Category Archives: Grammar

Mastering Transitivity Pairs – Remembering Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs the easy way

transitive-intransitive-verbs“There are no hard-and-fast rules to Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs. You just have to learn them on a case-by-case basis”. This is the conventional wisdom on the subject. Another huge bunch of random facts that you “just have to learn”.

We got rid of most of the “random facts” in grammar by showing how logically the whole language fits together in Unlocking Japanese. An evening with that little book gives you a shortcut through the thickets that take most learners years to master, just by showing how Japanese really works.

Can we do the same with transitivity pairs? To a large extent we can. There are a lot of Google searches for “Japanese transitive and intransitive verb worksheets”. Worksheets! You don’t need worksheets, for heaven’s sake! You need some good information!

So let’s get started!

Transitive and intransitive verbs – what they are

We’ll start off by looking very quickly at what transitive and intransitive verbs are, because some people get confused and mix up intransitive with the so-called “passive” (it isn’t really passive. See Unlocking Japanese, Chapter 7).

As is often the case, the Japanese terms for transitive and intransitive are much clearer than the English ones. The word for “verb” is 動詞 doushi, which means literally “move word”. A word for an action. And the words for transitive and intransitive verbs are

自動詞 jidoushi – self-move word (intransitive)

他動詞 tadoushi – other-move word (transitive)

In English “dance” is an intransitive verb because it is a self-move word. We say “I danced”. We can’t say “I danced Jane”. It describes self-movement, not a movement done to someone or something else.

“Throw” is a transitive verb. We can say “I threw a ball”, but we can’t just say “I threw”. It is an other-move verb and has to have an object.

“Eat” and “sing” can be transitive or intransitive. I can “eat bread” or I can just “eat”. I can “sing a song” or I can just “sing”.

In Japanese we sometimes use a different form of the verb for the transitive and the intransitive (the other-move and the self-move) version of the action.

But by no means always. The examples given above, “eat” and “sing”, work just the same in Japanese as in English. The transitive and intransitive forms are the same.

But there are various pairs like

負けるmakeru – “lose”

and

負かすmakasu – “defeat” (lit. “cause-to-lose”)

where the transitive and intransitive forms are different. And as you can see, rather than being an unnecessary bother they are often a gift. English learners have to learn “lose” and “defeat” as two quite separate words. In Japanese, if you understand makeru, you can understand makasu. Especially when you understand the simple rule that makes one clearly transitive. The rule that I call “the First Law of Japanese transitivity”.

So let’s go right ahead and meet the Three Laws.

The Three Laws of Japanese transitive/intransitive verbs

Aru and suru are the two most basic verbs in Japanese. As you know, they mean “be” and “do” respectively.

Their sounds are used in many ways to indicate that a verb is closer to the “being” or the “doing” end of the scale.

For example, the so-called “passive conjugation” ends in areru/rareru, which has its roots in aru, while the causative ends in aseru/saseru, which has its roots in suru.

Can you guess which side of the scale transitive and intransitive (other-move and self-move) verbs respectively fall on?

Yep. You guessed right. So you shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that the First Law of Japanese Transitivity is:

All verbs ending in すsu are transitive verbs. Whether they have an intransitive “pair” or not.

Su-ending verbs are based in suru. They are transitive.

The eru→asu transformation seen above in makeru→makasu is a very common pattern which you already know from

出るderu – “come out”→ 出すdasu – “take out”

There are other patterns such as

落ちるochiru – “fall” 落とすotosu – “drop”

Some are a bit irregular, but that doesn’t matter because all you need to know is that if it ends in it’s transitive.

Here is the Second Law:

Verbs ending in aru are intransitive

As you would expect! Aru-ending verbs are based in aru – “be”. This means not just ある-ending words, but words ending with any kana in the あ-row + る.

