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Japanese Grammar

The Japanese language has a highly regular agglutinative verb morphology, with both productive and fixed elements. Typologically, its most prominent feature is topic creation: Japanese is neither topic-prominent, nor subject-prominent; indeed, it is common for sentences to have distinct topics and subjects. Grammatically, Japanese is an SOV language, with verbs rigidly constrained to the sentence-final position. The word order is fairly free as long as the order of dependent-head is maintained among all constituents: the adjective or relative clause precedes the modified noun, the adverb precedes the modified verb, the genitive nominal precedes the possessed nominal, and so forth. Thus, Japanese is a left-branching language; to contrast, English is right-branching.

For simplicity, this article presents examples in plain informal and non-literary style. The reader must keep the general grammatical principles of politeness and respect in mind.


Textual classifications

Text (文章 bunshō) is composed of sentences (文 bun), which are in turn composed of phrases (文節 bunsetsu), which are its smallest coherent components. Like Chinese and classical Korean, written Japanese does not typically demarcate words with spaces; its agglutinative nature further makes the concept of a word rather different from words in English. Word divisions are informed by semantic cues and a knowledge of phrase structure. Phrases have a single meaning-bearing word, followed by a string of suffixes, auxiliary verbs and particles to modify its meaning and designate its grammatical role. In the following example, bunsetsu are indicated by vertical bars:

taiyou ga | higashi no | sora ni | noboru
The sun rises in the eastern sky.

Some scholars romanize Japanese sentences by inserting spaces only at phrase boundaries (i.e., "taiyouga higashino sorani noboru"), in effect treating an entire phrase as the equivalent of an English word. Traditionally, however, a more basic concept of word (単語 tango) forms the atoms of sentences. Words unlike phrases need not have intrinsic meaning, therefore admitting particles and auxiliary verbs. It must be noted that this classification of textual structure in modern Japanese is descriptive; some classical auxiliary verbs such as -te are grammaticalized as conjugations or verb endings in modern Japanese, not individual words.

watashi | wa | mainichi | gakkō | e | aruite | iku
Every day I walk to school.

The structure of this article will mirror the following classification of words. There are two broad categories — independent words (自立語 jiritsugo) having internal meaning, and ancillary words (付属語 fuzokugo) which are meaning modifiers. Independent words divide into a conjugable (活用語 katsuyōgo) class containing verbs (動詞 doushi), pure adjectives (形容詞 keiyōshi, also known as i-type adjective), and adjectival nouns (形容動詞 keiyōdōshi, also known as na-type adjective); and a non-conjugable (無活用語 mukatsuyōgo) class containing nouns (名詞 meishi), pronouns (代名詞 daimeishi), adverbs (副詞 fukushi), conjunctions (接続詞 setsuzokushi), and interjections (感動し kandōshi). Of ancillary words there are only two classes: grammatical particles (助詞 joshi) and auxiliary verbs (助動詞 jodōshi).

Nouns, pronouns, and other deictics

respectful forms of nouns
meaning plain respectful
rice meshi ご飯 go-han
money kane お金 o-kane
body karada お体 o-karada
御体 onmi
word(s) 言葉 kotoba お言葉 o-kotoba

Japanese nouns are non-inflecting, have no gender, and take no articles. Thus 猫 (neko) could be translated into English as "cat", "a cat", "the cat", "cats", "some cats", or "the cats", depending on context. A small number of nouns have plurals formed by reduplication (possibly accompanied by rendaku): thus 人 hito "person" and 人々 hitobito "people", although these are typically collective rather than true plurals. Additionally, in respectful speech, the prefix o- is often used with native nouns, as is the prefix go- with Sino-Japanese nouns. Some common nouns have unpredictable respectful forms; a few examples are in the adjoining table.

The use of pronouns in Japanese is rare, limited to when the referrent cannot be deduced from the context. For example, 日本に行きました (nihon ni ikimashita) says just "went to Japan". The subject is inferred from context: if the topic is the first person, then it means "I went to Japan", for a third person, "he/she went to Japan", etc. Speakers of Japanese tend to use names instead of pronouns in speech. For example:

Kinoshita-san wa, se ga takai desu ne.
(addressing Mr. Kinoshita) "You're pretty tall, aren't you?"

Japanese has many nouns that can be used as personal pronouns; see [1] for a long list. Some common ones are given in the following table.

person plain, informal polite respectful
first 僕 (boku, male), 俺 (ore, male, very informal)
あたし (atashi, female)
私 (watashi) 私 (watakushi)
second 君 (kimi, usu. used by males) 貴方 (anata), そちら (sochira) お宅 (o-taku)
third 彼 (kare, male)
彼女 (kanojo, female)
あの人 (ano hito)

Although Japanese nouns do not inflect for number, there are "plural" forms to indicate semantic number: 私達 (watashi-tachi) for "we", あなたたち (anata-tachi) for "you (plural)", 僕等 (bokura) for "we (inform. male)". Interestingly, one uncommon pseudopronoun, 我 (ware, "I") has a much more common reduplicative plural 我々 (wareware, "we"). However, 達 (-tachi) and 等 (-ra) are by far the most common pluralizing suffixes -- although 達 (-tachi) is not strictly a pluralizing suffix: for example, 太郎達 (Tarō-tachi) does not mean "some number of people named Tarō" but instead means "Tarō and his friends," or "Tarō and those people who are with him". The suffixes ス (-su) and ズ (-zu), derived from the English plural suffix -[e]s, are also occasionally used to indicate the plural, although this is not even remotely standard Japanese.

