“Japanese Conjugation” Myth Busted! Never Conjugate Again! Potential form unlocked too in one fell swoop!

What do “Japanese conjugation” and “flat earth” have in common?

They are both names for something that should have been consigned to the dustbin of human ignorance long, long ago.

“Flat earth” has. “Japanese conjugation” unfortunately hasn’t.

Until now.

Click the “play” button and see history in the making.

And make Japanese a lot easier at the same time!



It took me quite a while to work out the best order to tackle things. I think the potential is the right choice for introducing the entire “Japanese conjugation” concept because it doesn’t involve any new “complications”.

The “complications” of the whole “Japanese conjugation” system only exist if you have absorbed confusing ideas in the first place – but most of us have, since they are the only ones you can find.

The only real “complication” of the potential is identical to the “complication” explained in the last lesson – concerning 好き and adjectives of emotion.

That is, the unbelievably destructive insistence that the grammatical subject must be the human agent of transitive potential verbs (and therefore that the が particle has no fixed value and can randomly perform the function of the を particle).

Since this is in fact identical to the previous (gratuitously created by Western prejudices) “problem”, I think it makes sense to tackle this one in the following lesson. It is easier to understand while the general principle is fresh in our minds and it reinforces the previous knowledge.

Also, by seeing what a wide range of language is affected by this problem,  it sets us up to understand the somewhat different problem of the receptive (so-called “passive”) – which is based on exactly the same prejudice but has to shoehorn the same Western model into a different Japanese box.

There is a delicate balancing act as to how much to refer to the misconceptions.

Ideally we would be simply explaining from scratch and ignoring problems that wouldn’t be problems at all if you never even knew about them.

There’s nothing confusing about the Japanese that isn’t clarified the instant you realize that

こわい can mean “scared” or “scary” depending on whether it is pointing at “me” or the thing that scares me.

The same principle is at work in all the “problem” cases we have discussed in this lesson and the last one. It is one little difference between languages that should take five minutes or less to clear up.

(わたしが) うらやましい
I’m envious

おねえちゃんが うらやましい
my sister is envy-inducing
(natural English: I’m envious of my sister)

and you can also say:

おねえちゃんの ドレスが うらやましい
my sister’s dress is envy-inducing
(natural English: I’m envious of my sister’s dress)

Note that the last two examples show that even English allows a certain adaptability of (what in English is) the object in some cases.

This absolutely isn’t difficult. It takes a very brief adaptation to the fact that these words work slightly differently (more adaptably) in Japanese.

What makes it a problem is that, rather than simply explaining this, Western “Japanese grammar” has invented a whole elaborate system that has nothing to do with how the Japanese works and everything to do with how it might have worked if it had been a Western language.

So – how much to refer back to the mare’s-nest that is Eihongo grammar is always a slight conundrum. The ideal, I think, is:

Enough to make it clear to people who have learned a bit (or a lot) of Eihongo grammar that we are referring to the same grammar areas and signalling that it is re-think time.


Little enough not to distract those who are learning from scratch, or to give the old misdescriptions an undue prominence that will end up with us falling in the briar patch.

Because we all know what happens when you fall in the briar patch.

I hope I am achieving that balance.

3 thoughts on ““Japanese Conjugation” Myth Busted! Never Conjugate Again! Potential form unlocked too in one fell swoop!

  1. I think the little thing that right now confuses me about this is the last example, with the book. In previous lesson you said that because だ was used, it was clearly an A is B sentence, and here it’s a verb, so it should logically be an A does B sentence, right? Yet, you say it means the book is readable, an A is B sentence… I keep expecting the book to do something. 😉 What did I miss? I feel like I missed something. 😉 I mean, I do get it on a vague, abstract way that I can’t yet put my finger on, but for the sake of clarity, I think I need to see this not in that usual “Japanese is a vague, magical, foggy language” kind of manner.

    Also, I just want to say thank you for these videos and posts and the site, and everything you do to try to make Japanese clearer to us! I really appreciate it, because I have given up so many times, and taken months and months off learning and studying simply because it’s been so frustrating.

    1. Thank you for this question – and please always feel free to ask when something is unclear.

      This is an absolutely valid point. I debated with myself for a long time whether or not to explain this point more fully. There is always a trade-off between explaining things in full (which can clarify confusions) and keeping the message simple enough that it is easily understandable without going into side-explanations.

      Since this one doesn’t trouble most people in my experience I decided to leave it aside in this lesson (though we have to tackle it at some point).

      The crux of the problem lies in the fact that what is an A is B and what is an A does B sentence in English is not necessarily the same as in Japanese. That is to say, some things that are seen as “states” in Engish are seen as “actions” in Japanese and vice versa.

      This is partly because languages just have different strategies for expressing certain things, and is also influenced by the “animist” tendency of Japanese being much more happy to attribute “action” or “intention” to non-sentient things.

      So confession-time. In order to make the explanation simpler and not have to veer off at the last minute into a discussion of this rather abstract fact, I “cheated” and said “the book is readable”. However in my defense, I expressed it more accurately in the graphic to try to give people the necessary information if the point was bothering them. It was one of those trade-offs, and I hope I made the right decision.

      If we look at the screen during that portion of the video we see not that the book “is readable” but that the book “read-possible-does”. This is what the Japanese is really saying. The book is doing the action of making itself readable.

      We are going to find this again and again in Japanese. For example in English we say “the hat is too big”, but in Japanese we say


      As you see we have attached the helper-verb すぎる to the adjective 大きい, and すぎる means “exceed” so in Japanese it is not an A is B sentence as it is in English. The hat is doing the action of being too big.

      Since this is a whole ‘nother concept to grasp, I didn’t want to spring it too explicitly at the end of the video.

      My apologies for the confusion. Does this make everything clear? If not please don’t hesitate to keep asking for clarification. Making things clear is what this android is here for!

      1. Thank you so much for this explanation! I got that light bulb moment now! 😀 I think different people are going to be hung up on different things, partly because of how we think and understand things, but also due to what particular textbooks and grammar explanations we’ve gone through previously in our attempts to learn. That inanimate objects are doing things is a completely new way to think for me, so this is really interesting. I’ll go look at a bunch of Japanese sentences from various exercises I’ve done in the past, and look at them through this new lens to get some practice in. 🙂

        (I’m used to being confused about this language; I’m not used to actually having someone to ask for explanations, so I’m super happy right now. I’m looking forward to learning more from you.)

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