The most regular pattern here is arueru

上がるagaru – “rise” → 上げるageru – “raise”

下がるsagaru – “descend” → 下げるsageru – “cause to descend”

重なるkasanaru – “lie stacked or piled” → 重ねるkasaneru – “(to) stack or pile”

There are many, many pairs that conform to this pattern. A few have a different pattern, such as

包むkurumu – “wrap” → 包まるkurumaru – “be wrapped”

Again, it doesn’t matter because all you need to know is that if a version ends in aru, it is intransitive.

The Third Law of Japanese Transitivity is:

-u→-eru flips transitivity

As we know, so-called “conjugations” that end in る change a word from whatever it was before into an ichidan verb (sometimes called a ru-verb) – the most basic type of verb, with a different meaning.

This also happens when we flip transitive and intransitive verbs with u→eru. Whatever ending the verb originally had, its final character becomes the え-row equivalent and る is added.

Or in Romaji terms, the final u is removed and replaced by eru.

It is now an ichidan (ru) verb meaning the opposite (in transitivity terms) of what the original verb meant.

The problem here is that (unlike the arueru pattern of the Second Law) this ueru ending can flip transitivity either way. So we don’t immediately know which half of a transitivity pair the –eru version is.

However, there are some tricks that can help us.

Untangling the other Japanese transitivity pairs

There are a few sub-rules that make the “others” much easier.

〜む-mu → 〜める-meru flipped pairs – The honorary 4th Law
The 〜める-meru version is always the transitive verb

There are a lot of these mu→meru pairs. So many that we can almost regard this as an honorary Fourth Law.

I recommend having one example in your mind as a reference-point, such as

痛むitamu – “hurt” (be in pain) 痛めるitameru – “hurt” (cause pain)

The same is true for bu→beru and tsu→teru. The –eru (flipped) version is always transitive. Remember that b is sometimes interchangeable with m in Japanese (as in sabishii/samishii) so they often work in the same way. Unlike mu→meru, there aren’t a large number of these two.

〜せる-seru versions are always transitive
Some pairs have a 〜せる-seru-ending version, such as

乗るnoru – “get onto, ride on” → 乗せるnoseru – “put onto”

This せるseru is a close relation of するsuru and always marks the transitive verb.

This actually covers most of the possible endings. What we are left with is

く、ぐ ku, gu → ける、げる keru, geru

u → えるeru

and る-ru-ending verbs that don’t fit either of the first two Laws.

For these, unfortunately, there are no general rules. They can flip either way. And there are quite a few of them. So the “gotta learn ’em all” school might seem to be around 20% right.

But wait. There is more we can do. We can apply the Basic Concept “rule”.

The Basic Concept “rule” for Japanese Transitivity pairs

For those transitivity pairs that don’t fit any of the above rules, we can use the Basic Concept “rule”, which is less hard-and-fast but actually quite intuitive as you become more familiar with Japanese by immersion.

Remember that –eru flips a verb from intransitive to transitive or vice versa. In other words, one of the two is the “base verb” and the other is the “flipped version” (actually the Japanese themselves tend to look at the extended eru-ending as an auxiliary verb, which I think makes things clearer).

Let’s take some examples:

売るuru – “sell” → 売れるureru – “be sold” (sell as in “sell like hot cakes”)

It is pretty clear here that the base concept is the act of selling (transitive) and that being-sold (intransitive) is the extended or “eru-flipped” version.

Conversely, with:

従うshitagau – “obey, follow, accompany” → 従えるshitagaeru – “subdue, be accompanied by”

It is pretty clear that the act of obeying or accompanying (intransitive) is the fundamental idea and that compelling obedience or being accompanied is the extended or “eru-flipped” version.

This method is more “feeling-based” and less hard-and-fast than the other rules, but it works easily and intuitively a lot of the time once you have some immersion experience.

And that is precisely why am a little dubious of things like transitive/intransitive worksheets. What will really give you the feel for how words work is meeting them and making friends with them in real contexts, not learning them from lists or worksheets.

