A Japanese Grammar Primer

A Japanese Grammar Primer

The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State ranks the difficulty of the languages they teach by the number of hours it takes to achieve professional working proficiency.

For example, they estimate 24-30 weeks to learn Spanish or French. Japanese, by comparison, has been estimated as taking an average of 88 weeks, alongside the likes of Arabic and Chinese. These are called “Category IV languages” or “super-hard languages.”

I am here to tell you, be not afraid: underneath the surface of a completely different alphabet is a language that has one word for “is,” “am,” and “are.” A language where the letter “a” is pronounced one way instead of ten. A language without fussy rules about commas and apostrophes! Japanese grammar rules are not nearly as intimidating as they first appear.

Sounds easy enough, right? Let’s dive in!

How is Japanese similar to English?

You probably know more about Japanese language than you think if you speak English.

Loan words

Let’s start with words you practically already know. Like many other languages, Japanese has adopted quite a few words from other languages around the world. These are called “loan words,” or gairaigo or wasei-eigo (for English specifically) in Japanese.

The most common of these are English, Portuguese, Dutch, and German. Many of these will be quite familiar to you!

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*This is actually “part-time job” in Japanese, despite the literal German translation

There are even a few Japanese words that English has adopted as loan words, like sushi and tsunami. Even typhoon comes from the Japanese word taifuu! While these words are a minority out of all the words to learn, they do provide a nice handicap to get you started on your vocabulary!

Chinese characters

Yes, really! While kanji (the characters adapted from the Chinese writing system) can appear intimidating to a native English speaker, they actually function much like the adapted Greek and Roman roots we use in English!

For example: anthrop (human) + ology (reason) gives us “anthropology,” the study of humans. Similarly, kanji are put together to form words that derive its meaning from the combined meaning of each individual kanji. For example: 

手 (hand) + 紙 (paper) = tegami, letter (written by hand on paper)

新 (new) + 聞 (listen) = shinbun, newspaper (you listen to what’s new)

True, you do have to learn the kanji and their meanings first (much like knowing the meaning of Greek and Roman roots is useful). But, once you know them, you can piece together meanings of whole words you’ve never seen before if you know the meanings of the individual kanji!

This, that, and that over there

We always need a way to point out where things are in relation to everything else. What is this here in my hand? What is that there in your hand? Japanese has a remarkably similar grouping of words, which we can refer to as the ko-so-a-do system. For instance:

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But wait, there’s more! Japanese simplifies this further by using the same system for here, there, and over there:

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Sentence structure

While we will go over how to construct sentences in more detail below, there are a few refreshing similarities between English and Japanese. To name a few:

  • Read left-to-right when written horizontally 
  • Sentences generally start with the subject
  • Adjectives go before what they’re describing (ex: “cute cat” instead of “cat cute”)

With that taste of the grammar similarities, let’s take a look at how to apply them!

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Word order in Japanese

The first thing to know about basic Japanese grammar is how the sentence structure differs from English. English, and many other Romance and Germanic languages, are structured in the order of subject + verb + object:

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In the Japanese grammar structure, the order gets changed up a bit to subject + object + verb:

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Simply put, in basic sentences, the subject goes first and the verb goes last. Everything else gets squished in the middle! 


Something important to note: the object is what the verb acts on directly, not when you do the verb or who the verb is done with. Let’s look at the following example. In English:

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And in Japanese:

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As for all the good stuff in the middle, there are some general guidelines for when to indicate a time or a location, but these are not hard and fast rules. The most important thing to note here is that, in a regular sentence, the subject or topic goes first and the verb goes last!

What is the difference between a subject and a topic, you say? I’m so glad you asked!

Particles

Particles are short words that go in between different components in a sentence to stick everything together like glue. Think of particles not as an intimidating concept not found in English, but as a guide to helping you build sentences in Japanese.

Each one has a unique function to tell you exactly what the surrounding words are doing. Let’s consider the following ten common examples:

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* This letter is normally read as “ha,” but due to changes in the language over time, it is read as “wa” when it’s a particle.

Strictly speaking, Japanese does not have spaces to separate the words. This is where particles come in! Not only do they indicate the function of the preceding word, they also help you separate the sentence into its many pieces much like spaces do in languages using a Latin alphabet. 

Let’s take a quick look at them in practice and see how useful they can be!

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See how neatly that divides up the pieces of the sentence? All you have to do is identify the particles in the sentence to find the individual words. Then it’s just like putting a puzzle together!

As for wa and ga and their confusing subject versus topic relationship…it might appear like they exist only to trick you. How can the subject and the topic be different? In the examples we’ve talked about above, all of the subjects have also been the topics of the sentences.
Grammatically speaking, the subject is what is doing the verb (ex: George eats.). The topic is what the sentence is about. This is best exemplified in our next section: adjectives!

