Category Archives: Grammar

Basic Japanese Grammar: How to learn it

basic Japanese Grammar
You learned basic Japanese Grammar without a teacher?

Basic Japanese Grammar is the key to learning Japanese online or anywhere else.

If you are learning Japanese online, we recommend immersion tactics like the Japanese-Subtitled Anime Method. Learning basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary won’t teach you the language. It will only teach you about the language.

To learn Japanese online (or anywhere) you need to use it, both passively and actively. Children don’t learn grammar in their own language. They learn naturally and organically.

Can you do this? Yes. But you shouldn’t.

Why? Isn’t it the best way? Yes it is. But you still shouldn’t.

Why not? Because it takes thousands of hours and true immersion. That is why pseudo-immersion methods like Rosetta Stone don’t work.

People imagine that small children learn language quickly. They don’t. Think of how long they are “studying”. Almost every waking hour for years before they become “fluent”.

Also, small children have the massive advantage of not already knowing another language. You need something to make up for this. And since you have the disadvantage of knowing another language, you should leverage its (lesser) compensating advantages. The main, and only significant, one of those is your ability to learn grammar.

Grammar is a quick and dirty shortcut. But you should use it. It is going to help you enormously when you start to actually learn Japanese online by immersion methods.

How to Learn Basic Japanese Grammar Online

Assuming you are not in a class, how do you learn basic Japanese grammar, and what do you need to learn? Let’s walk you through how we did it:

1. Get a guide to basic Japanese grammar. This can be one of the standard textbooks like Genki 1 and 2 (I used them). If you don’t have money to spend, you can use Tae Kim’s Japanese Grammar Guide; it’s free and very good.

2. Get the Cheat Sheet! Download the Nihonshock basic Japanese grammar cheat sheet. It’s free (unlike the other Nihonshock products) and it is a work of genius. Get it, print it, laminate it and keep it with you at all times. It gives you the whole of basic Japanese grammar in one two-sided sheet (plus kana and basic kanji). At first it won’t all make sense, but as you learn grammar you can use it as a quick-check reference and brush-up learning tool all the time.

3. What about exercises? Textbooks have a lot of drill exercises. If they suit you you can use them. I didn’t (I never went to school and don’t understand exercises). Also you don’t have anyone to correct them. But you might need to drill some grammar points, notably verb and adjective conjugations. The Japan Times has a barebones but really excellent system of random quizzes on everything that really needs drilling. We don’t recommend a lot of time on drills. You should plunge into Japanese subtitled anime from pretty early. But you do need to get those conjugations firm and the Japan Times quizzes will cover that.

Note that on some browsers you may need to change the character encoding to Shift-JIS in order to see the quiz text. If you don’t like the technical stuff just use Firefox which handles it automatically and is the best Browser for serious Japanese learners anyway, because of Rikaisama.

Also, read how adjectives really work. It will make it much easier than the parrot-fashion instruction of most textbooks.

3. At what stage can I start learning Japanese, not just learning about it?

How dedicated are you? I started the anime method around the end of Genki 1. Did I have enough grammar by then? No. Not to understand everything, but enough to just barely manage. I watched Karigraushi no Arietty and it took hours. But really loved. I was moved to tears by Japanese words for the first time.

Let’s be frank. The anime method is not easy in the early days and you have to be pretty dedicated to use it, even if you leave it a bit longer. Any method of learning Japanese is tough unless you are prepared to learn at a snail’s pace and only know about Japanese at the end of it. If you want to do immersion you have to be ready to ganbaru.

Look, I’m a Precure/Ninja. Just tell me the mission. How much do I need to know?

OK, hero (and I mean hero). You need to know:

(Preferably some basic kanji)

The basic particles: wa, ga, wo, ni, he, to, de, mo, ka, no
Plain present
Plain past (-ta form)
Plain negative
Plain past negative
-te form
Masu form
Adjectives present, past, negative, past negative

All this is on your cheat sheet (you do have it printed and laminated, hero?) You won’t learn it from there but it will be your friend and companion once you have learned it.

