). If it’s not cold, you’d say 寒くない (さむくない). Like verbs, these changeable adjectives are also agglutinating, which means you can add stuff to them.
Structure of Japanese Questions
Finally, questions are much easier to make in Japanese than in English. To ask a yes or no question, you simply tack on か at the end of the sentence.
“He is a nice person.”
“Is he a nice person?”
For what we’d call the “Wh- questions” in English, you simply substitute the question word in most cases:
“What did you eat?”
“I ate octopus.”
“Where is he?”
“He is at the house.”
Advanced Tips on Making Easy Japanese Sentences
Disappearing Japanese Subjects
By now, you’ve probably noticed that the subject disappears from the sentence quite often. This is a particular quirk of the Japanese language where subject is inferred whenever possible. This might sound incredibly difficult and, to be honest, it still throws me for a loop sometimes, but there are hints that tell you what or who you’re talking about.
It actually works the same way as pronouns in English. For example:
“My father is a teacher. My father teaches at the university. On weekends, my father barbecues and drinks beer. My father likes football but my father doesn’t like baseball.”
You should want to strangle me after reading the above. In English, we only say “my father” once (if we’re merciful) and thereafter use the pronoun “he.”
“My father is a teacher. He teaches at the university. On weekends, he barbecues and drinks beer. He likes football but he doesn’t like baseball.”
The way I see it, Japanese does the same thing but goes one step further – the subject disappears completely.
“I am a teacher. I teach English.”
わたしは せんせいです。わたしは えいごをおしえています。
“I am a teacher. Teach English. ” (It’s inferred that the speaker is referring to himself)
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Japanese Verbs You Can Move
Although technically the verb always comes at the end of a Japanese sentence, this isn’t always the case. Unlike English, the sentence structure is very free. While in writing you would stick to the actual grammatical rules, in speaking people often break them and put the parts of the sentence wherever they see fit.
For example, if you want to say, “I ate fried chicken,” the grammatical correct Japanese sentence would be:
“I fried chicken ate.”
But in casual, everyday conversation, you can move the parts around and it’s no problem:
“Ate, fried chicken.”
“Fried chicken ate, I.”
But each of the above utterances means the same thing. In English, it would be mighty strange if you said this.
For the purposes of learning basic Japanese sentence structure, however, stick to Subject-Object-Verb. That’s proper Japanese and you can learn the more casual forms of speech later.
It Takes Practice to Master Japanese Sentence Structure
It may seem tough at first to turn your SVO sentences around to SOV and to slap particles at the end of nouns instead of prepositions in front, but with practice you can train your brain to do it quickly and easily.
Start with easy Japanese sentences that express basic things, and then gradually build your way up. Along with sentence structure, learn some basic polite phrases and you’ll be on your way to speaking natural Japanese!
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