Whereas in English there are many reflexive pronouns (himself, herself, itself, themselves, etc.), in Japanese there is a single reflexive pronoun 自分 (jibun). The uses of the reflexive pronoun in the two languages are very different. The following incorrect literal translations demonstrate the differences (*=impossible, ??=ambiguous):

English Japanese reason
History repeats itself. *歴史は自分を繰り返す。
*Rekishi wa jibun wo kurikaesu.
the target of jibun must be animate
 ??John talked to Bill about himself. ジョンはビルに自分のことを話した。
Jon ga Biru ni jibun no koto wo hanashita.
John talked to Bill about himself (=John)
jibun refers unambiguously to the subject.
*John expects that Mary will take good care of himself.  ??ジョンはメリーが自分を大事にすることを期待している。
??Jon wa Merī ga jibun wo daiji ni suru koto wo kitaishite iru.
either "John expects that Mary will take good care of him", or "John expects that Mary will take good care of herself."
jibun can be in a different sentence or dependent clause, but its target is ambiguous

If the sentence has more than one grammatical or semantic subject, then the target is the subject of the main action; thus in the following sentence 自分 (jibun) refers unambiguously to Mary (even though John is the grammatical subject) because the main action is "Mary's reading".

Jon ga Merī ni jibun no uchi de hon wo yomaseta.
John made Mary read book(s) in her house.

In practice the main action is not always discernible, in which case such sentences are ambiguous. The use of jibun in complex sentences follows non-trivial rules.

ko- so- a- do-
this one
that one
that one over there
which one?
(of) this
(of) that
(of) that over there
(of) what?
like this
like that
like that over there
how? what sort of?
asoko *
over there
this way
that way
that way over there
which way?

in this manner

in that manner
ā *
in that (other) manner

in what manner?
this fellow
that fellow
that other fellow
which fellow?
* irregular formation

Demonstratives occur in the ko-, so-, and a- series. The ko- series refers to things closer to the speaker than the hearer, the so- series for things closer to the hearer, and the a-series for things distant to both the speaker and the hearer. With do-, demonstratives turn into the corresponding question form. Demonstratives of are also used for people, for example

Kochira wa Hayashi-san desu.
This is Mr. Hayashi.

Demonstratives limit, and therefore precede, nouns; thus この本 (kono hon) for "this/my book", and その本 (sono hon) for "that/your book".

When demonstratives are used to refer to things not visible to the speaker or the hearer, or to (abstract) concepts, they fulfill a related but different anaphoric role. The anaphoric so- series is used to refer to experience that is not shared between the speaker and the listener, generally because one party has no information about it. For shared information the anaphoric a- series is used.

A: Senjitsu, Sapporo ni itte kimashita.
A: I visited Sapporo recently.

B: Asoko (*Soko) wa itsu itte mo ii tokoro desu ne.
B: Yeah, that's a great place to visit whenever you go.

Soko instead of asoko would imply that B has no knowledge of Sapporo, which is inconsistent with the rest of the sentence.

Satō : Tanaka to iu hito ga kinō shinda tte...
Sato: I heard that a man called Tanaka died yesterday...
Mori: E', hontō?
Mori: Oh, really?
Satō : Dakara, sono (*ano) hito, Mori-san no mukashi no rinjin ja nakatta 'kke?
Sato: It's why I asked... wasn't he an old neighbour of yours?

Again, ano is inappropriate here because Sato doesn't (didn't) know Tanaka personally.

The ko- series demonstratives don't have clear anaphoric uses. They can be used in situations where the a- series sound too disconnected:

Ittai nan desu ka, kore (*are) wa?
What on earth is this?

Conjugable words

Stem forms

Prior to discussing the conjugable words, a brief note about stem forms. Conjugative suffixes and auxiliary verbs are attached to the stem forms of the affixee. In modern Japanese there are the following six stem forms.

Terminal form (終止形 shuushikei
is used at the ends of clauses in predicate positions. This form is also variously known as plain form (基本形 kihonkei) or dictionary form (辞書形 jishokei).
Attributive form (連体形 rentaikei
in modern Japanese is practically identical to the terminal form (but see Adjectives, below), but differs in use: it is prefixed to nominals and is used to define or classify the noun. In this function, the root of this stem form is called a prenominal adjective (連体詞 rentaishi).
Continuative form (連用形 ren'yōkei
is used in a linking role. This is the most productive stem form, taking on a variety of endings and auxiliaries, and can even occur independently in a sense similar to the -te ending. This form is also used to negate adjectives.
Imperfective form (未然形 mizenkei
is used for plain negative (of verbs), causative and passive constructions. The most common use of this form is with the -nai auxiliary that turns verbs into their negative (predicate) form. (See Verbs below.)
Hypothetical form (仮定形 kateikei
is used for conditional and subjunctive forms, using the -ba or -domo ending.
Imperative form (命令形 meireikei
is used to turn verbs into commands. Adjectives do not have an imperative stem form.

The application of conjugative suffixes to stem forms follow certain euphonic principles (音便 onbin), which is discussed below.


Verbs in Japanese are rigidly constrained to the ends of clauses in what is known as the predicate position.

neko wa sakana o taberu
cat TOPIC fish OBJECT eats
(The) cat eats fish.

The subject and objects of the verb are indicated by means of particles (see the section on it below), and the grammatical functions of the verb—primarily tense and voice—are indicated by means of conjugation. When the subject and the dissertative topic coincide, the subject is often omitted; if the verb happens to be intransitive, then it might have no objects either, in which case the entire sentence consists of a single verb. For this reason, it is often claimed that verbs (or more accurately, predicates) are the most important parts of speech in Japanese. Verbs have two tenses indicated by conjugation — past and nonpast. The semantic difference between present and future tenses is not indicated by means of conjugation. Usually there is no ambiguity because few verbs can operate in both uses. Voice and aspect are also indicated by means of conjugation, and possibly agglutinating auxiliary verbs. For example, the continuative aspect is formed by means of the continuative conjugation known as the gerundive or -te form, and the auxiliary verb iru; to illustrate, 見る (miru, to see) → 見ている (mite-iru, is seeing).

