The Dirty Guide to Japanese

Contents

  1. Preface
  2. Particles
    1. Word Order
    2. Subjects and Deletions
    3. Deleting Other Established Information
    4. Particle が
    5. Particle も
  3. Verb Conjugations
    1. –る Verbs
    2. –う Verbs
    3. Irregular Verbs
  4. Adjectives
  5. Conclusion

Preface

Most students of Japanese find learning the language frustrating because it takes them so long to develop enough proficiency to communicate anything more than the simplest of concepts. Perhaps some of this is due to the vast linguistic difference between English and Japanese, but it is probably mostly due to current educational theories of teaching foreign languages that claim that languages should be learned through a process of gradual absorption, mimicking the path that infants follow towards competency in their mother-tongue. This is certainly a great step forward in the improvement of teaching foreign languages, a major improvement from the days of educators relying solely on translation and memorization of literature. In many places languages are still taught in this manner, particularly in Japan, where most Japanese people learn to read and write English by translation, producing people who can muddle their way through a research paper but can't hold up their end of an ordinary conversation. But in my opinion this process of learning by absorption is only useful to a point, after which it becomes more of a frustration and a hindrance to further study. Human beings are thinking creatures who have great skill at analysis and problem solving. Presenting language as something to be absorbed, like a form of aesthetics, is in my opinion only useful to prevent the beginning student from being overwhelmed by enormous amounts of complex rules and information.

At some point the beginning student of Japanese becomes an intermediate student of Japanese. They can discuss the weather, their hometown, and rattle off introductions without much problem. But when it comes to actually talking about something, producing new sentences with complex meanings which transmit new concepts from one person to another, there they begin to be frustrated by lack of knowledge or proficiency. Part of this is a problem of vocabulary. The student just doesn't have the words at hand to say what they want. This is only solved by memorization, adding new words to the mental dictionary. But the other part is the incapability of producing complex sentences, statements with more structure than just "A is B" or "I do X". It is the realization that the student lacks such a capability that marks them as having passed from the beginner to the intermediate.

The intermediate student has a hopeless task ahead of them if they expect to learn all the varied verb and adjective conjugations, the particles, conjunctions, aspects, and moods of Japanese only through gradual immersion. Adults and teenagers lack the intense absorptive capacity of language learning that is inherent in children, a fact which has been proven a number of times by scientific research and analysis. Instead the intermediate student should apply another innate facility that adults have in far more advanced a form than children, the capacity for logical thought and problem solving.

This Dirty Guide to Japanese aims to provide the student with all the tools necessary to start solving problems in Japanese. It gives the student the most important parts and pieces of the whole language, letting them take them into the field to try them out, to attempt real and useful communication with Japanese speakers. The descriptions of Japanese here attempt to be as comprehensive as possible in a limited space, presenting as many of the major aspects of the language as can be compressed into a short document. But it does not aspire to completeness, since a complete grammar of Japanese would require an enormous amount of effort and thousands of pages of detailed analysis. Such things are better left to the professional linguist, and indeed there are a number of very good reference grammars of Japanese out there that attempt to fulfill this lofty goal, some more successful than others.

This guide has very little to say about nouns. Nouns in Japanese are almost entirely uninflected. It's only a simple matter of memorization to add new nouns to your mental dictionary. You can learn vocabulary from a dictionary or simply ask a native speaker. Or just point and say "あれ" or "あのもの" or something. But you can't do the same with a verb conjugation because conjugations are not usually found laying around for you to point your finger at. Therefore this guide will focus on verbs and adjectives and how to inflect them, and about particles which can be used to string nouns, verbs, and adjectives into coherent sentences.

Please remember however that this is merely a guide, not a complete map to the langauge. There are many exceptions to the rules presented herein, and there are many other subjects which aren't touched upon here. Keep this in mind, but if you try hard to say what you want with the methods presented here you should be able to at least make yourself understood, even if you aren't saying it correctly.

This guide appears to be pretty comprehensive. The astute reader may begin to wonder why their textbooks don't provide a similar summary, or why things are not taught to them in such a complete manner, but instead over a long process of gradual increase. Truth to tell, there are a number of reasons for this. Among them is the fact that a school has to keep to the median level of understanding among its students, so that the people in the bottom half of the class aren't left behind while the top few students race ahead. Also, a school has a financial stake in extending the process of learning over a long enough period of time so that it can make a profit or at least break even in the end. The same is not so for the individual learner. Indeed, most students of foreign languages have heard stories of or even know people who have gone to foreign countries and learned in months what the average student takes years to absorb. So the real answer to the question of why this guide can be so comprehensive is that it is aimed not at classroom use, but at the individual looking to increase their own proficiency without worrying about keeping pace with other students.

