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Grammar detail: Japanese verbs and verb conjugation

2
Japanese verbs and verb conjugation
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Japanese verb conjugation is actually quite straightforward compared to some languages. There are only a small number of irregular verbs, relatively few conjugations, no cases (to indicate who is speaking, gender, singular/plural etc), and regular verbs follow fairly simple rules.
Verbs are classified into two main groups, and a verb's group determines how it is conjugated. The names of the groups actually tell you how to conjugate the verb - it's a lot simpler than it sounds! The two groups are:
  • 'Ichidan' (in Japanese
    いちだん
    どうし
    , literally 'one level verbs'). 'Ichidan' verbs are also often known as 'る' form verbs, and sometimes as 'Group 2' verbs.
  • 'Godan' (
    ごだん
    どうし
    , 'five level verbs'). 'Godan' verbs are often known as 'う' form verbs, and sometimes as 'Group 1' verbs.
We recommend you use the terms
ichidan
and
godan
- they are more descriptive, and they're the terms Japanese people use.

Ichidan (いちだん) 'る' form verbs

Ichidan verbs always end in る in their plain form - hence 'one' level. Each conjugated form is created by replacing the る with the appropriate (standard) ending.
Using
べる (to eat) as an example:
Form Example
negative たべない
masu たべます
plain たべる
conditional たべられる
volitional たべましょう

Godan (ごだん)'う' form verbs

The most common five forms of godan verbs use each of the five Japanese vowel sounds (あ, い, う, え, お) - hence 'five' level - combined with whatever consonant begins the final sound of the plain form. Using
く (to write) as an example, the consonant is 'k' (from く):
Vowel sound Form Example
negative ない
masu ます
plain
conditional
volitional
Godan exceptions
A small number of verbs ending in る are godan verbs even though their plain form appears to classify them as ichidan. (In other words,
はい
る becomes
はい
ります.)
There is no rule which determines whether verbs ending in る are ichidan or godan, so it is best to memorize the exceptions below.
はい
to enter
はし
to run
to need
かえ
to return
かぎ
to limit
to cut
しゃべ
to chatter
to know

irregular verbs

There are only two key irregular verbs in Japanese: する (to do), and くる (to come). Both are very common - especially する, which can be used to turn any noun into a verb.

する to do

{vocabinflection326526}
The potential form of する is actually an entirely different verb, できる, which is used in its own right to mean 'to be able to'.

くる to come

{vocabinflection345403}

Other exceptions

In addition to くる and する, one other verb, ある (meaning to be or to have) has two irregular forms - the plain negative (ない) and the plain past negative (なかった). All other forms of ある are regular, and ある is not considered an irregular verb.
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See also:
  • Key verb conjugations
  • verb stem - base part of a verb
  • Japanese terms for parts of speech

Kanji used in this grammar

イチ   イツ   ひと    ひと- one   
1
ダン    grade, step, stairs   
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3
ドウ   うご to move, to stir   うごかす to shift, to move   
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2
シ    part of speech, words, poetry   
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4
ゴ   いつ-    いつ five   
1
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