Verbs can be semantically classified based on certain conjugations.

Stative verbs 
indicate existential properties, such as to be (いる iru), can do (出来る dekiru), need (要る iru), etc. These verbs generally don't have a continuative conjugation with -iru because they are semantically continuative already.
Continual verbs 
conjugate with the auxiliary -iru to indicate the progressive aspect. Examples: to eat (食べる taberu), to drink (飲む nomu), to think (考える kangaeru). To illustrate the conjugation, 食べる (taberu, to eat) → 食べている (tabete-iru, is eating).
Punctual verbs 
conjugate with -iru to indicate a repeated action, or a continuing state after some action. Example: 知る (shiru, to know) → 知っている (shitte iru, am knowing); 打つ (utsu, to hit) → 打っている (utte iru, is hitting (repeatedly)).
Non-volitional verb 
indicate uncontrollable action or emotion. These verbs generally have no volitional, imperative or potential conjugation. Examples: 好む (konomu, to like, emotive), 見える (mieru, to be visible, non-emotive).
Movement verbs 
indicate motion. Examples: 歩く (aruku, to walk), 帰る (kaeru, to return). In the continuative form (see below) they take the particle ni to indicate a purpose.

There are other possible classes, and a large amount of overlap between the classes. Lexically, however, nearly every verb in Japanese is a member of exactly one of the following three regular conjugation groups.

Group 2a (上一段 kami ichidan, lit: upper first group) 
verbs with terminal stem form rhyming with -iru. Examples: 見る (miru, to see), 着る (kiru, to wear).
Group 2b (下一段 shimo ichidan, lit: lower first group) 
verbs with terminal stem form rhyming with -eru. Examples: 食べる (taberu, to eat), くれる (kureru, to give).
Group 1 (五段 godan, lit: fifth group) 
verbs with terminal form rhyming with -u. This description has a slight ambiguity -- certain verbs like 帰る (kaeru, to return) are group 1 instead of group 2. (See Miscellaneous section, below.) In modern Japanese the endings -yu and -fu are impossible, though they were common in classical Japanese; they are spelled with -u in modern Japanese.

Historical note: classical Japanese had upper and lower first and second groups and a fourth group (上/下一段 kami/shimo ichidan, 上/下二段 kami/shimo nidan, and 四段 yodan), and nothing like the modern godan group. Since verbs have migrated across groups in the history of the language, conjugation of classical verbs is not predictable from a knowledge of modern Japanese alone.

Of the irregular classes, there are two:

sa-group (サ変 SA-hen, an abbreviation of サ行変格活用 SA-gyou henkaku katsuyō or SA-row irregular conjugation) 
which has only one member, する (suru, to do).
ka-group (カ変 KA-hen, an abbreviation of カ行変格活用 KA-gyou henkaku katsuyō
which also has one member, 来る (kuru, to come).

Classical japanese had one further irregular class, the na-group, which contained 死ぬ (shinu, to die) and a handful of other now rare verbs, but these verbs are regular group 1 verbs in modern Japanese.

The following table illustrates the stem forms of the above conjugation groups, with the root indicated with dots. For example, to find the hypothetical form of the group 1 verb 書く (kaku), look in the second row to find its root, ka, then in the hypothetical row to get the ending ke, giving the stem form kake. When there are multiple possibilities, they are listed in the order of increasing rarity.

1 2a 2b sa ka
使・ (tsuka.) 書・ (ka.) 見・ (mi.) 食べ・ (tabe.)
Attributive form
(連体形 rentaikei)
使う (.u) 書く (.ku) 見る (.ru) 食べる (.ru) する (suru) 来る (kuru)
Terminal form
(終止形 shuushikei)
same as attributive form
Continuative form
(連用形 ren'youkei)
使い (.i) 書き (.ki) 見 (.) 食べ (.) し (shi) 来 (ki)
Imperfective form
(未然形 mizenkei)
使わ (.wa)1 書か (.ka) 見 (.) 食べ (.) し (shi)
せ (se)
さ (sa)
来 (ko)
Hypothetical form
(仮定形 kateikei)
使え (.e) 書け (.ke) 見れ (.re) 食べれ (.re) すれ (sure) 来れ (kure)
Imperative form
(命令形 meireikei)
使え (.e) 書け (.ke) 見ろ (.ro)
見よ (.yo)
食べろ (.ro)
食べよ (.yo)
しろ (shiro)
せよ (seyo)
せい (sei)
来い (koi)
  1. the unexpected ending is due to the verb classically conjugating as -ha, phonemic drift moving -ha to -wa, and finally modern spelling reform reuniting pronunciation with spelling.

The above are only the stem forms of the verbs; to these one must add various verb endings in order to get the fully conjugated verb. The following table lists the most common conjugations. In cases where the form is different based on the conjugation group of the verb, arrows point to the correct formation rule.

  formation rule group 1
書く (kaku)
group 2a
見る (miru)
group 2b
食べる (taberu)
する (suru)
来る (kuru)
cont. + ます (masu) 書き・ます
cont. + た (ta) 書い・た
imperf. + ない (nai) 書か・ない
+ なかった (nakatta)
-te form (gerundive) cont. + て (-te) 書いて
conditional1 hyp. + ば (ba) 書け・ば
provisional1 cont. + たら (tara) 書いたら
volitional imperf. + う(u) 書こ・う
imperf. + よう (-yō) 見・よう
passive imperf. + れる (reru) 書か・れる
imperf. + られる (-rareru) 見・られる
causative imperf. + せる (seru) 書か・せる
imperf. + させる (-saseru) 見・させる
potential hyp. + る (ru) 書け・る
imperf. + られる (-rareru) 見・られる
  1. Note that this is an entirely different verb; する (suru) has no potential form.