One last thing should be said. This guide originally stems from The Quick and Dirty Guide to Japanese written by Tad Perry in 1992, tvp@gibdo.engr.washington.edu. The present author has put an extensive amount of effort into reformatting, editing, and rewording the text. The original roomaji has been converted into UTF-8 encoded kanji and kana. Examples have been corrected or reworded for clarity, and a large number of changes have been made, extending the document's reach. So much work has been put into it that I have felt uncomfortable in keeping Tad Perry's name as the author, since many of the statements and opinions are now mine, not his. Thus I've renamed it to The Dirty Guide to Japanese. It's no longer quick because I linger much longer on certain aspects of grammar and usage that the original skimmed over. It's still dirty because it's not a piece of professional work, just a sloppy reference that can be read for its good parts and then used for more productive purposes like wrapping fish or lining the bottom of bird cages.

Particles

Particles are perhaps the most frustrating part of Japanese grammar for most English speakers. Most English speakers learning Japanese are aware of verb tenses and conjugations, so the variety of them in Japanese does not seem to surprise the learner. But particles are quite foreign to most English speakers, confusing them to no end.

English uses prepositions to modify nouns and verbs. Prepositions such as "to", "at", "by", "around", and "without" should be familiar to anyone forced to learn the rudiments of English grammar in their school days. Prepositions are members of a class of linguistic objects called adpositions. The opposite of prepositions, postpositions are usually found in languages which lack prepositions. In some languages such as Finnish these postpositions have become glued to the words they modify, over time resulting in a set of fixed declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs. Indeed, some linguists theorize that all nominal declensions (and verbal conjugations) derive ultimately from postpositions being suffixed to the words they modify. Following this theory, a language which fossilizes its postpositions into nominal declensions (a.k.a. cases) eventually ends up needing a replacement set of adpositions and so, perversely, produces prepositions to fill the gap.

Japanese has not gone so far as to completely fix its postpositions into nominal declensions and verbal conjugations. Instead its postpositions function as particles, small word-like units which modify the meanings of the phrases to which they are attached. Particles do not function as independent word units, they lack any meaning of their own. Thus, a sentence like "が" cannot possibly have any sort of meaning, either explicit or implied. It might be used as a prompt, one speaker saying the particle to prompt another speaker to finish their statement. But no meaning can be applied to the particle itself in any context.

Particles used as prompts are actually fairly common. The particle で is derived from the copula verb だ and is used to connect sentences together. It works somewhat like English's 'and' or 'so'. This particle is often heard alone when a listener is prompting a speaker to finish a sentence which they have left incomplete.

学校にいって...
がっこう に いって
"I went to school and..."
で?
"And?"
で、鈴木君を見た。
で、すずき くん を みた
"And I saw Suzuki."

Other than this sort of usage particles are typically not used alone.

There is a very fine line between particles and verb (or adjective) conjugations in Japanese. Oftentimes a conjugation will seem to be just that until suddenly you notice that it is also attached to a noun in some random exceptional situation. Or that a particle for some strange reason seems to be only attachable to verbs and won't mate with anything else. This is probably because modern Japanese is in the midst of a change of emphasis from particles to conjugations, or vice versa. Linguistic speculation has not provided any conclusive answer yet. But suffice to say that you should expect particles and verb conjugations to regularly blur the boundaries between parts of speech.

Word Order

Before discussing particular particles (pardon the pun) we should first consider the topic of word order. Japanese word order is fairly free, but there are some restrictions. The language uses SOV word order, i.e. Subject first, Object second, and Verb at the end. This contrasts with English's SVO word order.

男は犬をかじる
おとこ は いぬ を かじる
"Man bites dog"

In the above example the subject is "man" in English, "男" in Japanese. The object is "dog" in English, "犬" in Japanese. The verb is "bite", "かじる".

Japanese sentences can be roughly divided into three major categories, 'action', 'existence', and 'motion', based on the meanings of their component verbs. In general, word order in Japanese sentences using an action verb is:

[SUBJECT] + TIME + PLACE/IMPLEMENT + INDIRECT OBJECT + OBJECT + ACTION VERB
For example,
明日、学校で先生にプレゼントを上げます。
あした、がっこう で せんせい に プレゼント を あげます
"[I'm] going to give a present to [my] teacher at school tomorrow."

For an existence verb it is:

[SUBJECT] + TIME + LOCATION + EXISTENCE VERB
E.g.,
高橋は、今本社にいる。
たかはしは、いま ほんしゃ に いる
"Takahashi is in the main office right now."

And for a motion verb it is:

[SUBJECT] + TIME + ORIGIN + ROUTE + DESTINATION + MOTION VERB
Thus,
明日、パーティにいく。
あした、パーティ に いく
"I'm going to a party tomorrow."

SUBJECTs are put in brackets to stress that they are very often deleted. In general, if a new subject is introduced where another had been previously understood, signal the change by placing は after the subject. If a subject is understood but for some reason not deleted (which is rare) use が or nothing.

Often you can move the subject to the end of the sentence, following the verb, when other parts seem to be piling up excessively. So:

明日僕が公園で歌う。
あした ぼく が こうえん で うたう
"I'm singing at the park tomorrow."
often becomes
明日公園で歌う、僕。
あした こうえん で うたう、ぼく
"At the park tomorrow I'm singing."
Although a 'truer' translation would be something more Yoda-esque like "Singing at the park tomorrow, I am."

