plural in japanese

The More the Merrier! Master the Plural in Japanese with Simple Grammar Techniques

“Do you like reading manga?”

First of all, yes! I do.

But why do we ask people if they like reading “manga” and not “mangas”?

I’ll give you a hint: It’s the same reason we call them emoji and not emojis.

Maybe you’ve guessed that it has something to do with the pluralization of Japanese words.

And you’d be completely correct!

Using the plural in Japanese isn’t as simple as attaching -s or -es to the end of nouns. That form of pluralization doesn’t actually exist. That’s why Japanese loan words can sound odd when we try to pluralize them in English.

Instead, the Japanese language uses other ways to express plurality. These grammar rules aren’t too complicated, but they do diverge quite a bit from English grammar.

But don’t worry! By the end of the article, you’ll have an understanding of a variety of techniques used to express plural in Japanese.
 


 

Tackling the Japanese Plural: Tips for Getting Started

We’ve just dropped a pretty big bombshell: Japanese doesn’t pluralize nouns like English does.

But that’s no reason to get overwhelmed! Instead, let’s go over some basic tips for starting to understand the Japanese plural form(s).

The most important thing to keep in mind is context. Sentence context provides your clue for when you’re seeing a plural noun in Japanese. That means that improving your overall Japanese comprehension is crucial for mastering the Japanese plural.

plural in japanese

One great way to practice your comprehension is with a site like FluentU. FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news clips and inspiring talks—and turns them into language-learning experiences. Each video comes with interactive subtitles in English and Japanese, so you can follow along as you watch. If you come across an unfamiliar word, simply click it to reveal a definition and real example sentences.

As you can imagine, FluentU is great for learning Japanese words in context. As you watch videos, you’ll start to see the pieces of the language come together, including identifying plural nouns and learning how to use them yourself. Check out the free trial today!

For more targeted practice, consider using flashcards to practice your counters and adverbs. As we’ll see later in the post, counters and adverbs provide context, so it’s especially important to know them like the back of your hand.

Create flashcards to make sure you’re familiar with the various counters in Japanese. It may even be helpful to take common counters and test your knowledge of how to use them every once in a while.

The More the Merrier! Master the Plural in Japanese with Simple Grammar Techniques

So, if the Japanese language doesn’t have anything like -s or -es to form plurals, how do they do it?

Well, it turns out there are a variety of techniques you can use to make a noun plural in Japanese.

Using Suffixes to Pluralize Nouns

語尾 (ごび) — Suffixes may be placed at the end of nouns to indicate quantity.

Suffixes are frequently used to talk about people in the plural form—in other words, groups of more than one person.

Let’s look at some of the most common ones:

~達 (たち)

This suffix is one of the most neutral ways to refer to something or someone in plural form. To use it, simply put it on the end of a noun.

Even if you’re a Japanese beginner, you’ve probably seen this suffix before in common words like:

友達 (ともだち) — Friend(s)

私達 (わたしたち) — We/Us

One thing to note is avoiding the use of “you” in Japanese.

An example is the word 貴方達 (あなたたち). While theoretically, this expresses the second-person plural (“you all”), it’s very informal and can even be considered rude.

Which brings us to…

~ら

This is another suffix that’s used to make nouns plural, but which can also be considered impolite.

You may have heard it in anime or seen it in manga with terms like 奴ら (やつら) — those guys.

Of course, because Japanese is never that simple, ら can also express humility in certain situations, such as referring to one’s own group: 僕ら (ぼくら) uses the suffix to mean we/us and isn’t impolite.

In general, it’s best to learn in which individual cases ら is considered polite. This is much safer than trying it out and getting awkward results!

Remember, learner forums like the WordReference Japanese forum can be a great place to ask tricky questions about proper usage.

~方 (かた/がた) and ども

These suffixes indicate respect for the persons mentioned.

Usually they denote politeness or formality, such as when mentioning a group of one’s superiors or people that the speaker may not be familiar with. They can also refer to oneself and associates in a formal setting.

Using Counters to Express Plurals

Let’s talk about using plurals for both people and inanimate objects.

Some of the best indicators of the quantity of a noun are Japanese counters. But how do we know if a counter is appropriate for the noun we want to use?

Distinguishing between nouns that have counters and nouns that don’t can take a little practice.

There are many different counters in Japanese. Here, we’ll cover a few basic ones for the sake of showing how counters can express plurals in Japanese.

For a more extensive list, you can refer to this list of counter words.

人 (り/にん) (Counter for number of people)

一人 (ひとり) — One person

二人 (ふたり) — Two persons

三人 (さんにん) — Three persons

子供が三人います。(こどもがさんにんいます。)
I have three children.

枚 (まい) (Counter for flat objects like paper, sheets, etc.)

一枚 (いちまい) — One flat object

二枚 (にまい) — Two flat objects

三枚 (さんまい) — Three flat objects

クレジットカードが二枚財布に入っています。(くれじっとかあどがにまいさいふにはいっています。)
I have two credit cards in my wallet.

~つ (Generic counter for objects)

一つ (ひとつ) — One thing

二つ (ふたつ) — Two things

三つ (みっつ) — Three things

リンゴを二つ持っています。(リンゴをふたつもっています。)
I have two apples.

