Japanese Grammar Made Easy: A Step-by-Step Guide
If you’re wanting to learn how to speak Japanese, then you have to master Japanese grammar rules!
Japanese grammar patterns are quite different to those we have in English, and there is a lot to learn. Things you may not even realize are grammar patterns in English, you have to learn in Japanese. For instance, in English, we can say “I want to _.” Yes, it’s a grammar pattern, but it’s a simple one, and more a matter of learning vocabulary. Japanese grammar rules are different. That same phrase in Japanese requires learning how to conjugate the verb.
Sounds a bit confusing, right?
Don’t worry, after you read this, it won’t be anymore. I’m going to demystify Japanese grammar, and make it easy for you to understand!
Getting Started with Japanese Grammar
Before we start learning actual Japanese grammar patterns, there are a few things you need to know about the Japanese language. If you haven’t gotten very far in your Japanese studies yet, then here are the basics.
The Basic Japanese Sentence Structure — The Verb Always Goes At the End!
Japanese sentence order is different than in English and takes a little bit of practice to get used to. In English, the basic sentence order is subject – verb – object. Example: I play sports. “I” is the subject, “play” is the verb, and “sports” is the noun.
But in Japanese, the order is subject – object – verb. That same sentence in Japanese looks like: 私は (“I”, subject) スポーツを (“sports”, object) します。(“to do/to play”, verb). There are particles in there, too — which we’ll talk about in a minute — but that exact sentence in English would look like “I sports play.”
The handy thing is, every other part of the Japanese sentence is flexible. If you add a location, a time, a preposition, etc., they can go anywhere in the sentence. As long as you mark them with the correct particle and the verb goes at the end, you’re good to go. So, the key to remember here is: the verb always goes at the end.
You can also omit the subject usually, and it sounds more natural to do so.
Japanese Verb Tenses and Verb Classes
In English, there are three basic verb tenses: past, present, and future. But in Japanese, there’s only present tense and past tense.
Wait, what? How do you talk about the future then?
Simple. You add a time to your sentence!
For instance, the sentence 大学に行きます (daigaku ni ikimasu) could be either “I go to university/college” or “I will go to university/college.” But if you wanted to make it clear if this is present or future tense, you would add something like 今大学に行きます (ima daigaku ni ikimasu, “I go to college now”) or 明日大学に行きます (ashita daigaku ni ikimasu, “Tomorrow I will go to college”).
A cool thing to note about verbs in Japanese: they don’t change based on who is performing the action! In English, or especially Romance languages like Spanish, the verbs change based on the person performing the act. “I go” becomes “she goes” or yo habla (“I speak” in Spanish) becomes tu hablas (“you speak”). This is one of the easy parts of the Japanese language. 行きます (ikimasu) is always the same no matter if I perform the action, you do, or they do!
There are also three different types of verbs in Japanese. る-verbs, う-verbs, and irregular verbs. る and う verbs are verbs that end in either る or う, and their conjugation changes based on which ending they have. Be careful though: some verbs that end in る are actually う verbs! We’ll get to this more in a moment, but let’s talk about irregular verbs first.
There are only two irregular verbs in Japanese. These verbs are する (suru, “to do”) and 来る (kuru, “to come”). They’re common verbs though, so you’ll get used to them quickly.
Understanding Japanese Formal and Informal Speech
Speaking of 行きます, that is the standard polite form of Japanese. It’s the form that you can use with anyone, and you’ll always sound polite.
Standard, polite Japanese, or formal Japanese, uses the -masu verb ending. 行きます, 食べます (tabumasu, “to eat”), 飲みます (nomimasu, “to drink”), 読みます (yomimasu, “to read”)… All these verbs are in formal form, using the -masu ending.
Informal speech is simple and doesn’t conjugate in present tense. Informal speech uses the dictionary or infinite form of the verb! So 行きます in informal speech is its dictionary form, 行く (iku). The same is true for the others listed above: 食べる (taberu), 飲む (nomu), 読む (yomu).
So when you look up a verb in the dictionary, then it’s in its basic form, and can be used the same way to speak informally. Easy!