For more on SUBJECTs, see the longer description in the next section, Subjects and Deletions. Knowing how and when to delete subjects is a key to speaking naturally.

TIME is usually followed by に. In general, use に for specific points in time or specific spans of time. So "十月" (じゅうがつ, "October") and "三月三ヵ日" (さんがつみっか, "March 3rd") both take に. A word like 明日 (あした, "tomorrow") that can only be understood by context (because it changes depending on when you say it) is called 'deictic'. Deictic time words don't take に. Thus "明日行く" (あしたいく, "I'm going tomorrow."), but "三時に行く" (さんじにいく, "I'm going at 3.") Even if you have trouble making the distinction between these two types of time words, don't worry: Japanese people can understand what you mean even if you get it backwards.

PLACE/IMPLEMENT is followed by で. A PLACE is the location that a volitional action occurred. If you're eating at home, that's "お家で食事する" (おうち で しょくじ する). If you're eating with chopsticks, that's "お箸で食べる" (おはし で たべる). The place you do something or the thing you use to do something takes で. If you're going somewhere by car, you say "車で行く" (くるま で いく). It's not that hard to understand really. (See INDIRECT OBJECT for why DESTINATIONs are different.) Verbs of motion that tell DESTINATION, or ones of existence that tell the LOCATION of something take に. DESTINATIONs can also take へ. Try to distinguish PLACE from LOCATION by thinking of it this way: PLACE is where something is done, LOCATION is where something or someone is. Use から ("from") after an ORIGIN and を after a ROUTE.

学校から、公園をとって、お家に帰る。
がっこう から、こうえん を とって、おうち に かえる
"I'm going home from school through the park."
There's usually an intermediate verb in this type of usage; in this case it's とって (from とる, "to take").

The particle まで can also be used with DESTINATION, particularly when comparing or contrasting it to ORIGIN. Both から and まで together form a pair much like "from/to" in English.

OBJECT is followed by を or nothing. "本を読んでいる" (ほん を よんで いる, "I'm reading a book.") This is a really simple one in most cases. Few Japanese learners seem to have a problem understanding this. The only difficulty you might encounter is differentiating between this OBJECT and the INDIRECT OBJECT.

INDIRECT OBJECT is followed by に. An INDIRECT OBJECT is a sort of secondary object that some verbs take. "この本をあなたに上げる" (このほんをあなたにあげる, "I'm going to give this book to you"). You have "this book" and you have "to you". The phrase "this book" is the OBJECT. The phrase "to you" is the INDIRECT OBJECT. Particles を and に are used to distinguish the two.

VERB doesn't take any particles but it does need to be conjugated. There's a separate section on verb conjugations below, which see.

In summary:

SUBJECT + は/が/nothing delete subject if possible, show changes with は
TIME + に/nothing use nothing if it's a deictic time word
PLACE/IMPLEMENT + で is the place where you do or where you are?
LOCATION + に is the place where you are or where you do?
ORIGIN + から
ROUTE + を is this a place on the way to where you're going?
DESTINATION + に/へ use に over へ but be aware that both are okay
(DIRECT) OBJECT+を
INDIRECT OBJECT + に use this if you're out of choices :-)

After understanding the descriptions given earlier, these nine lines are the key to knowing what particle to use 90% of the time. Even if these rules cause you to make a mistake you'll still be understood.

Subjects and Deletions

Usually, you don't have to worry about whether to use は or が because most subjects can be deleted. "You can't get something wrong if you left it out in the first place." So we'll look at the parts of sentences that you can delete, starting with subjects.

If you turn to a Japanese person and suddenly make a statement:

明日パーティにいく。
あした パーティ に いく
"[I'm] going to the party tomorrow."
then the listener will assume that the subject is you. So don't bother supplying a subject. To do so is in fact unnatural; Japanese people don't supply subjects in conversation if they're obvious.

If you turn to a Japanese person and ask them a question:

明日パーティにいくか。
あした パーティ に いく か
"[Are you] going to the party tomorrow?"
The listener will assume the subject is himself or herself. Easy! Most one-on-one conversations where either you or the listener is the subject don't need an explicit subject. So there's no chance of screwing up は and が.

If you want to make a statement or ask a question about some other person, use は after that person's name or title the first time you mention them:

社長は、あしたパーティにいくか。
しゃちょう は、あした パーティ に いく か
"Is the president going to the party tomorrow?"
Here the は introduces a change of subject. In this example it signals a change from the default 'you the listener' to the 社長. After you establish that you're talking about the president you can go back to dropping subjects again:
その後は、帰るかな。
その あと は、かえる か な
"Is he going home after that, I wonder?"
Don't be too forward making assumptions about other people. This prevents the listener from thinking the question is back to being about themself. There's a strong tendency for questions to erase understood info and you have to signal that things are unchanged. Usually you play with the verb a little bit to get this across. Notice that the change in time being talked about was also signalled with a は.