The polite ending -masu conjugates as a group 1 verb. The passive and potential endings -reru and -rareru, and the causative endings -seru and -saseru all conjugate as group 2b verbs. Multiple verbal endings can therefore agglutinate. For example, a common formation is the causative-passive ending, -sase-rareru.

boku wa ane ni nattō o tabesaserareta.
I was made to eat natto by my (elder) sister.

As should be expected, the vast majority of lexically legal combinations of conjugative endings are not semantically meaningful.


Japanese has two main classes of adjectives.

Pure adjectives (形容詞 keiyōshi, aka. i-type adjective) 
these are very similar to verbs, having roots and conjugating stem forms.
Adjectival nouns (形容動詞 keiyōdōshi, aka na-type adjective) 
these are grammatical nouns (though not necessarily legally possible as nouns) that are affixed with -na or -no to form the adjective.

All pure adjectives except for いい (ii, good) have regular conjugations, and ii is irregular only in the fact that it is a corruption of the regular adjective 良い (yoi) which manifests itself in the conjugations. All adjectival nouns conjugate regularly.

stem forms for adjectives
pure adjectives adjectival nouns
安・い (yasu.) い・い (i.) 静か- (shizuka-)
Attributive form1
(連体形 rentaikei)
安い (.i) いい (.i) 静かな (-na)
Terminal form1
(終止形 shuushikei)
安い (.i) いい (.i) 静かだ (-da)
Continuative form
(連用形 ren'youkei)
安く (.ku) 良く (yo.ku)*
静かで (-de)
Imperfective form
(未然形 mizenkei)
安かろ (.karo) 良かろ (yo.karo)* 静かだろ (-daro)
Hypothetical form
(仮定形 kateikei)
安けれ (.kere) 良けれ (yo.kere)* 静かなら (-nara)
Imperative form2
(命令形 meireikei)
安かれ (.kare) 良かれ (yo.kare) 静かなれ (-nare)
  1. The attributive and terminal forms were formerly 安き (.ki) and 安し (.shi), respectively; in modern Japanese these are used productively for stylistic reasons only, although many set phrases such as 名無し (nanashi, anonymous) and よし (yoshi, sometimes written yosh', general positive interjection) derive from them.
  2. The imperative form is extremely rare in modern Japanese, restricted to set patterns like 遅かれ早かれ (osokare hayakare, sooner or later), where they are treated as adverbial phrases! It is impossible for an imperative form to be in a predicate position.

Like verbs, we can enumerate some common conjugations of adjectives. Also, ii isn't special-cased, because all conjugations are identical to yoi.

  pure adjectives
安い (yasui)
adjectival nouns
静か (shizuka)
term. + copula です (desu) 安いです
yasui desu
root + copula です (desu) 静かです
shizuka desu
cont. + あった (atta)
(u + a collapse)
cont. + あった (atta)
(e + a collapse)
shizuka d.atta
cont. + (は)ない ((wa) nai)1 安く(は)ない
cont. + (は)ない ((wa) nai) 静かで(は)ない
shizuka de (wa) nai
cont. + (は)なかった ((wa) nakatta)1 安く(は)なかった
cont. + (は)なかった ((wa) nakatta) 静かで(は)なかった
shizuka de (wa) nakatta
non past
inf. neg. non-past + copula です (desu)1 安くないです
yasukunai desu
inf. cont + (は)ありません ((wa) arimasen) 静かではありません
shizuka de wa arimasen
inf. neg. past + copula です (desu)1 安くなかったです
yasukunakatta desu
inf. cont + (は)ありませんでした ((wa) arimasen deshita) 静かではありませんでした
shizuka de wa arimasen deshita
inf. neg. past + なかったです (nakatta desu)1 静かではなかったです
shizuka de wa nakatta desu
-te form cont. + て (te) 安くて
cont. 静かで
shizuka de
conditional2 hyp. + ば (ba) 安ければ
hyp. (+ ば (ba)) 静かなら(ば)
shizuka nara(ba)
provisional2 inf. past + ら (ra) 安かったら
inf. past + ら (ra) 静かだったら
shizuka datta.ra
volitional3 imperf. + う (u) 安かろう (yasukarō) imperf. + う (u)
= root + だろう (darō)
静かだろう (shizuka darō)
adverbial cont. 安く
root + に (ni) 静かに
shizuka ni
degree (-ness) root + さ (sa) 安さ
root + sa 静かさ
  1. note that these are just forms of the pure adjective ない (nai)
  2. see the note on hypothetical forms below.
  3. since most adjectives describe non-volitional conditions, the volitional form is interpreted as "it is possible", if sensible. In some rare cases it is semi-volitional: 良かろう (yokarō, OK (lit: let it be good)) in response to a report or request.

Adjectives too are governed by euphonic rules in certain cases, as noted in the section on it below. For the polite negatives of adjectival nouns, see also the section below on the copula だ (da).

The copula (だ da)

The copula da behaves very much like a verb or an adjective in terms of conjugation.

stem forms of the copula
Attributive form
(連体形 rentaikei)
である (de aru)
Terminal form
(終止形 shuushikei)
だ (da, informal)
です (desu, polite)
でございます (de gozaimasu, respectful)
Continuative form
(連用形 ren'youkei)
で (de)
Imperfective form
(未然形 mizenkei)
では (de wa)
Hypothetical form
(仮定形 kateikei)
なら (nara)
Imperative form
(命令形 meireikei)

Note that there are no potential, causative, or passive forms of the copula, just as with adjectives. The following are some examples.

JON wa gakusei da
John is a student.

ashita mo hare nara, PIKUNIKU shiyō
If tomorrow is clear too, let's have a picnic.