Adjectives

There are two main categories of adjectives in Japanese: i-adjectives and na-adjectives.

The difference is simple. As mentioned above, adjectives go before the nouns they are describing, just like in English. The difference is how the words connect to those nouns. Let’s take a look at i-adjectives first. 

The easiest way to identify an i-adjective is that it ends in, well, “i” (い in hiragana)! For example:

面白い omoshiroi = interesting

高い takai = tall; expensive

可愛い kawaii = cute

When using them in a sentence, all you need to do is attach it directly before the noun it’s describing. That’s it!

面白い本 omoshiroi hon = interesting book

高いビル takai biru = tall building

可愛い猫 kawaii neko = cute cat

Na-adjectives take a little bit more work. The word on its own does not have any required ending sound or other identifiers. The na (な) comes in when connecting the adjective to a noun. We’ll use 静か shizuka (quiet) as an example. Compare the following:

猫は静かです。

Neko wa shizuka desu.

The cat is quiet.

However, if we’re saying it is a “quiet cat,” directly describing the cat, we need to add a na between “quiet” and “cat”:

これは静かな猫です。

Kore wa shizuka na neko desu.

This is a quiet cat.

There is a third, more irregular category of adjectives that use the particle no (の), mentioned above. In these cases, the word is being described with a noun. These nouns can be, say, a language:

日本語の先生 nihongo no sensei = Japanese teacher

They can also be what we would ordinarily consider adjectives in English. For instance, the word for “green” (midori or midori-iro) is generally used in its noun form, resulting in the following:

緑色の目 midori-iro no me = green eyes

However, using nouns as adjectives is the exception rather than the rule. As for those tricky wa and ga particles and their subject/topic relationship I mentioned above? Let’s take a look at the following sentence:

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In the sentence above, the who or what we are talking about is “I.” In other words, “I” is the topic of the sentence. But “I” am not the one who is blue: my eyes are. This makes the eyes the “subject,” as they are what the verb is acting on. 

Don’t worry if this is still a little confusing: these two particles have even native speakers scratching their heads from time to time. Japanese tutoring can help you master your understanding of tricky particles like these!

Verb conjugation in Japanese

Now, let’s put all that knowledge together with verbs! In English, verbs conjugate depending on who or what the subject is. If we’re talking about eating, for example, I “eat” and she “eats.” In Japanese, there is one conjugation for everyone, no matter if we’re talking about one person or twenty! How great is that?

There are two different sets of conjugations for polite Japanese vs casual Japanese (not to mention honorific, which is something to put away for later!). To keep things simple, we’ll look at the standard, polite version here. 

To be or not to be?

Let’s first talk about desu. While “to be” (conjugated in English as “is,” “am,” and “are”) is technically what is considered a “copula” instead of a verb, we will treat it as a verb here. For starters, it also goes at the end of the sentence! Even better, desu is used for all three of the English conjugations I just mentioned. 

私は嬉しいです。 Watashi wa ureshii desu. = I am happy.

ジョージは嬉しいです。 Jōji wa ureshii desu. = George is happy.

私とジョージは嬉しいです。 Watashi to Jōji wa ureshii desu. = George and I are happy.

Nice and easy to remember!

Present, future, and past

First, let me give you some good news: the conjugations for present and future tenses are identical! Hooray! That’s one less conjugation to remember.

There are three categories of verbs. Depending on your tutor or learning resources, they may be called different things. Here, we will call them Groups 1, 2, and 3. 

Group 1 verbs (in purple) comprise the majority. To conjugate these to the polite form, the final “u” sound is first changed to an “i” sound, and then the ender for the appropriate conjugation is added to the end (ex: masu for present affirmative). 

Group 2 verbs (in yellow) all end in the ru (る) sound. These are even simpler to conjugate: simply drop that final ru and attach the ender!

There are only a handful of irregular verbs (in green), most commonly “to do” and “to come.” For now, I have included only “to do” as an example.

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And that’s all there is to the most basic conjugations! Remember that the verb also goes at the end of sentences, making building the sentence no hassle at all.

Take a look at the following examples:

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Be not afraid

You have no doubt been told before that Japanese is one of the hardest commonly spoken languages to learn for an native English speaker. Why, when you’ve told people that you’re going to start studying Japanese, they’ve probably marveled at your bravery to even attempt it. 

When you learn Japanese grammar, you find that it has unique features, but some of them are quite easy to grasp! While there are difficulties with any language, with the right resources (and even a Japanese tutor to help you), Japanese can be just as easy to pick up as any other language!

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