This tendency to delete subjects in Japanese parallels the behavior of an English native using simple pronouns such as, 'I', 'you', 'he', 'she', and 'they'. When you comment about yourself you use 'I' (in Japanese, delete). When you ask about the listener you use 'you' (in Japanese, delete). When you've first established someone and then continue discussing that person, you use 'he' or 'she' (in Japanese, delete). See? It's simple. In linguistics these are called anaphors, verbal markers which refer to previously established topics. In English (and in most other Indo-European languages) we use simple pronouns as anaphors. In Japanese explicit anaphors are not used, instead the anaphoric position in a sentence is simply left empty.

Deleting other Established Information

As with subjects any data which have been established can be deleted, and any changes in already established data can be signalled using は:

明日パーティにいくか。
あした パーティ に いく か
"[Are you] going to the party tomorrow?"
うん、あなたは?
"Yeah, how about you?"
The information about "パーティに" and "いく" are unchanged, therefore they are deleted. The subject changed to the original questioner, so the change is signaled with は.
うん〜ん、いかない。
"No, I'm not going."
The information about "パーティに" is still deleted, but "いく" comes back as "いかない" because it has changed form.
その後の映画は?
その あと の えいが は
"How about the movie afterwards?"
The established information "パーティ" changed to "映画" so we use は to establish the change in understood information. Understood info that hasn't changed is still left out, like the subject "僕" and the action "いく".

This is pretty much how all anaphoric deletions work in Japanese whether it be subjects, objects, or something else. In general, always attempt to delete if possible. This section should also give you a feel for the use of は in normal speech.

Particle が

In general, you don't need it. In the instances where you do, you can slowly build a feel for it. Basically, you need it in situations where you're not expressing a change in subject, but where you want to state the subject even though it has already been established. Usually, this is to add emphasis or to avoid ambiguity.

社長は、あしたパーティにいくか。
しゃちょう は、あした パーティ に いく か
"Is the president going to the party tomorrow?"
うん〜ん、いかないみたい。
"No, it doesn't look like it."
(Throw in a "みたい" because you don't wan't to seem too certain of the actions of others in Japanese. We're not really covering that though, it's just a side note.)
なんで?
"Why not?"
それがわからない
"I really don't know why."
There's no real ambiguity in this case, and "わからない" alone would have worked, but it is a case where you're not changing an understood subject to another, you're restating the understood subject as such for some emphasis. If you're stating an established subject, for whatever reason, use が. But you could have deleted, and if you were following the earlier explanation you should have. (This one sentence also helps to dispell the myth that は is for negative sentences.)

Particle も

Use も when you're adding more information to already established information. It may be used alone when marking subjects and objects, and can follow other particles (like に, で, and へ). Put it this way: if は clears the existing data and replaces it, も adds additional data on top of what's already been said without clearing out anything.

明日パーティにいくか。
あした パーティ に いく か
"[Are you] going to the party tomorrow?"
うん、いくよ。
"Yeah, I'm going, how about you?"
Note what was deleted and why.
僕もいく。
ぼく も いく
"I'm going too."
Here you add yourself to the understood subject.

The particle も is easy enough, so we won't waste any more time with it.

Verb Conjugations

Another thing that many Japanese learners need is an easy method of arriving at all the verb conjugations and a highly reduced set of rules for how to get them right on the different types of verbs. That's easy enough really because there are only three major verb types: –る verbs, –う verbs, and irregulars. People really hate Eleanor Jorden for this fashion of naming verb paradigms, but in language learning you take what's easy and go with it; there's no need to worry too much about linguistics here.

Ending Kana Row Type
–る 語段 (ごだん) I
–う 一段 (いちだん) II

The –る verbs are those that end in –る like たべる and いれる. The –う verbs end in う, く, ぐ, ぶ, む, ぬ, す, つ, or {あ,い,う,お}+る.

There is a rare –う verb form え+る but these are almost always –る verbs like たべる. I only know of three like that: ける 'kick',へる 'decrease' and へる 'elapse'. There are probably more, but I have a feeling they would also only be two syllables like these. So the only real overlap worth worrying about is い+る. If you memorize two forms for each of these (like: いれる/いれて and はいる/はいって) you can keep them straight.

–る Verbs

Everything with –る verbs is done by dropping or replacing –る with something else. Just remember the different uses of each conjugation.

Drop –る the root form of the veb. This can take things like –ます, –にくい "hard to", and –やすい "easy to":

たべ  →  たべやすい   "easy to eat"
This is also called the stem of the verb. When –ます is added to the stem of the verb the polite form of the verb is produced. The polite –ます forms of verbs are actually –う verbs, for which see.

Replace with –て for the gerund:

たべ  →  たべて
The gerund, also known as the conjunctive is for 'and'ing verbs, e.g. たべて いく "eat and go", and for simple orders, e.g. あれ たべて "eat that". It is often also used to form the 'continuative', e.g. たべ ている "eating", which works like English's "-ing" form. The gerund form is also used to conjoin multiple sentences into a single larger sentence.

Replace with –ない for the negative:

たべ  →  たべない   "don't eat"
This form is no longer a verb, but an adjective and is inflected accordingly.