In continuative conjugations, では (de wa) is often contracted in speech to じゃ (ja); for some kinds of informal speech ja is preferrable to de wa, or is the only possibility.

conjugations of the copula
nonpast informal だ (da)
polite です (desu)
respectful でございます (de gozaimasu)
past informal cont. + あった (atta)
だった (datta)
polite でした (desita)
respectful でございました (de gozaimashita)
informal cont. + はない (wa nai)
polite cont. + はありません (wa arimasen)
polite cont. + はございません (wa gozaimasen)
informal cont. + はなかった (nakatta)
polite cont. + はありませんでした (wa arimasen deshita)
polite cont. + はございませんでした (wa gozaimasen deshita)
conditional informal hyp. + ば (ba)
polite cont. + あれば (areba)
provisional informal なら (nara)
polite same as conditional
volitional informal だろう (darō)
polite でしょう (deshō)
respectful でございましょう (de gozaimashō)
adverbial and
-te forms
informal cont.
polite cont. + ありまして (arimashite)
respectful cont. + ございまして (gozaimashite)

Euphonic changes (音便 onbin)
spelling changes
archaic modern
あ+う (a + u)
あ+ふ (a + fu)
おう (ō)
い+う (i + u)
い+ふ (i + fu)
ゆう ()*
う+ふ (u + fu) うう (ū)
え+う (e + u)
え+ふ (e + fu)
よう ()
お+ふ (o + fu)
お+を (o + wo)
おう (ō)
medial or final は (ha) わ (wa)
medial or final ひ (hi), へ (he), ほ (ho) い (i), え (e), お (o)
(via wi, we, wo, see below)
any ゐ (wi), ゑ (we), を (wo) い (i), え (e), お (o)
* usu. not reflected in spelling

Modern pronunciation is a result of a long history of phonemic drift that can be traced back to written records of the thirteenth century, and possibly earlier. However, it was only in 1946 that the Japanese ministry of education modified existing kana usage to conform to the standard dialect (共通語 kyōtsūgo). All earlier texts used the archaic orthography, now referred to as historical kana usage. The adjoining table is a nearly exhaustive list of these spelling changes. As mentioned above, conjugations of some verbs and adjectives differ from the prescribed formation rules because of euphonic changes. Nearly all of these euphonic changes are themselves regular. For verbs the exceptions are all in the ending of the continuative form of group 1when the following auxiliary has a ta-sound, i.e., た (ta), て (te), たり (tari), etc.

continuative ending changes to example
い, ち or り *買いて *kaite → 買って katte
*打ちて *uchite → 打って utte
*知りて *shirite → 知って shitte
び, み or に ん, with the following タ sound voiced *遊びて *asobite → 遊んで asonde
*住みて *sumite → 住んで sunde
*死にて *shinite → 死んで shinde
*書きて *kakite → 書いて kaite
い, with the following タ sound voiced *泳ぎて *oyogite → 泳いで oyoide

There is one other irregular change: 行く iku (to go), for which there is an exceptional continuative form: 行き iki + て te → 行って itte, 行き iki + た ta → 行った itta, etc.

The continuative form of proper adjectives, when followed by polite forms such as ございます (gozaimasu, to be) or 存じます (zonjimasu, to know), undergo a transformation.

continuative ending description examples
[not し] + く う, possibly also combining with the previous syllable according to the spelling reform chart *寒くございます *samuku gozaimasu → 寒うございます samū gozaimasu
*おはやくございます ohayaku gozaimasu → おはようございます ohayō gozaimasu
しく しゅう *涼しくございます *suzushiku gozaimasu → 涼しゅうございます suzushuu gozaimasu

Respectful verbs such as くださる (kudasaru, to get), なさる (nasaru, to do), ござる (gozaru, to be), いらっしゃる (irassharu, to be/come/go), おっしゃる (ossharu, to say), etc. behave like group 1 verbs, except in the continuative and imperative forms.

change examples
continuative ーり changed to ーい *ござります *gozarimasu → ございます gozaimasu
*いらっしゃりませ *irassharimase → いらっしゃいませ irasshaimase
imperative ーれ changed to ーい *くだされ *kudasare → ください kudasai
*なされ *nasare → なさい nasai

In speech, common combinations of conjugation and auxiliary verbs are contracted in a fairly regular manner.

colloquial contractions
full form colloquial example
-te shimau
group 1
負けてしまう (makete shimau, lose) → 負けちゃう (makechau)
死んでしまう (shinde shimau, die) → 死んじゃう (shinjau)
-te wa
食べてはいけない (tabete wa ikenai, must not eat) → 食べちゃいけない (tabecha ikenai)
-te iru
group 2b
寝ている (nete iru, is sleeping) → 寝てる (neteru)
-te oku
group 1
しておく (shite oku, will do it so) → しとく (shitoku)
-te iku
group 1
出て行け (dete ike, get out!) → 出てけ (deteke)
-ru no
何しているの (nani shite iru no, what are you doing?) → 何してんの (nani shitenno)

Other independent words


Adverbs in Japanese are not as tightly integrated into the morphology as in many other languages. Indeed, adverbs are not an independent class of words, but rather a role played by other words. For example, every adjective in the continuative form can be used as an adverb; thus, 弱い (yowai, weak, adj) → 弱く (yowaku, weakly, adv). The primary distinguishing characteristic of adverbs is that they cannot occur in a predicate position, just as it is in English. The following classification of adverbs is not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive.

Verbal adverbs 
are verbs in the continuative form with the particle ni. Eg. 見る (miru, to see) → 見に (mi ni, for the purpose of seeing), used for instance as: 見に行く (mi ni iku, go to see (sth.)).
Adjectival adverbs 
are adjectives in the continuative form, as mentioned above.
Nominal adverbs 
are grammatical nouns that function as adverbs. Examples: あまり (amari, a little/not a lot), どう (, how), 一番 (ichiban, most highly), etc.
Sound Symbolism 
are words that mimic sounds or concepts. Examples: きらきら (kirakira, sparklingly), ぽっくり (pokkuri, suddenly), するする (surusuru, smoothly (sliding)), etc.