With this and some vocabulary and a huge machete (in the form of Jisho and a willingness to research phrases you don’t understand) you can start slogging through some simple subtitled anime. You will have to let some things go.

You can also wait till you know everything on the cheat sheet. I didn’t. Whether you do or not you should be continuing to learn basic grammar. You need the other conjugations (you can probably manage without causative-passive. By the time it becomes an issue it will be logically obvious anyway) and the other things in the basic Japanese grammar texts.

You may be starting to learn a lot of this ad hoc by watching and looking things up. I found that by the time I got to Genki 2, as I came to each lesson I already knew more of it than I didn’t. I was mostly using it as a grammar checklist.

Are you having problems? Need help? Any questions? Did I miss anything? Use the comment form below.

More on Japanese Grammar→

I and Na Adjectives: What the textbooks don’t tell you

Enpitsu ga akai. The pencil is red and it writes its own “is”

Like most of Japanese grammar, i and na-adjectives are simple, logical and beautiful. As far as I have seen (and I don’t claim to have seen everything) introductions to grammar do not explain them very clearly.

In a way I can see why. Their aim is to “cut to the chase” and tell you how to use them in practice. The trouble is, to my way of thinking, that this cutting-to-the-chase leaves the impression of a bundle of random quirky “facts” that you have to learn, rather than a complete, clear and beautiful system.

This in turn makes it harder to learn to use them correctly by instinct.

So let me tell you what I think everyone should know from day one of using i and na adjectives (but please use this in conjunction with a conventional explanation of their actual use if you aren’t familiar with it).

1. Na adjectives are essentially nouns. They work like nouns. That is why they need “na” (I’ll explain that bit in a moment).

2. I adjectives are close cousins of verbs. They conjugate like verbs. Na adjectives don’t because nouns don’t conjugate.

3. The “is” function is built into i adjectives. Kirei (na adjective) means “pretty” (or “prettiness”). But utsukushii (i adjective) does not mean “beautiful”, it means “is beautiful”. I put this in red because it is so important.

Now something happens from lesson one that tends to throw this important point into confusion. We learn:

Hana ga kirei desu (“the flower is pretty”: na-adj)

Hana ga akai desu (“the flower is red”: i-adj)

So don’t the two kinds of adjective work identically? Don’t they both require desu?

No, they don’t. The desu on kirei is grammatically necessary. The desu on akai is only used to make the sentence desu/masu polite level. It serves no grammatical function.

That is why, in plain form, we say:

Hana ga kirei da

Hana ga akai

Hana ga akai is the grammatically complete and proper way to say it. Hana ga kirei needs da.

And now that you know this, you are ready for the next important fact.

4. Na is a form of da. “So that is why na adjectives need na! Why didn’t anyone mention that?” You exclaim. So did I.

Connecting two i or na-adjectives

So, when you connect two verb-like i-adjectives, what do you do? You do just what you do when you connect verbs to something. You put them into te-form.

chiisakute kawaii = “is small and cute” (note that converting the final い i to く ku is the “glue” that holds conjugations onto i-adjectives).

And what do you do with na adjectives? Exactly the same thing.

But you can’t conjugate nouns or noun-like adjectives. No. And that is why na adjectives need na/da/desu. And that does conjugate to te-form.

The te-form of da/desu is de. So:

Kirei de yuumei “pretty and famous”.

I think I spent about a month wondering why the de particle was used in such an unpredictable way here. Of course, this de is not the de particle. It is the te-form of that same na/da/desu that always has to appear after a na-adjective.

As you see, the process is identical. chiisai means “is small” to make kirei mean “is pretty” (rather than just “pretty”, or really something closer to “prettiness”) you have to add na/da. Both are then put into te-form: chiisaichiisakute and kirei nakirei de.

Naturally you can join an i-adjective to a na-adjective, or a naadjective to an i-adjective, just so long as you use the appropriate te-form as the connector for the first one.

These are the things I wish I had known right from the start, so I am giving them to you. I hope they make this aspect of Japanese feel clearer, easier and more kirei for you just as they did for me.