Replace with –た for the past tense:

たべ  →  たべた   "ate"

Replace with –たり for the alternative, "do things like":

たべ  →  たべたり
An example is "たべたりした" "I did things like eating". This is frequently called the alternative in grammar books and textbooks, but that term is misleading. This conjugation doesn't necessarily denote an alternative. It just indicates that other unspecified things besides the verb may or may not have been done. Any verb ending in –たり usually requires a する at the end of the sentence.

Replace with –たら for the 'temporal' conditional, "if", "once":

たべ  →  たべたら   "if person eats"
Japanese has two forms of conditional conjugations for verbs; this is one of them. This form connotes a sense of time, as in English's "once ... then" or "when ... then" constructions. The other conditional form is the –れば form below.

Replace with –れば for the 'atemporal' conditional, "if":

たべ  →  たべれば   "if person eats"
This is somewhat different from –たら but the two are usually interchangeable. The –れば form does not give a sense of time, only of possible cause and effect.

Replace with –よう for the volitional, "let's":

たべ  →  たべよう   "let's eat"

Replace with –ろ for the imperative, "do!":

たべ  →  たべろ   "eat dammit"
This conjugation is fairly rare in ordinary conversation. It's considered rude. But it is heard often in things like やくざ gangster films, 侍時代 (さむらいじだい, "samurai period") films, in the military, and in 漫画 (まんが) and アニメ.

Replace with –られる for the potential, "can":

たべ  →  たべられる   "can eat"
This is now a –る verb which can conjugate on its own. Thus, "これ たべられない よ!" "I can't eat this!" (a very useful phrase to know).

Replace with –させる for the causative, "make person do":

たべ  →  たべさせる   "make person do"
This also becomes a –る verb of its own. So, "これ たべさせない で よ!" "Don't make me eat this!".

Replace with –られる for the passive, "was X-ed":

たべ  →  たべられる   "was eaten"
This becomes a –る verb as well. Thus, "ライオン に たべられた" "I was eaten by a lion." The に marks the agent, similar to the English "by" preposition. Note that this conjugation looks the same as the one for "can". Don't confuse the two because they are different. The difference between them is apparent with –う verbs which will be described in the next section.

Replace with –させられる for the passive causative, "be made to" or "be forced to":

たべ  →  たべさせられる   "made to eat"
This construction follows simply from combining the two previous conjugations together. So, "おかーさん に チキン を たべさせられた" "My mom made me eat chicken". Putting this into the passive conjugation makes it sound as if you didn't want to do something and feel sorry for yourself for having had to have done it. Thus this form is used frequently when complaining.

–う Verbs

The –る verbs are by far the easiest to conjugate: you drop –る and add something else. Simple. –う verbs aren't that easy but almost. Typically you drop –う and add something else. The problem is that there might be a phonetic change (such as when は becomes ぱ, or た becomes だ) for some of the types. See the other chart for simple-English meanings of the conjunctions, this one just tries to keep the conjunction rules clear.

But first, there are some –う verbs that end in –る. We have to get them out of the way right now. Real –る verbs (where –る gets dropped) always end in –いる or –える. If you see one that ends:

ある "exist"
うる "sell"
おる "break"
then it's guaranteed not to be a –う verb. It's probably a –る verb. The exceptions are irregulars like ござる/ざいます, but effectively you can forget about those and assume anything ending with –ある, –うる, or –おるis an –う verb.

Verbs like いる ("exist" or "need") can be of either –う or –る type. In fact, いる is actually two different verbs. いる ("need") is an –う verb, its gerund is いって. The other one, いる ("exist") is a –る verb, its gerund is いて. If you hear one of these kinds of verbs, eg 入る (はいる, "to enter"), be sure to ask what the gerund (はいって) or past tense (はいった) is so you can remember its type.

So far I've only met three verbs ending in –える which were –う verbs rather than –る verbs. These are: ける/けって ("kick"), ヘル/へって ("decrease"), and へる/へって ("elapse"). Except for these いる/える verbs, every other type of verb is obvious by hearing only one form.

Including –う verbs which might happen to end in –る, these are all the types of –う verbs there are:

–す
–く, –ぐ
–ぶ, –む, –ぬ
–る, –つ, –{あ,い,う,え,お}+う

This should clarify what we mean by –う verbs, ie those verbs which end with some sort of C/V + う combination in their unconjugated form.

The –す verbs are the only ones which are well behaved, so –す will simply change to –さ, –し, –せ, and –そ in all cases with no odd behavior to remember. This isn't true for the rest of the –う verbs, which makes them harder to remember.

For the root or stem, replace –う with – い. This works straight across with no consonant changes in any of the conjgations.

話す (はなす)→ 話し (はなし)"talk"
聞く (きく) → 聞き (きき)"listen"
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳ぎ (およぎ)"swim"
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼び (よび)"call"
飲む (のむ) → 飲み (のみ)"drink"
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死に (しに)"die"
作る (つくる)→ 作り (つくり)"make"
待つ (まつ) → 待ち (まち)"wait"
払う (はらう)→ 払い (はらい)"pay", "sweep"

Once –ます is attached this form becomes a new verb. All –ま す verbs conjugate like ordinary verbs ending in –す except that the negative is –ません rather than the expected –ましない and the past tense negative is –ませんでした (ie, –ません and the past tense of です, でした).