Often, especially for sound symbolism, the particle to ("as if") is used.

Conjunctions and interjections

These parts of speech are much as in English.

Examples of conjunctions: そうして (sōshite, and then), また (mata, and then/again), etc.

Examples of interjections: はい (hai, yes/OK/uh), へえ (, wow!), いいえ (īe, no/no way), おい (oi, hey!), etc.

Ancillary words


Particles in Japanese are postpositional—they immediately follow the modified component. A full listing of particles would be beyond the scope of this article, so only a few prominent particles are listed here.

It should be noted that the pronunciation of some hiragana characters is altered when used as particles, namely は (ha -> wa), へ (he -> e), and を (wo -> o). The altered pronounciation is usually used in rōmaji.

Topic, theme, and subject: は (wa) and が (ga)

The distinction between the so-called topic (は wa) and subject (が ga) particles is not straightforward, and in fact has been the theme of many doctoral dissertations and scholarly disputes. The reader is warned to take the material in this section, more than any other part of this article, as a poor and approximate guide. Interested readers are referred to two major scholarly surveys of Japanese linguistics in English, (Shibatani 1990) and (Kuno 1973). To simplify matters, the referrents of wa and ga will be called the topic and subject respectively, with the understanding that if one or the other is absent, then the grammatical topic and subject may coincide depending on context.

As a first approximation, the difference between wa and ga is a matter of focus: wa gives focus to the action of the sentence, i.e., the verb or adjective, whereas ga gives focus to the subject of the action. However, this description is too abstract; a more useful description must proceed by ennumerating uses of these particles.

Thematic wa

The use of wa to introduce a new theme of discourse is directly linked to the notion of grammatical theme. Opinions differ on the structure of discourse theme, though it seems fairly uncontroversial to imagine a first-in-first-out hierarchy of themes that is threaded through the discourse. Of course, human limitations restrict the scope and depth of themes, and later themes may cause earlier themes to expire. In these sorts of sentences, the steadfast translation into English uses constructs like "speaking of X" or "on the topic of X", though such translations tend to be bulky as they fail to use the thematic mechanisms of English. For lack of a best strategy, many teachers of Japanese drill the "speaking of X" pattern into their students without sufficient warning.

JON wa gakusei de aru
(On the topic of John), John is a student.

The warning against rote translation cannot be overemphasized. A common linguistic joke is the sentence 僕は鰻だ (boku wa unagi da), which according to the pattern should be translated as "(Speaking of me), I am an eel." Yet, in a restaurant this sentence can reasonably be used to say "I'd like an order of eel", with no intended humor. This is because the sentence should be literally read, "As for me, it is an eel," with "it" referring to the speaker's order. We can clearly see that the topic of the sentence is not its subject! (As a side note, the separation of grammatical topic and subject is sometimes transported by native Japanese speakers to other languages; for example, a Japanese with a shaky grasp of English might say "I am an eel" in a restaurant in an attempt to order eel.)

Contrastive wa

Related to the role of wa in introducing themes is its use in contrasting the current topic and its aspects from other possible topics and their aspects. The suggestive pattern is "X, but ..." or "as for X, ...".

ame wa futte imasu ga...
It is raining, but...

Because of its contrastive nature, the topic cannot be undefined.

*dareka wa hon o yonde iru
*Someone is reading the book.

In this situation ga is forced.

In practice, the distinction between thematic and contrastive wa is not that useful. Suffice it to say that there can be at most one thematic wa in a sentence, and it has to be the first wa if one exists, and the remaining was are contrastive. For completeness, the following sentence (due to Kuno) illustrates the difference.

boku ga shitte iru hito wa daremo konakatta
(1) Of all the people I know, none came.
(2) (People came but), there wasn't any of the people I know.

The first interpretation is the thematic wa, treating "the people I know" (boku ga shitte iru hito) as the theme of the predicate "none came" (dare mo konakatta). That is, if I know A, B, ..., Z, then none of the people who came were A, B, ..., Z. The second interpretation is the contrastive wa. If the likely attendees were A, B, ..., Z, and of them I know P, Q and R, then the sentence says that P, Q and R did not come. The sentence says nothing about A', B', ..., Z', all of whom I know, but none of whom were likely to come. The sentence is ambiguous up to this difference. (In practice the first interpretation is the likely one.)

Exhaustive ga

Unlike wa, the subject particle ga nominates its referrent as the sole satisfier of the predicate. This distinction is famously illustrated by the following pair of sentences.

JON wa gakusei desu
John is a student. (There may be other students among the people we're talking about.)

JON ga gakusei desu
(Of all the people we are talking about), it is John who is the student.

Objective ga

For stative transitive verbs, ga instead of o is typically used to mark the object, although it is sometimes acceptable to use o.

JON wa FURANSU-go ga dekiru
John knows French

Objects, locatives, instrumentals: を (o), に (ni), で (de), へ (e)

The direct object of non-stative transitive verbs is indicated by the object particle を (o).

JON wa aoi SE-TA- o kite iru
John is wearing a blue sweater.

This particle can also have a instrumental use for motion verbs.

MERI- ga hosoi michi o aruite ita
Mary was walking along a narrow road.

English allows a similar concept ("walk the road"), though it is usually literary. The general instrumental particle is で (de), which can be translated as "using".

niku wa NAIFU de kiru koto
Meat must be cut with a knife.

This particle also has other uses: "at" (temporary location):

machikado de sensei ni atta
(I) met my teacher at the street corner.


umi de oyogu no wa muzukashii
Swimming in the sea is hard.

"With" or "in (the span of)":

geki wa shujinkō no shi de owaru
The play ends with the protagonist's death.

ore wa nibyou de katsu
I'll win in two seconds.