One last point that can cause a little confusion. You will sometimes see the words ookii (big) and chiisai (small) used with the final i replaced by na. These are the only two adjectives that I have seen used as both i and na adjectives. The effect of the na-form is to make them feel a little more childlike and story-bookish. As in the children’s song Ookina kuri no ki no shita de “Under the big chestnut tree”.

Wa vs Ga Particles: Japanese Mysteries Explained

Don't be shut out by confusing particles / All you have to do is read our articles!
Don’t be shut out by confusing particles  All you have to do is read our articles!

Knowing the full difference between wa and ga particles is tricky. The basics you can grasp in one lesson, but the subtleties take longer. In some ways they are equivalent to English “a” and “the”.

Nothing complicated about “a” and “the” you may say. You’d be surprised.

Even very advanced Japanese speakers of English sometimes say “a” when they should say “the” and vice versa. I have spent time trying to explain to Japanese speakers why they should be using one rather than the other on particular occasions – and when you actually try to codify the usages rather than just doing them by instinct you realize how extremely subtle and intricate they are.

The wa and ga particles are in some respects very similar to “a” and “the” and perform parallel functions in many cases.

Let’s look at a very simple song (which happens to be one of my favorites) and see how the wa and ga particles are used:

The song begins with two simple statements.

Anpan ni wa anko wa haitte(i)ru
There is anko in anpan

Melonpan ni wa melon ga haitte(i)nai.
There is no melon in melonpan.

The first question that might be asked is, why do we begin designating the two breads with wa?  It is often said that wa, being like “the”, should only be used for something that has already been introduced. As in:

Mukashi mukashi, chiisai onnanoko ga imashita.
Once upon a time there was a little girl.
Onnanoko wa kokoro-yasashii deshita.
The little girl was kind hearted.

In the first sentence the ga particle is used because the little girl is being introduced (equivalent to a girl) and in the second the wa particle is used because we already know who she is (equivalent to the girl).

So why are anpan and melonpan introduced with the wa particle?

Aside from the fact that the subject is what is in the breads (and you can’t use ni ga), more importantly for our purposes anpan and melonpan are things we already know about. They are not particulars but generalities.

If I say “the pencil is on the desk”  (equivalent to enpitsu wa tsukue no ue ni arimasu) completely out of context you will rightly say “what pencil?” If you don’t know any pencil I should have said “a pencil is on the desk” (equivalent to enpitsu ga tsukue no ue ni arimasu) – or more idiomatically “there is a pencil on the desk”. After this we can refer to the pencil with wa as it is a known pencil: “the pencil”.

However, if I say “pencils are useful” I am not referring to a particular pencil that you don’t know anything about. I am referring to pencils in general, which you do know about. In English we do not use either “a” or “the” for such things. We drop the article completely (often a point of confusion for Japanese people who frequently try to use “the” here).

In Japanese, the general is treated the same as the familiar so long as the general is familiar. So we can use wa with something that wasn’t introduced if we can assume the hearer knows about it.

This is what is happening here. Melonpan and anpan are general, known things, like pencils. They can take wa without an introduction.

Now there is a second wa-ga particle usage in this couplet:

Anpan ni wa anko wa haite[i]ru
There is anko in anpan

Melonpan ni wa melon ga haitte[i]nai.
There is no melon in melonpan.

Why is the wa particle used here? The usual, neutral usage is the one used in the second line. Melon is in a state of not having entered. It normally takes ga, as it does here. So why the wa particle in the first line?

If you read the two lines in English you will notice a slight awkwardness. You would expect the second line to say something like: “But there is no melon in melonpan”.  In other words to make some indication of the distinction between the situation with anpan vs melonpan, not simply to treat them as two completely unrelated sentences.

Well, that is what the first wa particle is doing. It is the wa of distinction. Often it would imply “Anko (as opposed to other things) is in it”. Here it means “Anko is (as opposed to other cases) in it. This may be a slightly loose use of the grammar – the song is quite childlike – but the meaning is clear enough.