The –やすい construction mentioned above is a general way to attach adjectives to verbs, akin to the English construction "adjective to verb", as in "easy to understand", "hard to do", "quick to say", etc. Perhaps most commonly used in this manner are やすい and its opposite にくい, but there are others.

Replace –う with –いて, –んで, or –って for the gerund, "do X and" and for simple commands.

話す (はなす)→ 話して (はなして)
聞く (きく) → 聞いて (きいて)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳いで (およいで)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼んで (よんで)
飲む (のむ) → 飲んで (のんで)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死んで (しんで)
作る (つくる)→ 作って (つくって)
待つ (まつ) → 待って (まって)
払う (はらう)→ 払って (はらって)

The way the gerundive form works as a polite command or request is that it is typically paired with a request verb such as なさる or 下さる (くださる). In fact, the request verb is often simply left unsaid, the listener being expected to know that the speaker is requesting or commanding something to be done. An example is "聞いて", a somewhat informal version of "聞いて下さい".

Replace –う with –いた for the past tense.

話す (はなす)→ 話した (はなした)
聞く (きく) → 聞いた (きいた)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳いだ (およいだ)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼んだ (よんだ)
飲む (のむ) → 飲んだ (のんだ)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死んだ (しんだ)
作る (つくる)→ 作った (つくった)
待つ (まつ) → 待った (まった)
払う (はらう)→ 払った (はらった)

Okay, so it's not as simple as the description implies, but notice that this is almost exactly the same as the gerundive conjugation except that –て/で is now –た/だ.

Replace –う with –いたり for "do things like X". Or just add –り to the past tense.

話す (はなす)→ 話したり (はなしたり)
聞く (きく) → 聞いたり (きいたり)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳いだり (およいだり)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼んだり (よんだり)
飲む (のむ) → 飲んだり (のんだり)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死んだり (しんだり)
作る (つくる)→ 作ったり (つくったり)
待つ (まつ) → 待ったり (まったり)
払う (はらう)→ 払ったり (はらったり)

Replace –う with –いたら for the conditional, "if". Or more simply, just suffix –ら to the past tense form.

話す (はなす)→ 話したら (はなしたら)
聞く (きく) → 聞いたら (きいたら)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳いだら (およいだら)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼んだら (よんだら)
飲む (のむ) → 飲んだら (のんだら)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死んだら (しんだら)
作る (つくる)→ 作ったら (つくったら)
待つ (まつ) → 待ったら (まったら)
払う (はらう)→ 払ったら (はらったら)

Once again, this is the 'temporal' conditional. The 'atemporal' conditional is next.

Replace –う with –えば for the other conditional, "if".

話す (はなす)→ 話せば (はなせば)
聞く (きく) → 聞けば (きけば)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳げば (およげば)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼べば (よべば)
飲む (のむ) → 飲めば (のめば)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死ねば (しねば)
作る (つくる)→ 作れば (つくれば)
待つ (まつ) → 待てば (まてば)
払う (はらう)→ 払えば (はらえば)

Replace –う with –おう for the volitional, "let's X".

話す (はなす)→ 話そう (はなそう)
聞く (きく) → 聞こう (きこう)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳ごう (およごう)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼ぼう (よぼう)
飲む (のむ) → 飲もう (のもう)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死のう (しのう)
作る (つくる)→ 作ろう (つくろう)
待つ (まつ) → 待とう (まとう)
払う (はらう)→ 払おう (はらおう)

The volitional is also sometimes called the presumptive or the hortative. Look these big words up in a good English dictionary if you're curious. Personally I think the term 'presumptive' is a misnomer because this form doesn't really connote a presumption, but an intention. The term 'hortative' would be accurate if this conjugation was directed towards the listener, or to both the speaker and listener, but seems inappropriate when only the speaker is the intended subject. But I digress.

Replace –う with –え for the imperative, "do X dammit".

話す (はなす)→ 話せ (はなせ)
聞く (きく) → 聞け (きけ)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳げ (およげ)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼べ (よべ)
飲む (のむ) → 飲め (のめ)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死ね (しね)
作る (つくる)→ 作れ (つくれ)
待つ (まつ) → 待て (まて)
払う (はらう)→ 払え (はらえ)

It can't be stressed enough that this conjugation is rude. Don't use it in polite conversation. Don't use it with strangers unless you're ready to defend yourself. However, you can safely use it in a monologue, or when talking about someone behind their back amongst your friends. An example of a monologue:

「行け!」と思った。
いけ と おもった
"'Go!', I thought."

And here's a rude one:

ちくしょ!死ねぞ!
ちくしょ しねぞ
"Die you bastard!"

Note that this can be easy to confuse with the gerund. There's a world of difference between saying "待て!" and saying "待って!". The former is a command, the latter is a request, although somewhat abrupt.