Japanese Gender and Counters
Here’s another easy part of Japanese: there are no genders for words! So you don’t have to worry about learning which words are feminine or masculine like in Romance languages such as French or Portuguese.
Some words or phrases are more often used by men or women, though. For instance, a woman might use すごいね (sugoi ne, a popular, multiuse word meaning “cool” or “great”), but a man might shorten it to sound more masculine and say すげー (suge-).
As for counters, there are many specific words or suffixes used to count objects in Japanese. We’re not going to get into that here, because it’s quite a complex topic. But know this is a grammar rule you’ll want to come back to later when you get deeper into your studies.
Japanese Verb Conjugation
Okay, remember how I said there are る-verbs and う-verbs? This is important to learn because it determines how you conjugate these verbs.
For る-verbs, like 食べる, you drop the る and add -ます (-masu) when you’re making the verb formal. This is always the same for all る-verbs. 見る (miru, “to see”) becomes 見ます. 寝る (neru, “to sleep”) becomes, you guessed it, 寝ます.
う-verbs, on the other hand, conjugate a bit differently. For these verbs, you only drop the final う, and then add -います. If you know your hiragana and katakana chart, you can think of this as changing the end syllable from the u-row to the i-row. This is easier to think about than dropping u and adding -imasu, because in Japanese, we would have to write a different hiragana character altogether. When romanizing it in English, we only change one letter, so it gets confusing when writing.
Here’s an example: 飲む, romanized nomu, ends in “mu”. If we romanized it, we would drop the “u” and add “imasu” to get nomimasu. However, in Japanese script, we would be changing the entire character from “mu” to “mi”: む → み. So it reads 飲みます.
This is the same for all う-verbs, though. 行く (iku) ends in “ku” but changes to 行きます (ikimasu). く becomes き. 読む (yomu) changes from む (mu) to み (mi) and becomes 読みます.
Note that when you drop -masu, you get the verb root. Yomi is the root form of yomu or yomimasu. Tabe is the root of taberu or tabemasu. This is good to know for changing up the ending to make new forms and meanings.
Forming Questions in Japanese
To form a question in Japanese is super simple: you add か (ka) to the end of a formal sentence. So 行きますか (ikimasu ka) means “You go?” Or you could say 名前は何ですか (namae wa nan desu ka) for “What’s your name?” Desu + ka is a common way to turn a statement into a question.
In informal situations, though, you can just raise the intonation at the end of the sentence.
For writing, you typically don’t use a question mark in Japanese. The “ka” itself is the question mark. But for those informal sentences that you write in Japanese, you can add “?” at the end. So 名前？ (“Your name?”) is normal, but you would use a Japanese period, called the kuten or maru (“circle”), for the full formal sentence, 名前は何ですか。
Japanese particles are used to mark what function a word has in a sentence. There are quite a few particles, but the most common ones are は, が, and を.
は, said “wa” instead of “ha” when used as a particle, marks the subject of a sentence. 私はケイトリンです means “I am Caitlin” and は marks 私 (“I”) as the subject. But, I could also say ケイトリンです and leave off the subject because it’s understood.
が is also used to mark the subject of a sentence, emphasize the subject, or used to connect two sentences with “but.” It’s also often used to connect いるand ある to a sentence to say something “exists.” For instance, たくさんコーヒーがある (takusan ko-hi- ga aru) means “There is lots of coffee.”
を marks the direct object of the sentence. It usually follows nouns or phrases and often comes right before the verb (especially in simple sentences). 本を読みます (hon wo yomimasu) means “I read a book” (the subject, “I,” is omitted). を marks 本 as the object that I'm reading.
Possessive Form in Japanese
Possessive form in Japanese uses the particle の to connect two nouns. For instance, 私の犬 (watashi no inu) connects “I” with “dog” to mean “my dog.”
But this can also be used to connect descriptions to nouns. 東京大学の先生 (Toukyou daigaku no sensei) connects “Tokyo University” to “teacher”, and means “a Tokyo University teacher.”
The description, modifying, or possessive noun comes first.