Having established what is (or isn’t) in what bread, the singer tells us:

watashi ga ichiban suki na no wa melonpan [da/desu]
My favorite (bread) [is] melonpan

Now we have all learned to say watashi wa ocha ga suki desu. Tea is in the state of being liked. It takes ga. I am the liker so I take wa. Literally “In relation to me, tea is likeable”. Saying Arisu-san wa suki desu (for I like Alice) is a mistake as it will lead the hearer to wonder “what does Alice like?”

So why is it the other way around here?

Let’s look at how the sentence is structured. The wa-marked topic of this sentence is actually の no. It is used in the sense of “one” as in this rather textbooky interchange:

Dono enpitsu ga hoshii desuka?
“Which pencil do you want?”

Akai no ga hoshii desu.
“I want the red one“.

In the song the girl is referring to “my favorite one”, in this case meaning “favorite bread” or “favorite thing to eat”. This is the wa-marked topic of the sentence and everything that goes  before it qualifies that pronoun.

So ichiban suki na qualifies no and watashi ga qualifies ichiban suki na no. Then the entire noun-phrase, watashi ga ichiban suki na no, takes the wa-particle to mark it as the topic.

The sentence is actually of the very simple type everyone learned in her first lesson: A wa B [da/desu] –  as in watashi wa Amerikajin (desu) etc.

no is A and everything before it simply qualifies の and is therefore part of A.

B is “melonpan” with the da/desu left off.

You can never use wa in a noun-qualifying phrase. This is natural, since what is essentially only part of a noun (or noun-phrase) cannot be the topic. So anything that would normally be marked with the wa particle will be marked with the ga particle when it is in a subordinate clause like this.

The whole clause (including suki, which is here used adjectivally) adds up to a noun-phrase which is the topic of the sentence, so we use the wa particle and then say what it is equivalent to (in this case, melonpan), just as we did right at the beginning of learning Japanese.

In fact, we will usually find that even the most complicated sentences in Japanese can be boiled down to the three or four basic sentence-patterns we learned right at the beginning.

Like “a” and “the” for Japnese people, the wa and ga particles take time fully to understand, but I hope this gives you a clearer idea on some of the ways they work.

More on the wa particle: I am not an eel

I Am Not an Eel! The Mysteries of Invisible Japanese Pronouns and the Real Meaing of the Wa-Particle

I-am-not-an-eelHere it is! Using the ancient koan of the eel and the diner, the mysteries of invisible Japanese pronouns and the wa-particle are about to be finally unveiled

Enlightenment commences in 3… 2…

Watashi wa unagi desu is a common joke among Japanese learners. It is a kind of expression Japanese people often use and the idea is that it literally means “I am an eel”.

After all, Watashi wa gakusei desu means “I am a student”, doesn’t it?

What Watashi wa unagi desu really means, of course, when said in context (probably in a restaurant) is “I will have eel”. The common Western impression is that the speaker has literally said “I am an eel” but by a sort of colloquial contraction, it is understood in context to mean “I will have eel”. Even the scholarly and usually excellent  Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar says that “I am an eel” is the literal meaning.

But it isn’t. And the idea that it is shows a quite deep failure in the average Western learner (and even “expert”) to feel how Japanese really works.

This takes us back to the famous “vagueness” of Japanese. Cure Tadashiku and I have written about Japanese ambiguity here and here and it is a real phenomenon, but not in the way that Western learners often think.

First of all, let’s look at the way nouns and pronouns are dropped (this is important to our eel as you’ll see in a minute). It is sometimes considered very obscure and confusing. It isn’t. It is really only doing what all languages do but in a slightly different way. Consider this English sentence:

As Mary was going upstairs, Mary heard a noise. Mary turned and came back down. At the bottom of the stairs, Mary saw a tiny kitten.

Is that grammatically correct? Of course it is. Just as correct as saying “watashi wa” all the time when it isn’t necessary. Would any native speaker ever say it? Of course not.

Why not? Because having established Mary as the topic we don’t keep using her name. We refer to her as “she”. Japanese refers to her as ” ” – that is, nothing, or the no-pronoun.