Replace –う with –あない for the negative, "doesn't X". This then becomes an adjective.

話す (はなす)→ 話さない (はなさない)
聞く (きく) → 聞かない (きかない)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳がない (およがない)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼ばない (よばない)
飲む (のむ) → 飲まない (のまない)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死なない (しなない)
作る (つくる)→ 作らない (つくらない)
待つ (まつ) → 待たない (またない)
払う (はらう)→ 払わない (はらわない)

Notice that the negative form of はらう is はらわない. This is easily explained if you consider a missing 'w' in the –う form of the verb. Since Japanese has no 'wi', 'wu', 'we', or 'wo' the 'w' consonant does not appear, but it does exist in the negative with わ. In fact, at one point Japanese did actually have 'wi' and 'we' and these were used in the conjugation of verbs like はらう, although such sounds have since disappeared.

An aside: The 'wi' and 'we' sounds are still occasionally seen used in literature with the two ひらがな characters ゐ and ゑ, or ヰ and ヱ in カタカナ. Few Japanese people can actually pronounce them as such. The particle written を in ひらがな or ヲ in カタカナ is often denoted in ローマ字 as 'wo', and indeed it once was pronounced this way and filled this niche in conjugation. All of these have since fallen out of use in modern Japanese except for を which is still used as a particle. It probably kept its form instead of changing to お because it is easier to differentiate from the お– prefix.

Replace –う with –える for the potential, "can do X". This becomes a –る verb.

話す (はなす)→ 話せる (はなせる)
聞く (きく) → 聞ける (きける)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳げる (およげる)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼べる (よべる)
飲む (のむ) → 飲める (のめる)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死ねる (しねる)
作る (つくる)→ 作れる (つくれる)
待つ (まつ) → 待てる (まてる)
払う (はらう)→ 払える (はらえる)

Replace –う with –あせる for the causative, "make someone do X". This becomes a –る verb.

話す (はなす)→ 話させる (はなさせる)
聞く (きく) → 聞かせる (きかせる)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳がせる (およがせる)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼ばせる (よばせる)
飲む (のむ) → 飲ませる (のませる)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死なせる (しなせる)
作る (つくる)→ 作らせる (つくらせる)
待つ (まつ) → 待たせる (またせる)
払う (はらう)→ 払わせる (はらわせる)

As with はらわない, the はらわせる requires a わ instead of an あ.

Replace –う with –あれる for the passive, "X is done [by ...]". This becomes a –る verb.

話す (はなす)→ 話される (はなされる)
聞く (きく) → 聞かれる (きかれる)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳がれる (およがれる)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼ばれる (よばれる)
飲む (のむ) → 飲まれる (のまれる)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死なれる (しなれる)
作る (つくる)→ 作られる (つくられる)
待つ (まつ) → 待たれる (またれる)
払う (はらう)→ 払われる (はらわれる)

This is essentially the same as the previous causative conjugation. Simply replace せ in the causative with れ to produce the passive.

Replace –う with –あせられる for the passive causative, "to be made to do X by someone". This becomes a –る verb.

話す (はなす)→ 話させられる (はなさせられる)
聞く (きく) → 聞かせられる (きかせられる)
泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳がせられる (およがせられる)
呼ぶ (よぶ) → 呼ばせられる (よばせられる)
飲む (のむ) → 飲ませられる (のませられる)
死ぬ (しぬ) → 死なせられる (しなせられる)
作る (つくる)→ 作らせられる (つくらせられる)
待つ (まつ) → 待たせられる (またせられる)
払う (はらう)→ 払わせられる (はらわせられる)

This conjugation is actually just a combination of the causative and passive, ie the passive form of the –る verb formed by the causative of the root verb. But it's often listed as a distinct conjugation of the root verb in many grammar books and so is presented here separately.

Irregular Verbs

The previous verb paradigms were fairly regular, even in the spots where particular types deviated from the norm. Memorizing the different conjugations is not terribly difficult, and there aren't a lot of conjugations possible. Almost every verb in Japanese follows one of the two –る or –う paradigms.

But even Japanese has irregular verbs. Most books say that there are only two irregular verbs in all of Japanese: する and 来る (くる). These two must be memorized separately from all the others. However, even they make sense in their own way once analyzed closely.

First we'll look at 来る (くる), "to come".

来る (くる) infinitive "come", "will come" or "comes [often, ...]"
来 (き) root add –ます; note that –やすい is not used
来て (きて) gerund "come and [...]"
来た (きた) past tense "came"
来たら (きたら) conditional "if/once someone comes", some sense of 'when'
来たり (きたり) alternative "do things like come"
来れば (くれば) conditional "if someone comes", no sense of 'when'
来よう (こよう) volitional "let's come" (has nothing to do with orgasm, sorry)
来い (こい) imperative "come!", rude
来ない (こない) negative "won't come" or "doesn't come [often, ...]
来られる (こられる) potential "can come"
来させる (こさせる) causative "make someone come"
来られる (こられる) passive "come via X" (FIXME: awful example)
来させられる (こさせられる)causative passive"be made to come [by someone]"

Now let's consider する, "to do".