Pluralizing with いくつか (Some/Several)

いくつか is a phrase that means “some” or “several” in English.

It can be used by itself as the object of a sentence, or used alongside a noun to express that you’re talking about more than one of that noun.

It can be used in situations where you’re talking about more than one object but don’t need to specify the quantity. It’s also suitable for instances when the exact quantity isn’t known:

何人か (なんにんか) — several people

何年か (なんねんか) — several years

Here, you can see how it works in a full sentence:

何人かの卒業生はもう仕事しています。 (なんにんかのそつぎょうせいはもうしごとしています。)
Some graduates are already working full-time jobs.

いくつかの理由で、会長が退職しました。 (いくつかのりゆうで、かいちょうがたいしょくしました。)
The CEO resigned for several reasons.

Pluralizing Japanese Nouns with Adverbs

In Japanese, there are also adverbs that can show that more than one of something exists.

These adverbs can be used regardless of whether or not a noun is countable.

Here are some of the most common adverbs that can be used to indicate plural nouns in Japanese:

たくさん

This adverb roughly translates to the English phrase “a lot” or “lots.” It can be used with countable or uncountable nouns.

今日は暑いので水をたくさん飲みます。(きょうはあついのでみずをたくさんのみます。)
I drink lots of water because it’s hot today.

多く(おおく)

Similar to the above adverb, 多く (おおく) is equivalent to the English word “many.” It can also be used with countable or uncountable nouns.

学校では学生が多くのことを学びました。(がっこうではがくせいがおおくのことをまなびました。)
The students learned many things in school.

全て (すべて) and 全部 (ぜんぶ)

The adverb 全て(すべて) translates to the English word “all,” and 全部 (ぜんぶ) can be translated as “total.”

全ての星がキラキラ輝いています。(すべてのほしがきらきらかがやいています。)
All the stars are shining brightly.

お皿を全部洗います。(おさらをぜんぶあらいます。)
I wash all of the dishes.

These pronouns are similar, but it’s important to note that 全員 (ぜんいん) can also be used to talk about people.

少ない (すくない)

少し (すくない) is a handy adverb that can refer to a small, unspecified, but plural quantity. Think of it like the English word “few.”

今日は人が少ないですね。(きょうはひとがすくないですね。)
There aren’t that many people today.

Advanced Ways to Show Plural in Japanese

Prefixes

Specific prefixes can be placed before certain nouns to denote plurality. These aren’t as common in conversation as they are in written Japanese, but they’re still good to know. Here are some of the most common ones:

諸~ (しょ~) — Various…

諸国 (しょこく)
Various countries

数 (すう~) — Several…

数時間 (すうじかん)
Several hours

多~ (た~) — Multi-, Poly-

多国語 (たこくご)
Polyglotism (multiple languages)

Word Repetition

Another form of plural in Japanese is 々 (くりかえし) — a symbol representing a repeated character.

Sometimes it’s used in adjectives. For example, 若い (わかい) — young can also appear as 若々しい (わかわかしい) — youthful.

In this situation, however, we’ll use repetition to imply pluralization by showing that more than one of a given noun exists.

Some common examples are:

人々 (ひとびと) — people/persons

このブランドは多くの人々に選ばれています。(このぶらんどはおおくのひとびとにえらばれています。)
This brand is chosen by many people.

家々 (いえいえ) — houses

全ての家々が数か月間で建てられました。(すべてのいえいえがすうかげつかんでたてられました。)
The houses were built in a few months.

木々 (きぎ) — trees

木々に咲く花が綺麗です。(きぎにさくはながきれいです。)
The flowers that bloom on trees are beautiful.

While it’s not wise to use the repetition symbol with just any noun, it’s important to be on the lookout for words used with the repetition symbol.

We’ll combine an earlier concept from the ら section in the example 我々ら (われわれら) — We/Us. It’s a humble way to refer to one’s group in the plural form.

The Load Word ズ (ず) Ending

This form of pluralization in Japanese has become increasingly common over the years. It’s seen on billboards, advertisements and the like. I wouldn’t recommend using it too often, as it’s most likely to be seen in the titles of things:

 シティタワーズ豊洲 (してぃたわあずとよす)
Toyosu City Towers

ギャルズ (ぎゃるず)
Gals (a comedy trio in Japan, and also the name of a manga series.)

 

As you can see, there are many options for pluralizing nouns in Japanese!

We hope you’re feeling confident about the Japanese plural. Once you learn these basic grammar rules, it’s really not as hard as it seems.

So, where can you go from here?

It’s not too hard to make plural practice a part of your daily routine. Brainstorm some questions that involve plural nouns. How many siblings do you have? How many books did you read last week? These are also great conversation points to practice, either on your own or with a language exchange partner.

Beyond that, you can read a Japanese learner newspaper like NHK Easy to get exposure to a wide variety of prefixes or watch some Japanese television for great immersive practice. Find a show that comes with subtitles so you can read along, or challenge yourself and go without them. This is one of the best ways to hear natural Japanese.

Whatever you choose in terms of practice, have fun!
 

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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