The absence of a visible pronoun is slightly startling to the Anglophone mind, but actually it is scarcely more ambiguous than English. The words she, he and it could refer respectively to any female person, any male person and any thing in the world. They only have any useful meaning from context. Once the thing or person is established, we no longer name it, but replace it with a catch-all marker that actually catches what context tells it to catch.

Japanese works almost exactly the same but without the marker, which is actually not semantically necessary. If a small child says:

Mary was going upstairs. Heard noise. Came back down. At bottom of stairs saw tiny kitten.

We are still in no doubt as to what she means. That is how Japanese works. Putting the unnecessary “she” marker in every fresh clause is actually a slight linguistic inefficiency.

What is the sound of no-pronoun?

But – and here is the very important point – there is a pronoun in Japanese. It is a no-pronoun. The vital point to understand is that the invisible no-pronoun works in very much the same way that English visible pronouns work.

If we don’t realize this, we will continue to think that “watashi wa unagi desu” means literally “I am an eel”.

However, in order to reach complete enlightenment on the unagi koan, we need one more piece of understanding. The particle wa.

In beginners’ texts it is often said that the wa-particle means “as for” or “speaking of”. And it literally does. The best translation is probably “as for” (which accounts for the differentiating function of wa too – but that is another question).

So: Watashi wa gakusei desu literally means “As for Hanako-chan, she is a student”.

Note that there is both a noun and a pronoun in that English sentence. The proper noun “Hanako-chan” and the pronoun “she”. It is the same in Japanese. Except, of course, that the pronoun is ” “.

Understand this and you will be a long way toward feeling how Japanese really works.

Here is the golden rule. Always remember it:

The wa-particle never marks the grammatical subject of a sentence.

Taking the wa-marked noun as the grammatical subject is what leads to the belief that the diner is calling herself an eel. It turns Japanese inside-out in our minds and makes it feel strange.

The grammatical subject of “As for Hanako-chan, she is a student” is not “Hanako-chan” – it is “she”. “As for Hanako-chan” merely defines who “she” is.

Similarly the grammatical subject of Hanako-chan wa gakusei desu is not Hanako-chan, it is ” “. Hanako-chan wa merely defies who ” ” is.

Understand this in simple sentences, and much more complex Japanese will begin to form a correct pattern in your mind.

One may think this is splitting hairs, since in this case (and in a large number of cases) the no-pronoun grammatical subject and the wa-marked topic happen to refer to the same thing, and indeed one defines the other. But that is not always the case. And that is the cause of the unagi confusion.

So let us finally return to the eel that has been so patiently awaiting us.

Watashi wa unagi desu is often spoken by a member of a party of (or at least two) diners. It means “As for me, it (=the thing I will have) is eel (as opposed to Hanako-chan who is having omuraisu)”. When spoken by a single diner it still means literally (if you want the literal meaning – which is certainly not “I am an eel”) “As for me (as opposed to any other customer) it (= the thing I will have) is  eel.

You see the desu does not refer to watashi, which, being marked with wa, cannot be the grammatical subject of the sentence. It refers to the actual subject of the sentence which is the no-pronoun ” “. The no-pronoun – just like English pronouns – is determined by context.

Literally the sentence means: Watashi wa, (” ” ga) unagi desu.

What we are talking about here is “what I will eat”. Therefore that is the “it”, the ” ” or no-pronoun, of this statement.

There is no doubt whatever about what “it” is since either it is the subject of an actual conversation (Hanako-chan has just ordered omuraisu or the waitress has asked “what will you have?”) or it is obvious from the fact that the waitress is a waitress and has approached your table. She has not come to ask you for a stock-market tip. Or if she has, she will say so. If she doesn’t it can be safely assumed that the unspoken question is “what will you have?” which determines the it of the reply. The watashi wa (which can very well be omitted, especially when the diner is not one of a party) is merely distinguishing the person (as distinct from other persons) to whom the it pertains.

It really is as simple as that.

Did you know what “it” was in the above sentence? Of course you did – even though it was quite abstract – “the gist of this article, the subject I am trying to explain”.

In Japanese I would have said

Hontou ni, anna ni kantan desu.

No written “it”, but just as clear.