する infinitive "do", "will do" or "does [often, ...]"
root add –ます or –やすい
して gerund "does X and [...]"
した past tense "did"
したら conditional "if/once someone does", some sense of 'when'
したり alternative "do things like doing"
すれば conditional "if someone does", no sense of 'when'
しよう volitional "let's do"
しろ imperative "do!", rude
しない negative "won't do" or "doesn't do [often, ...]
できる (せる)potential "can do", usually できる
させる causative "make someone do"
される passive "be done"
させられる causative passive"be made to do [by someone]"

A little trick to remember suru is that many of the conjugations match what you would get if you conjugated a lone verb 'す'. It works somewhat like like はなす, eg はなした → した, はなせる → せる, はなさせる → させる.

Look closely at the potential conjugation of する above. It says でき る, "can do". But せる is also shown. Usually できる is used to indicate the potentiality of doing something, but sometimes せる is used such as in the sentence "愛するひと" (あい する ひと), "someone I can love".

There are actually a number of other verbs which are also irregular in Japanese, although traditionally textbooks and grammar books prefer to ignore them or pretend that they aren't irregular. These irregulars are all –る verbs which have certain peculiarities about them. A list of these verbs is given below.

在る (ある) "to be"
行く (いく) "to go"
なさる "to do" (honorific)
下さる (くださる)"to give" (honorific)
仰る (おっしゃる)"to say" (honorific)
御座る (ござる) "to be" (honorific)
いらっしゃる "to be" (honorific)

The first two are very basic verbs which tend to be irregular in nearly all human languages, Japanese being no exception. The latter five are honorific verbs used only in polite speech. Their irregularities are all found only in the root form and actually represent verb conjugation paradigms once active in old Japanese but now preserved in these verbs mostly due to their use in certain set phrases such as お早う御座います (おはよう ございます, "good morning", lit. "it is early") and 御免なさい (ごめん なさい, "excuse me").

The verb 在る (ある, "to be") is only irregular in one form, the negative. In this conjugation it is written ない. Astute readers may note that ない is also the suffix added to all negative conjugations of other verbs. In this one case there just isn't a verb to add it to. In the negative of the polite –ます form however it is ありまえん.

The verb 行く (いく, "to go") varies from its related –く verbs in that instead of the expected いいて, いいた, いいたら, いいたり, it is actually いって, いった, いったら, いったり.

The other five verbs are distinct in their root forms, ie the forms which attach –ます. Instead of forming a –り to attach –ます, e.g. *なります, they form an –い. The following table should clarify this.

なさる → なさい
下さる (くださる)→ 下さい (ください)
仰る (おっしゃる)→ 仰い (おっしゃい)
御座る (ござる) → 御座い (ござい)
いらっしゃる → いらっしゃい

Note that 御座る (ござる, "to be") and いらっしゃる ("to be") are typically used in their polite –ます forms, giving what is commonly called (in English) the 'superpolite' form: 御座います (ございます), いらっしゃいます. It's good to remember the non-superpolite versions of these verbs, but don't expect to ever use them. But watch Ruroni Kenshin for a good example of using で御座る.

Adjectives

These aren't very hard. They always end in {あ,い,う,お} + い. They never end in え + い which would instead be a noun. Basically you replace い with a form of か to inflect.

やさしい "It's nice"
やさしくない "It's not nice"
やさしなくて... "It's not nice and..."
やさしかった "It was nice"
やさしかったら "If it's nice."
やさしかったり (possible but perhaps not heard often)
やさしければ "If it's nice."
やさしく "nicely" (adjective → adverb)

These inflections follow what a か + う verb would do. If you can conjugate 買う (かう, "to buy") you can conjugate every Japanese adjective. Just note that you don't say: "あつかせる" for "make something hot" you say "あつくする". For a command, say: "やさしくなって" ("be nice").

There is one peculiar formation of adjective which is almost dead in modern Japanese, but is visible in the phrase お早う御座います(おはよう ございます). In this phrase the adjective 早い (はやい, "early, fast") takes on the form 早う (はよう). This is an archaicism in modern Japanese preserved in this static phrase and in a few others such as お目出度う御座います (おめでとう ございます, "congratulations"). It's simplest just to memorize these few forms and not attempt to learn the process for other adjectives. But this form can be used occasionally for some pretty good jokes, like saying "おそよう御座います" to someone who's arrived late. It's from the adjective 遅い (おそい), meaning "late".

Conclusion

Questions, comments, and suggestions for this document are greatly appreciated. Please feel free to mail the author at the address below. This document is in the public domain and may be copied freely, used for educational purposes, sold to unwitting fools who would actually pay money for such a thing, or used as a fire starter. Idiots who are actually willing to put their name on this document and claim all the errors and misstatements for their own are perfectly welcome to do so, but know that the author is hardly proud of the excessive verbage and gratuitous incorrectness that ends up in here. In other words, if this document breaks you get to keep both pieces.

James A. Crippen (james@unlambda.com)
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Last modified: Fri Oct 3 20:39:02 AKDT 2003