The general locative particle is に (ni).

tōkyō ni ikimashō
Let's go to Tokyo

In this function it is interchangable with へ (e). However, ni has additional uses: "at (prolonged)":

watashi wa GUROSUTA- tōri 99 ban ni sunde imasu
I live at 99 Gloucester road


kōri wa mizu ni uku
Ice floats on water.

"In (some year)", "at (some point in time)":

haru no yūgure ni...
On a spring eve...

Quantity and extents: と (to), も (mo), か (ka), や (ya), から (kara), まで (made)

To conjoin nouns, と (to) is used.

BAGU ni wa kyōkasho san-satsu to mangahon go-satsu irete imasu
I have three textbooks and five comic books in the bag.

The additive particle も (mo) can be used to conjoin larger nominals and clauses.

YO-HAN wa DOITSU-jin da. BURIGE-TA mo DOITSU-jin da
Johan is a German. Brigette is a German too.

kare wa eiga SUTA- de ari, seijika de mo aru
He is a movie star and also a politician.

For an incomplete list of conjuncts, や (ya) is used.

BORISU ya AIBAN wo yobe
Call Boris, Ivan, etc.

When only one of the conjuncts is necessary, the disjunctive particle か (ka) is used.

SUSHI ka SASHIMI ka, nanika wo chūmon shite ne
Order sushi or sashimi or something.

Quantities are listed between から (kara, from) and まで (made, to).

92 do kara 96 do made no netsu wa shinpai suru mono de wa nai
A temperature between 92 F and 96 F is not worrisome.

This pair can also be used to indicate time or space.

asa hachi-ji kara jūichi-ji made jugyō ga aru n da
You see, I have classes between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Because kara indicates starting point or origin, it has a related use as "because":

SUMISU-san wa gōin na hito desu kara, itsumo tanomarete iru kamoshirenai
Mr. Smith, I think it's because you're so assertive that you're always asked to do everything.

The particle kara and a related particle yori are used to indicate lowest extents: prices, business hours, etc.

wareware wa shichi-ji yori eigyō shite orimasu
We are open for business from 7 onwards.

Yori is also used in the sense of "than".

omae wa nē-chan yori urusai n da
You are louder/more talkative than my sister!

Coordinating: と (to), に (ni), よ (yo)

The particle と (to) is used to set off quotations.

"koroshite... koroshite" to ano ko wa itte'ta no
The girl was saying, "Kill... kill."

neko wa NYA- NYA- to naku
The cat says: meaow, meaow.

It is also used to indicate a manner of similarity, "as if" or "like".

kare wa "aishite'ru yo" to itte, pokkuri to shinda
He said "I love you," and dropped dead.

In a related conditional use, it functions like "after", or "upon".

ame ga agaru to, kodomo-tachi wa mou gakushū o wasurete, taiyō ni omote wo mukeru mizu-tamari no yūwaku o shitagau
Rain stops and then: children, forgetting their lessons, give in to the temptation of sun-faced puddles.

Finally it is used with verbs like to meet (with) (会う au) or to speak (with) (話す hanasu).

JON ga MERI- to hajimete atta no wa, 1942 nen no haru no yūgure datta
John met Mary for the first time on a dusky spring afternoon in 1942.

This last use is also a function of the particle に (ni), but to indicates reciprocation which ni does not.

JON ga MERI- to ren'ai shite iru
John and Mary are in love.

JON ga MERI- ni ren'ai shite iru
John loves Mary (but Mary might not love John back).

Finally, the particle よ (yo) is used in a hortative or vocative sense.

kawaii musume yo, kao o shikamete watashi wo miruna
O my beloved daughter, don't frown at me so!

Final: か (ka), ね (ne), よ (yo) and related

The sentence-final particle か (ka) turns a declarative sentence into a question.

sochira wa AMERIKA-jin deshō ka?
Are you perchance an American?

The particle ね (ne) softens a declarative sentence, similar to English "you know?", "eh?" or "I tell you!".

kare ni denwa shinakatta no ne
You didn't call him up, did you?

chikajika RONDON ni hikkosareru sou desu ne.
I hear you're moving to London soon. Is that true?

A final よ (yo) is used for emphasis.

uso tsuite nai yo!
I'm not lying!

The particles ぜ (ze) and ぞ (zo) are sometimes used similarly, particularly by boys in movie dialogue.

Compound particles

Compound particles are formed with at least one particle together with other words including, other particles. The commonly seen forms are:

  • particle + verb (term. or cont. or -te form)
  • particle + noun + particle
  • noun + particle

Other structures are rarer, though of course possible. A few examples:

sono ken ni kan-shite shitte-iru kagiri no koto wo oshiete moraitai
Kindly tell me everything you know concerning that case. (particle + verb in cont.)

gaikokugo wo gakushū suru ue de taisetsu na koto wa mainichi no doryoku ga mono wo iu to iu koto de aru
In studying a foreign language, daily effort gives the most rewards. (noun + particle)

ani wa ryōshin no shinpai o yoso ni, daigaku wo yamete shimatta
Ignoring my parents' worries, my brother dropped out of college. (particle + noun + particle)

Auxiliary verbs

All auxiliary verbs attach to a verbal or adjectival stem form and conjugate as verbs, but they differ from normal verbs in having no independent meaning. In modern Japanese there are two distinct classes of auxiliary verbs:

Pure auxiliaries (助動詞 jodōshi
are usually just called verb endings or conjugated forms. These auxiliaries cannot possibly function as an independent verb.
Helper auxiliaries (補助動詞 hododōshi
are normal verbs that lose their independent meaning when used as auxiliaries.

