An Overview of Japanese Verbs

There are four kinds of speech in Japanese:

普通語 Informal Used among friends and family when talking about nearly anything. Also acceptable when addressing 目下 [meshita, subordinates].
丁寧語 Polite Used when speaking with strangers and when you are addressing 目上 [meue, superiors].
謙譲語 Humble Used when referring to yourself or your family or possessions in a formal situation.
尊敬語 Honorific Used if you are speaking to someone in a very high position. Often used by pricey store clerks when addressing customers.

Of these this site will only cover informal and polite speech. The others are less frequently used and can be learned later when one has a better understanding of the first two.

A Japanese verb consists of two parts: the base (よみがな) and the remaining hiragana suffix (おくりがな), which is conjugated in a number of ways to determine tense and what not. Many times よみがな is represented entirely by kanji (usually one, sometimes more). An example of this is 見る [miru, to see]. Other times よみがな will be represented by kanji and hiragana that is not changed with the おくりがな during conjugation. An example of this would be 教える [oshieru, to show/teach]:

よみがな おくりがな Combined
見る
なかった 見なかった
教え 教える
教え なかった 教えなかった

First let's explore the three groups of Japanese verbs. Ichidan verbs (一段動詞), also called vowel-stem verbs have only two variations: -iru and -eru. Godan verbs (五段動詞), also known as consonant-stem verbs have nine: -su, -bu, -mu, -nu, -ku, -gu, -tsu, -u, and -ru. All Japanese verbs will fall under one of these eleven variants (except for する, くる and いく, and the less frequently used なさる, おっしゃる, いらっしゃる and ござる).

Three Groups, Eleven Variants

The following examples are in the present/future informal form, also known as the dictionary form since this is the form verbs take when listed in a Japanese dictionary. You may remember that present and future tenses are both conveyed by the same form. The following tables show the three groups and eleven variants along with example verbs for each:

Ichidan - Vowel Stem Verbs
-iru 見る [miru], 信じる [shinjiru], 着る [kiru], 起きる [okiru], いる [iru], 似る [niru], etc.
-eru 食べる [taberu], 出る [deru], 寝る [neru], 見せる [miseru], 捨てる [suteru], etc.
Godan - Consonant Stem Verbs
-su 話す [hanasu], 指す [sasu], 探す [sagasu], 出す [dasu], 足す [tasu], 消す [kesu], etc.
-bu 遊ぶ [asobu], 選ぶ [erabu], 飛ぶ [tobu], 呼ぶ [yobu], 喜ぶ [yorokobu], etc.
-mu 読む [yomu], 飲む [nomu], 住む [sumu], 楽しむ [tanoshimu], 刻む [kizamu], etc.
-nu 死ぬ [shinu]
-ku 聞く [kiku], 書く [kaku], 招く [maneku], 引く [hiku], 吹く [fuku], 着く [tsuku], etc.
-gu 泳ぐ [oyogu], 注ぐ [sosogu], 急ぐ [isogu], 稼ぐ [kasegu], 騒ぐ [sawagu], etc.
-tsu 待つ [matsu], 育つ [sodatsu], 建つ [tatsu], 持つ [motsu], 勝つ [katsu], etc.
-u 習う [narau], 言う [iu], 買う [kau], 会う [au], 吸う [suu], 笑う [warau], etc.
-ru 座る [suwaru], 渡る [wataru], 乗る [noru], ある [aru], 困る [komaru], 帰る [kaeru]*
Henkaku - Irregular Verbs
する [suru] 来る [kuru] 行く [iku]

*There are a number of exceptions among Ichidan verbs. The following 8 common verbs are examples of these exceptions. Although ending in -iru or -eru and thus looking like Ichidan vowel stem verbs, they are actually consonant stem verbs and conjugate as such:

入る [hairu] 帰る [kaeru] 知る [shiru] 走る [hashiru]
限る [kagiru] 要る [iru] 切る [kiru] 喋る [shaberu]

How to Conjugate Japanese Verbs

To conjugate Ichidan (vowel stem) verbs in dictionary form, one need only drop the おくりがな (~る) and add the desired suffix (~ない, ~て, ~た, ~ます, ~よう, ~れば, etc.) to the verb base. However with Godan (consonant stem) verbs the conjugation requires a formative followed by the desired suffix. A formative is simply an intermediary syllabal connecting the verb base to the suffix and is usually formed with the final consonant sound of the Godan verb accompanied by one of the five vowel sounds, depending on the suffix.

