Learning a new language can be tough, especially if you don’t know where to start. One of the key things to any language is the grammar. For the Japanese language, grammar is crucial. For those of us who are learning it in English, like me, it can be a bit confusing at the start since Japanese sentence structure is the complete opposite of the English language’s!
What’s more, in Japanese language, it’s different when it comes to formality. There’s not really any rules for that in English, whereas in Japanese, it’s very strict! The conjugations play a part in the formality rules too!
Now I’m not trying to scare you off from learning Japanese. In fact, I’m trying to do the opposite. Before you dive headfirst into the scary world of Japanese grammar, let’s try to make it not as scary by having a rundown of the basics of Japanese grammar with this article!
Japanese Sentence Structure
In both Japanese and English, the basic sentence structure is: subject – object.
“This is a pen.”
Kore ha pen.
The most important thing about basic Japanese grammar is the sentence structure. In English, we usually have our sentences structured like this: subject – verb – object. For example: I eat cake. “I” is the subject, “eat” is the verb” and “cake” is the object or noun.
In Japanese, the verb goes at the end! So the sentence structure goes: subject – object – verb.
So the same sentence is said like this in Japanese: watashi ha kēki wo taberu. (私はケーキを食べる。) “Watashi” is the subject, “kēki” Is the object and “taberu” is the verb. You must have noticed the particles – we’ll get into that later.
It might get confusing when you add more parts to the sentence, but it’s actually quite flexible. When you want to add the time, location or preposition, they can basically go anywhere in the sentence. The most important thing is the particles which indicate what is what.
Oh, and usually, you can omit the subject. Sometimes, it’s more natural to do so.
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.
Let’s look at another simple grammar pattern, which is describing existence, like saying “there is a cat”.
In Japanese, the format includes “ga iru” (がいる) or “ga aru” (がある). The former describes living things and the latter describes non living things. The structure is: subject – “ga iru/aru”.
If you want to say “there is a cat” in Japanese, it’s “neko ga iru” (猫がいる).
If you want to say “there is a pen” in Japanese, it’s “pen ga aru” (ペンがある).
If you want to say there isn’t something, instead of “ga iru” or “ga aru”, you change it to “ga inai” (がいない) or “ga nai” (がない). This is the negative form of the above phrases.
If you want to say “there isn’t a cat” in Japanese, it’s “neko ga iru” (猫がいない).
If you want to say “there isn’t a pen” in Japanese, it’s “pen ga aru” (ペンがない).
Formal & Informal Speech
As mentioned earlier, the Japanese language has formal and informal speeches. This affects the grammar. To make it simple, it’s the ending of a sentence that varies whether it’s formal or informal.
For example, “neko ga iru” (猫がいる) is informal as it ends with “iru”, the dictionary and plain form of the verb. To make this sentence formal, you have to change “iru” to “imasen” (いません). This is the polite version of the verb.
That’s for verbs, but there’s also for other sentences that end with nouns or adjectives. The simplest way to make a sentence more polite is to add “desu” (です).
For example, to say “this is a pen” in the polite form, you have to add “desu”: kore ha pen desu (これはペンです).
The same goes for adjectives: “this is pretty” is “kore ha kirei desu” (これは綺麗です).
As mentioned earlier, particles are extremely important in Japanese grammar. They indicate intonation, connectors like “and”, provide possessive forms and provide the means to ask questions.
We have a very in-depth article on Japanese particles here. But here’s a quick summary of the various types of common Japanese particles:
は (wa/ha) – follows the topic of the sentence, making this particle the topic marking particle
が (ga) – to emphasise something or to distinguish it from the rest. It’s also used when you’re first introducing the subject
を (wo) – used to signal the object of the sentence. Most of the time, it follows a noun or a noun phrase
に (ni) – indicates a place or the direction something is moving towards. The particle often follows a moving verb only. It can also be used when you’re talking about the direction of something, like receiving something from others. In that case, it means “from”
で (de) – emphasises location rather than direction
と (to) – “and”
の (no) – indicates possession
か (ka) – question indicator
Japanese verbs can be quite confusing in the beginning, as the tenses and conjugation are very different from other languages. Let’s take a look at the basic tenses and conjugation of Japanese verbs!
Tenses in English can be confusing – there are past, present and future tenses, but there are also continuous, perfect, etc. Don’t worry, in Japanese, it’s pretty simple. There are only the past and present tenses
In English, there are three basic verb tenses: past, present, and future. But in Japanese, there’s only present tense and past tense. And they don’t change based on who is performing the action unlike some languages. They stay the same.
The present tense of a verb is the dictionary form. For example: taberu (食べる).
The past tense of a verb involves a bit of conjugation. For example: taberu becomes tabeta (食べた).
BONUS: If you want to talk about the future tense, you usually add a time to the sentence. For example: “I’ll eat now” is said as “ima taberu” (今食べる).
Basic Verb Conjugations
Here comes the tricky part. But don’t worry, we’ll make it painless. Japanese verbs split into three types of verbs and they have their conjugations:
Depending on the category, the conjugation is different. Here are some common verbs in each category, and how to conjugate them:
る-verbs – drop the “る” and add “ます”
食べる becomes 食べます, 寝る becomes 寝ます, 見る becomes 見ます
う-verbs – drop the ending “う” sound and add “います”
言う becomes 言います, 飲む becomes 飲みます, 聞く becomes 聞きます
Irregular verbs – they’re irregular so their conjugation has no formula
するbecomes します, 来る becomes 来ます
From there, to make the negation, it’s simple. ます then becomes ません. For example, 食べます becomes 食べません and 言います becomes 言いません.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth article on Japanese verb conjugations!
Ace that Japanese grammar!
Of course, there is more to Japanese grammar than what is listed in this article, but hopefully, this gives you a brief idea of what to expect when learning Japanese grammar. It’s not at all difficult once you get the hang of it. Us at Nihongo Master believe you can do it!