In classical Japanese which was more purely agglutinating than modern Japanese, the category of auxiliary verb included every possible verb ending after the stem form, and most of these endings were themselves active participants in composition. In modern Japanese, however, some auxiliaries have stopped being productive. The most classic example is the classical auxiliary たり (-tari) whose forms た (-ta), て (-te), etc. are now no longer viewed as verbal endings, i.e., they can take no further affixes.

some pure auxiliary verbs
auxiliary group attaches to meaning modification example
ます (masu) 1 continuative makes V polite 書く (kaku, to write) → 書きます (kakimasu)
られる (rareru)1 2b cont. of grp. 2 makes V passive/polite/potential 見る (miru, to see) → 見られる (mirareru, to be able to see)
増える (fueru, to increae) → 増えられる (fuerareru, to have the ability to increase)
る (ru) hyp. of grp. 1 飲む (nomu, to drink/swallow) → 飲める (nomeru, to be able to drink)
させる (saseru)2 2b cont. of grp. 2 makes V causative 考える (kangaeru, to think) → 考えさせる (kangaesaseru, to cause to think)
せる (seru) imperf. of grp. 1 思い知る (omoishiru, to realize) → 思い知らせる (omoishiraseru, to cause to realize/to teach a lesson)
1 られる (rareru) is often shortened to れる (reru, grp. 2); thus 食べれる (tabereru, to be able to eat) instead of 食べられる (taberareru).
2 させる (saseru) is sometimes shortened to さす (sasu, grp. 1), but this usage is somewhat literary.

Much of the agglutinative flavour of Japanese stems from helper auxiliaries, however. The following table contains a small selection of an abundant store of such auxiliary verbs.

some helper auxiliary verbs
auxiliary group attaches to meaning modification example
ある (aru, to be (inanimate)) 1 -te form
only for trans.
indicates state modification 開く (aku, to open) → 開いてある (aite-aru, opened and is still open)
いる (iru, to be (animate)) 2a -te form
for trans.
progressive aspect 寝る (neru, to sleep) → 寝ている (nete-iru, is sleeping)
2a -te form
for intrans.
indicates state modification 閉まる (shimaru, (intransitive) to close) → 閉まっている (shimatte-iru, is closed)
いく (iku, to go) 1 -te form "goes on V-ing" 歩く (aruku, to walk) → 歩いていく (aruite-iku, keep walking)
くる (kuru, to come) ka -te form inception, "start to V" なる (naru, become) → なってくる (natte-kuru, start becoming)
始める (hajimeru, to begin) 2b continuative
"V begins", "begin to V" 書く (kaku, to write) → 書き始める (kaki-hajimeru, start to write)
punctual & subj. must be plural
着く (tsuku, to arrive) → 着き始める (tsuki-hajimeru, have all started to arrive)
出す (dasu, to emit) 1 continuative "start to V" 輝く (kagayaku, to shine) → 輝き出す (kagayaki-dasu, to start shining)
みる (miru, to see) 1 -te form "try to V" する (suru, do) → してみたい (shite-mitai, try to do)
なおす (naosu, to correct/heal) 1 continuative "do V again, correcting mistakes" 書く (kaku, to write) → 書きなおす (kaki-naosu, rewrite)
あがる (agaru, to rise) 1 continuative "do V thoroughly" / "V happens upwards" 立つ (tatsu, to stand) → 立ち上がる (tachi-agaru, stand up)

出来る (dekiru, to come out) → 出来上がる (deki-agaru, be completed)

得る (eru/uru, to be able) 2b/1 continuative
only for group 1 verbs
indicates potential ある (aru, to be) → あり得る (arieru, is possible)
かかる (kakaru, to hang/catch/obtain) 1 continuative
only for intrans., non-volit.
"about to V", "almost V" 溺れる (oboreru, drown) → 溺れかかる (obore-kakaru, about to drown)
きる (kiru, to cut) 1 continuative "do V completely" 食べる (taberu, to eat) → 食べきる (tabe-kiru, to eat it all)
消す (kesu, to erase) 1 continuative "cancel by V"
"deny with V"
揉む (momu, to rub) → 揉み消す (momi-kesu, to rub out, to extinguish)
込む (komu, to enter deeply/plunge) 1 continuative "V deep in", "V into" 話す (hanasu, to speak) → 話し込む (hanashi-komu, to be deep in conversation)
下げる (sageru, to lower) 2b continuative "V down" 引く (hiku, to pull) → 引き下げる (hiki-sageru, to pull down)
過ぎる (sugiru, to exceed) 2a continuative "overdo V" 言う (iu, to say) → 言いすぎる (ii-sugiru, to say too much, to overstate)
付ける (tsukeru, to attach) 2b continuative "become accustomed to V" 行く (iku, to go) → 行き付ける (iki-tsukeru, be used to (going))
続ける (tsuzukeru, to continue) 2b continuative "keep on V" 降る (furu, to fall (eg. rain)) → 降り続ける (furi-tsuzukeru, to keep falling)
通す (tōsu, to show/thread/lead) 1 continuative "finish V-ing" 読む (yomu, to read) → 読み通す (yomi-tōsu, to finish reading)
抜ける (nukeru, to shed/spill/desert) 2b continuative
only for intrans.
"V through" 走る (hashiru, to run) → 走り抜ける (hashiri-nukeru, to run through (swh))
残す (nokosu, to leave behind) 1 continuative by doing V, leave sth behind 思う (omou, to think) → 思い残す (omoi-nokosu, to regret (lit: to have sth left to think about))
残る (nokoru, to be left behind) 1 continuative
for intrans. only
be left behind, doing V 生きる (ikiru, live) → 生き残る (iki-nokoru, to survive (lit: to be left alive))
分ける (wakeru, to divide/split/classify) 2b continuative the proper way to V. 使う (tsukau, use) → 使い分ける (tsukai-wakeru, to indicate the proper way to use)
忘れる (wasureru, to forget) 2b continuative to forget to V 聞く (kiku, to ask) → 聞き忘れる (kiki-wasureru, to forget to ask)

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