Following is a chart detailing formative usage in Godan verbs. As you study the chart please note a few things:

  1. There are no modern dictionary form verbs ending in ず, じゅ, づ, ふ, ぷ or ゆ, and thus there are no formatives beginning with their consonant sounds.
  2. An exception to the Hiragana chart correlation is that the あ formative is represented as わ (so 習わない not 習あない)
  3. While these formatives apply to most Godan verb conjugations, they do not apply to all of them (such as ~て and ~た)
よみがな おくりがな Example
Base Base Formative Suffix
a i u e o
ない [negative form] 習わない [narawanai]
ます [polite form] 習います [naraimasu]
  [dictionary form] 習う [narau]
[conditional form] 習えば [naraeba]
[tentative form] 習おう [naraou]
ない [negative form] 聞かない [kikanai]
ます [polite form] 聞きます [kikimasu]
  [dictionary form] 聞く [kiku]
[conditional form] 聞けば [kikeba]
[tentative form] 聞こう [kikou]
ない [negative form] 泳がない [oyoganai]
ます [polite form] 泳ぎます [oyogimasu]
  [dictionary form] 泳ぐ [oyogu]
[conditional form] 泳げば [oyogeba]
[tentative form] 泳ごう [oyogou]
ない [negative form] 話さない [hanasanai]
ます [polite form] 話します [hanashimasu]
  [dictionary form] 話す [hanasu]
[conditional form] 話せば [hanaseba]
[tentative form] 話そう [hanasou]
not used as formatives
ない [negative form] 待たない [matanai]
ます [polite form] 待ちます [machimasu]
  [dictionary form] 待つ [matsu]
[conditional form] 待てば [mateba]
[tentative form] 待とう [matou]
not used as formatives
ない [negative form] 死なない [shinanai]
ます [polite form] 死にます [shinimasu]
  [dictionary form] 死ぬ [shinu]
[conditional form] 死ねば [shineba]
[tentative form] 死のう [shinou]
not used as formatives
ない [negative form] 飛ばない [tobanai]
ます [polite form] 飛びます [tobimasu]
  [dictionary form] 飛ぶ [tobu]
[conditional form] 飛べば [tobeba]
[tentative form] 飛ぼう [tobou]
not used as formatives
ない [negative form] 読まない [yomanai]
ます [polite form] 読みます [yomimasu]
  [dictionary form] 読む [yomu]
[conditional form] 読めば [yomeba]
[tentative form] 読もう [yomou]
not used as formatives
ない [negative form] 座らない [suwaranai]
ます [polite form] 座ります [suwarimasu]
  [dictionary form] 座る [suwaru]
[conditional form] 座れば [suwareba]
[tentative form] 座ろう [suwarou]
not used as formatives

Japanese Verb Bases

There are 6 verb bases in Japanese Grammar. Some bases are used for multiple suffixes:

Base Formative Used for suffixes:
Ichidan  Godan 
未然形 [mizenkei] - a
ない [negative form]
られる・れる [passive form]
させる・せる [causative form]
させられる・せられる [passive-causative form]
連用形 [renyoukei] - i
ます [polite form]
たい [desire form]
たがる [3rd party desire form]
連体形 [rentaikei] u   [dictionary form]
仮定形 [kateikei] e [conditional form]
命令形 [meireikei] e   [imperative form]
推量形 [suiryoukei] o [Tentative form]

Select Conjugation

~ますPolite Form
~たPast Form
~てConjunctive Form
~てRequest/Directive Form
~ているProgressive Form
~ないNegative Form
~なかったPast Negative Form
~られる・~えるPotential Form
~よう・~おうTentative Form
~れば・~ら・~たらConditional Forms
~たい・~たがるDesire Form
~られる・~れるPassive Form
~させる・~せるCausative Form
~させられる・~せられるCausative-passive
他動詞・自動詞Transitive/Intransitive
方向の動詞Directional Verbs