Practical and polite Japanese verb conjugation

Japanese is generally an agglutinative language. So what does this actually mean? You must have heard of this in high school, but I will try to explain you in a few lines. The term "to agglutinate" was derived from the latin verb "agglutinare", which means "to glue together". Such languages have very few irregular verbs. The meaning of a specific verb can be changed by conjugating it. Conjugation in this sense basically means removing a part of a given word and then attaching morphemes without changing their phonetics or spelling. Another good example for agglutinative language is Hungarian.

Japanese verbs cannot be used in their dictionary forms when talking to superiors

Consequently, the morphemes that you can string to a given word are fixed, but you need to memorize the rules how you can attach these. Obviously this is the case for Japanese verbs as well. I have already mentioned in one of my previous articles that Japanese words basically have two forms. One is called "the dictionary form", which you can find in a dictionary. And the other form is called "the conjugated form", which you can get if you change the ending of a given word.

Somebody might wonder "Why did this guy spent a whole article on Japanese verb classification?". Okay, so here's the answer!

As I have already written, Japanese verbs can be classified into three big groups. The conjugation rules depend on the group of the verb. This is great, in a sense that you don't have to remember how to conjugate the verbs case by case. On the other hand, unfortunately there are verbs, that for the first sight seem to belong to group number two, but actually they belong to group number one. There are a few of these verbs which you will have to learn gradually.

Japanese verb conjugation is an important element of it's grammar

If you open up a Japanese dictionary or you are searching for a word on the Internet, you will find it in "the dictionary form" (nobody will conjugate it for you).

For verbs this form ends in a "u" sound:

る、ゆ、む、ふ、ぬ、つ、す、く、う 「I am not sure if there is an example for all the letters...」

Even though you have found the equivalent term in Japanese, you cannot really use it in this form, unless you are talking to your friend or your relatives. This is because you need to be as polite as possible, when talking in Japanese. The dictionary form of a Japanese verb lacks any form of politeness.

So if you have to avoid using the dictionary form of a Japanese verb when talking to your superior, what can you do? This is the situation when does so called "ます形"(masu-kei) form comes handy. In the following chapter I will talk about the conjugation rules of the "ます形".

Let's review to classification rules of Japanese verbs:

  • Rule 1: verbs that don't end in 'る' belong to the group 1
  • Rule 2: verbs ending in 'る' with a high vowel (e,i) before 'る', belong to group 2
  • Rule 3: verbs ending in 'る' with a low vowel (a,u,o) before 'る', belong to group 1
Read more >> Conjugation of Japanese adjectives and classifications

And now let's see how to conjugate group 1 verbs into "ます形".

Conjugation rules of the "masu" form of group 1 type Japanese verbs:

  • Rule 1: You can create the "masu" form of a group 1 type Japanese verb, by changing it's final hiragana into an "i" sound equivalent and then attaching "ます" to it.
What do I mean by saying "i sound equivalent"?
  • る ー り
  • む ー み
  • ぬ ー に
  • つ ー ち
  • す ー し
  • く ー き
  • う ー い
For example:
to go: 行く(いく)-->  行きます (いきます)since ”く”'s “i” sound equivalent is “き” + ます

And now let's see how to conjugate group 2 verbs into "ます形".

Conjugation rules of the "masu" form of group 2 type Japanese verbs:

  • Rule 2: You just simply need to replace "る" by "ます"
For example:

to eat: 食べる(たべる)-->  食べます (たべます)

As I have written it in my previous article regarding the classification of Japanese verbs, there is a third group which consists of only two verbs. You will need to learn all the forms of these two verbs case by case because there is no rule for them.

Conjugation rules for the "masu" form for group 3 type Japanese verbs:

  • する ー します
  • 来る (くる) ー 来ます (きます)

And finally let's see three use-cases.

  • 私(わたし)は行きます。 ー I go.
  • 母(はは)は食べます。 ー My mum eats.
  • 田中(たなか)さんは勉強(べんきょう)します。 ー Tanaka learns.

These are very simple Japanese sentences that you can use when talking to your superior. However there are situations when you need to be more polite than usual. Superior doesn't necessarily mean that your partner is much older than you or he/she is your professor or boss. As a general rule I would suggest you to use the "masu" form, when talking to strangers as well.

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