Japanese Mysteries Explained: Wa vs Ga Pariticles➔

NOTE: Watashi wa unagi desu is not a particularly polite way for a lone diner to order a dish. The main use of this common pattern is precisely when there are several diners in a party, and it is used to specify what “it” (the food one will have, which is the subject under discussion, and therefore the understood content of the no-pronoun) is in relation to a particular member (hence the use of watashi wa).

Japanese Counters for Dummies: they’re easier when you know how!

Ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki…

Japanese counters can seem very difficult at first. You can’t just say “two pencils”, “seven cats” or “ten sheets of paper” the way you can in most languages. You need to know the counter for long round things, small animals and thin flat things respectively.

Not only that, but the pronunciation of the counter changes depending on what number it is used with. The counter for small animals is called hiki but in fact:

1 cat is ippiki
2 cats are nihiki
3 cats are sanbiki
4 cats are yonhiki
5 cats are gohiki
6 cats are roppiki
7 cats are shichihiki or nanahiki
8 cats are happiki
9 cats are kyuuhiki
10 cats are juppiki

And then different counters have different patterns of sound-change.

How Counters’ Sound Patterns Transform

It looks crazy, but in fact it is a lot simpler than it seems. Once you learn how it works you will be able to figure out how nearly any counter sounds for any number.

Look at the sub-heading above and commit it to memory. Here, I’ll give it to you again:

How Counters’ Sound Patterns Transform

You need to remember this phrase. Why? Because actually there are only five types of transforming counter (only?… no don’t panic, I’m going to help you). They are counters that start with the consonantal sounds H, K, S, P and T. That is why you should remember that phrase – How Kounters’ Sound Patterns Transform.

Or, if it is easier, you can remember this way: it is the “hard”-consonant counters that transform, not the “soft”-consonant ones like mai, rin, wa and bu. This makes even more sense when you see how they work, since (with a single maverick exception) they always transform by sharpening or doubling the hard sound – you actually can’t double soft consonants in Japanese. You never see a small tsu before m, b, or w.

Now, once you know that, you will be pleased to learn that the transformations are very regular. What throws people, I think, is that single maverick we spoke of before. H-row sounds turn to the B-equivalent when paired with san (as in sanbiki)*. But actually that is the only major irregularity.

Other than that all the HKSPT counters modify in the same way. In a few cases the modification is optional, but you can always use it without fearing to make a mistake.

So, leaving out the H row for a moment, all the other mutating counters  (K,S,P,T) follow the same pattern:

1. They all keep their base value for all numbers other than one, six, eight and ten (jump from one to six, then every alternate number).

2. As for those four numbers, they all do the same thing:

They simply drop the second syllable of the number and double the first consonant of the counter. So ni-ko and san-ko but ikko rather than ichi-ko and jukko rather than juu-ko.

The only regular exception to this is that the S and T counters don’t mutate for 6 (roku) – i.e. no ross- or rott-.

The H-row is really less puzzling than it seems too. It only changes to the sounds that are made with the H-row by adding diacritical marks so, in the case of ひき hiki, it becomes びき bikki (for that maverick san only) and っぴき ppiki for the regular doubled-consonant numbers, one, six, eight and ten. Since you couldn’t actually have hhiki, that isn’t very hard to remember.

Now I won’t pretend there aren’t a few other irregularities with counters (hun, the counter for minutes, for example doesn’t mutate on 3, so it is sanpun rather than sanbun). But this pattern will guide you through most of the ones you are going to use. Even Japanese people mostly don’t use the more obscure counters.

The important thing to realize is that it is a pattern that works nearly all the time, not just a set of confusing random sound-changes. And if the counter does not begin with H,K,S,P or T, it will not have sound-changes at all.

Remember that you don’t need counters if you use the native Japanese counting system – hitotsu, futatsu mittsu. However you should know and use the basic counters like hon, hiki, hai, mai, ko, etc

If you work through the explanation on this page (it sounds a bit more complicated in text than it really is), the pattern of the sound changes should fall into place for you and the whole thing will feel much more intuitive.

* There is a sound-logic to the san-b transformation too, but for our practical purpose here it is simpler just to think of it as a maverick.