“Because” in Japanese
If you want to make longer sentences and explain a situation, you can use the word から (kara) to connect them with “because.” For example, you could say お腹が空いた。食べます。(Onaka ga suita. Tabemasu.) or “I’m hungry. I will eat.” That’s fine, but you could make it sound more natural by adding から: お腹が空いたから、 食 べます。(“I’m hungry, so I’ll eat.”) You add the reason first: Because you’re hungry, you will eat.
“There is” and “There isn’t” in Japanese
A simple grammar pattern in Japanese is がいる / がある. いる (iru) describes the existence of living things, such as people and animals (although not plants). ある (aru) is used for non-living things. An example: 犬がいる. (inu ga iru, “There is a dog.”) or 本がある (hon ga aru, “There is a book.”) For the formal version, use います and あります, adding the -masu ending.
If there isn’t a dog, you would say 犬がいません (inu ga imasen) or 本がありません (hon ga arimasen). That’s the negative form of the -masu ending. You add -masen instead to make it negative!
“Let’s”, “Shall we” or “Would you like to…” in Japanese
Remember those verb stems we talked about? Well, you can add -mashou to any verb stem to add “let’s.” 行きましょう means “Let’s go” and 食べましょう means “Let’s eat.”
If you add か, you make it a question. 食べましょうか then means “Shall we eat?”
But a more polite way to ask someone would be to use the negative form, -masen + ka. So, this looks like 食べませんか, “Would you like to eat?” This form is more polite because it’s not presuming or pressuring the other person. It’s more like asking, “You wouldn’t want to eat, would you?”
“Want” in Japanese
Here’s another verb ending in Japanese that modifies the meaning. If you want to say you want to do something, you add -tai to the verb stem.
Let’s look at the words we’ve been using again. 行きたい means “want to go” and 食べたい means “want to eat.” You go use this with any verb!
If you want a noun, though, the grammar is noun + がほしい (ga hoshii). So if you want a new car, you would say 新しい車がほしい (atarashii kuruma ga hoshii).
“And… And….” in Japanese
Another way to create more complex sentences. Use the particle や to link nouns when giving an incomplete list of examples.
Let’s say you’re trying to tell someone all the sports you play. In English you might say, “I play basketball, baseball, soccer, etc.” But in Japanese, you would use や to connect each of those sports in place of a comma, and you don’t need a word for “etc.” because the や implies it. So it looks like: バスケットボールや野球やサッカーをします。(basukettobouru ya yakyuu ya sakka wo shimasu).
“Plan to do” in Japanese
If you’re planning to do something in the future, you can add つもり to the informal form of the verb.
If you plan to go to the movies, you could say 映画を行くつもりです。(eiga wo iku tsumori desu) If you plan to study, you say 勉強するつもりです。(benkyou suru tsumori desu)
“Maybe,” “Probably,” and “Only” in Japanese
You’ll hear these all the time, so they’re good to know! 多分 (tabun) means “maybe” and can be used on its own to answer a question, or attach to a sentence. It’s usually used at the beginning of a sentence, like 多分映画を行く (tabun eiga wo iku), which means “Maybe I will go to the movies.” Tabun is usually used in a 50/50 situation. It could go either way.
“Probably” is でしょう (deshou). This is always placed at the end of a sentence and isn’t used on its own. If you want to say you’ll probably go to the movies, you’d say 映画を行くでしょう。(Eiga wo iku deshou). You can add it to verbs, nouns, or adjectives at the end of a sentence. Use it if you’re 80% sure.
“Only” in Japanese is だけ (dake). Like deshou, it can attach to verbs, adjectives, or nouns. 一つだけの本がある (hitotsu dake no hon ga aru) means “There’s only one book.” 映画を行くだけです (eiga wo iku dake desu) means “I will only go to the movies.”
Master Japanese Grammar
I know learning grammar can be pretty dry, but having an understanding of some basic grammar in any language gives you a good head start. Then, when you’re listening to conversations, you can pick up the grammar more naturally. Especially when it comes to verbs — if you know how verbs conjugate, then you’ll understand them when you hear them in their conjugated form.
Many of these Japanese grammar patterns are on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N5, which is a measurement of basic Japanese skills. If you’re interested in learning more to prepare for it, learn the N5 Kanji or listen to JapanesePod101. You’ll learn more grammar and Japanese expressions to help you start speaking now!