The rules I have given here are essentially “force multipliers”. They make it far easier to grasp quickly what the words are doing. That is why I use and recommend them. But they don’t substitute for making real friends with the real words in the real world (whether that “real world” be an office in Tokyo or a fantasy anime).

Also, learning from lists and worksheets that this or that word is “transitive” or “intransitive” may in fact give a false idea of what the words actually do.

Let’s go back to our last example to explain that:

従うshitagau – “obey, follow, accompany” → 従えるshitagaeru – “subdue, be accompanied by”

Shitagau is the “intransitive version” of the verb. The (J-E) dictionaries mark it as intransitive. The grammar books call it intransitive…

But wait! In English it would be mostly transitive, wouldn’t it? You obey someone, follow someone, accompany someone, don’t you?

But on the other hand shitagaeru is thought of as “more transitive” than shitagau because you are causing someone to shitagau. Surely this is closer to “causative” than “transitive”.

And there are a lot of so-called “transitivity pairs” like this, that actually have no real relation to the Western concept of grammatical transitivity.

The moral of this is, don’t take these Western-imposed grammar terms too literally. Sometimes they fit perfectly, other times they don’t really fit at all when you examine them closely.

If you think in Japanese terms and call them self-move verbs and other-move verbs the whole thing is much clearer. In obeying, following or accompanying someone, you are moving yourself, not that other person. In subduing or being accompanied, you are moving (or causing the action of) the other person.

In truth what Western textbooks call the “transitive verb” of a pair really means “the more suru-like version” and what they call the “intransitive verb” is the more aru-like version. Sometimes this corresponds exactly to Western notions of grammatical transitivity and other times it doesn’t at all.

Understanding this and developing the feeling of real Japanese by immersion makes the Basic Concept “rule” much more effective and intuitive, and puts the whole concept of Japanese “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs into the correct Japanese perspective rather than an artificial Western-textbook one.

How to learn transitive and intransitive verbs

If you want to learn by the immersion-based approach advocated by this site, how should you approach learning “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs?

Don’t try to learn lists of transitivity pairs. That doesn’t serve any very useful purpose. Build your core vocabulary organically, but you will encounter transitivity pairs naturally in the course of this.

Do bear in mind the Three Laws and other rules. Especially, you will soon start noticing: “Ah yes, this word is the transitive すsu-version of that word”. “広がるhirogaru? Yes, that must be the intransitive aru-version of 広げるhirogeru.” You will begin to notice eru-flipped versions and start to get the instinct that meru-versions just feel like other-move verbs.

I recommend keeping one simple “Exhibit A” example of each Law in your mind (such as 出る / 出す for the First Law). This is much easier than remembering it purely as an abstract rule.

By all means leverage the two-for-one advantage of putting both versions on an Anki-card when the opportunity arises, (you may even want to check for a “partner” if a word sounds like, say, the –aru,su or -meru  half of a pair) but bear in mind that if a word is one of those eru-flips not covered by the Laws, your head may be clearer for knowing one of them before you get to the other.

I have used the terms “transitive and intransitive verbs” in this article because they are the usual ones that you find in the textbooks, but also bear in mind that they can’t be taken literally about half the time.

If you are starting to think in Japanese, or even if you aren’t, there is a lot to be said for using the correct words, jidoushi and tadoushi – self-move and other-move words. Because that is what they actually are, and the less you clog up your Japanese with cast-offs from foreign grammar the more easily you will understand it.

Is there a Grammatical Subject in Japanese?

does-japanese-have-grammatical-subjectUnderstanding the question of the grammatical subject in Japanese is absolutely key to understanding the language.

Without that understanding you can muddle through basic Japanese, but as it becomes more complex, you quickly become lost in an incomprehensible fog.

An esteemed correspondent recently told me that she believes there is no grammatical subject in Japanese.

After replying to her I began to wonder if this idea is at all widespread, and I came upon an article by no less a person than Tae Kim-sensei entitled:

“Repeat after me, there is NO such thing as a subject!”

Kind of forceful, ne?

I have great respect for Tae Kim-sensei and recommend his excellent site, but I have to say that this is the kind of idea that ties people’s minds into knots over Japanese and makes it almost impossible for them to progress beyond a certain point in the language.

Tae Kim-sensei gives an example concerned with wanting to eat crepe. I won’t reply to that directly here, because I think I have dealt in detail with this exact point (the way the “object of desire” can be the subject in Japanese – and the way this is misinterpreted from an English-language perspective) in Unlocking Japanese. And in fact I would say that Tae Kim-Sensei’s statement takes the upside-down-ness of regular textbook Japanese to a new level.

Actually I would say that Tae Kim-sensei’s article does not really address the question of whether there is a grammatical subject in Japanese, but only of whether が ga marks the grammatical subject. They are two separate issues, and I wish to consider both. However, let us start with the assertion (which Tae Kim-sensei states but does not attempt to demonstrate) that there is no grammatical subject in Japanese.

This stronger of the two assertions is the most troubling because it really reduces language to absurdity. I think it can be dealt with very briefly.

Is there a grammatical subject in Japanese?

Sue hit Mary

Mary hit Sue

I think we can agree that these two sentences do not have the same meaning.

In the first Sue is the doer, in the second Mary is the doer (ie, the grammatical subject, of which an action is predicated)

スーがメアリーを殴った
Sue ga Mary wo nagutta
Sue hit Mary

スーをメアリーが殴った
Sue wo Mary ga nagutta
Mary hit Sue

And that is it. I rest my case. That is the whole argument.

There is a doer and there is a done-to, and distinguishing between them is vital.

Whether one chooses to use the term “grammatical subject” or not, is a matter of – well, word choice, but the phenomenon clearly exists in any language or we would be reduced to inarticulacy.

NOTE: The markers and tell us who is the doer and who is the done-to. Now there is certainly a tendency to put the doer first in Japanese, as there is in English.  So the final  example sentence above is slightly unusual. But in Japanese the word order has no grammatical effect and putting them either way around is perfectly grammatical. As sentences become more complex, relying on word order (inexact from the start) becomes less and less useful.

But regardless of this there must be a grammatical subject and a predicate – whatever we choose to call them – or it would be impossible to argue about who hit whom.

And believe me, Japanese people are perfectly capable of arguing over who hit whom.

Does ga mark the grammatical subject in Japanese?

I believe that grammar, rather than being a set of rules that govern language, is an attempt to describe language, so it is entirely possible that people may model it in different ways at times without necessarily anyone being wrong.

And of course when we use terms like “adjective” and “grammatical subject” we are attempting to impose a foreign grammar on Japanese, which makes it even more uncertain.

However, whether we call it a “grammatical subject” or not, there is always something that is either “doing” or “being” something in every sentence from the most simple to the most complex (other than a few exceptions like exclamatory sentences) – and the rest of the sentence/clause is telling you what it is doing/being and all kinds of circumstances surrounding it (in Western grammar this is termed the predicate).

Now some people may argue that the grammatical subject and the “doer” are not always the same. This is true in English (mainly in passive sentences) but it it is not true in Japanese, as I explain in Unlocking Japanese. I find it clearer to say “doer” (or manifester). Either way, the notion of “subjectless Japanese” is a very serious barrier to understanding the – very simple and logical – way that Japanese actually works.

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Also, with Japanese being much more “adjectival” in structure than European languages, very often a lot of the sentence is lining up to the left of (or above in the more usual vertical text) that “something” and modifying it. So identifying the “something” – the subject – is absolutely vital to understanding what is going on in the sentence.

My correspondent wrote:

At my very basic learning level, my Japanese teacher has explained to me that the ga particle is about introducing another topic, whereas the wa particle is about differentiating a given topic from the rest.

This is essentially what Tae Kim-sensei is also saying.

The が ga particle certainly has the function of introducing a new topic, in that you can’t say は wa for an unknown entity. In that sense (but only in that sense) it is like “a” as opposed to “the”; however, it doesn’t work exactly like a/the because – well, it isn’t a European language. It is a useful model to bear in mind though.

However, introducing a new topic isn’t the only thing が does. That consideration is useful when comparing が ga to は wa. But the comparison of が ga to を wo is far more fundamental.

If we are confused between が ga and は wa we will speak somewhat unnatural-sounding Japanese and miss some of the finer nuances of what we read and hear.

If we are confused between が ga and を wo we will speak nonsense-Japanese and have very little idea of what we are hearing and reading.

So let us look at が ga vs を wo, which is really the very basis of Japanese grammar.

Here is what, were I Tae Kim-sensei, I would ask you to “repeat after me”:

が ga marks the thing doing an action or manifesting a quality (e.g. being red).

を wo marks that which is receiving the action done by the  が ga-marked actor.

  はwa can “conceal” the が ga-function or the を wo-function (and sometimes に ni or others). And we need to know what a は wa-marked topic is actually doing in が ga/を wo terms in order to understand a sentence.

(I know the concept of “concealed particles” may seem unfamiliar, but it is vital to understanding the language correctly, and I walk you through everything step-by-step in Unlocking Japanese)

In simple sentences that is often obvious. But it can get much more difficult in more complex sentences if one hasn’t a firm grasp of how it works.

For example, 聞こえる kikoeru can seem ambiguous because, in English terms it can mean both “can hear” and “hearable”. It is not in fact ambiguous because the grammatical markers tell us which it means in a given instance.

So, to take an example used by Cure Tadashiku in her guest chapter of Unlocking Japanese,

鳥が聞こえ
tori ga kikoeru
= the bird is audible / a bird can be heard

鳥を聞こえる
tori wo kikoeru (=watashi ga tori wo kikoeru)
= (I) can hear a bird

Even in English, though it is less common and considered ungrammatical, if someone said “can hear a bird” you would know that meant “I can hear a bird”. In Japanese this construction is natural and grammatical because pronouns can be, and more often than not are, “null”.

が ga marks the doer and を wo marks the done-to (in European terms subject and object). So in the first sentence the bird is doing something/manifesting a quality. It is audible. In the second sentence, the unnamed が ga-marked hearer is doing the action of hearing, and the bird is the object of the action, the thing being-heard.

In the first sentence the grammatical subject is the bird. In the second it is the implicit “I”.

If there is a wo there must be a corresponding ga-marked actor, whether it is explicitly named or not.

It is precisely because of this logic that elements of a sentence can be (apparently) “left out” as opposed to being marked by visible placeholders called pronouns.

Japanese is quite complex in certain respects and the difference between は wa and が ga in all its subtlety can take a very long time fully to grasp (just as even fluent Japanese speakers of English sometimes get “a” and “the” wrong – in certain cases they are much more complex than they seem). Fortunately this is a “finer point” and is not a barrier to understanding the language.

However, the difference between が ga and を wo is very simple and is absolutely vital. And it is important in many cases to know whether the non-grammatical particle は is “concealing” a が or a を (or something else).

When I say that は is “non-grammatical”, that is Eurocentric in that I am really saying “does not correspond to anything in European grammar”. A more accurate and helpful term is “non-logical”, as I explain in Unlocking Japanese.

As you have probably guessed my personal leanings are not Eurocentric. I actually do not regard European “scientific culture” as the pinnacle of civilization or the best explanation of the nature of being. But as a tool, these European forms of analysis can be useful  for Japanese learners.

They can also be harmful, as attempting to subject Japanese to European rules can (and often does) distort it and make it less understandable. But I find this analysis of が ga and を wo to be completely consistent and to do no violence at all to Japanese (unlike, say, the concepts of verb vs adjective vs noun which have to be treated with considerable caution even though they can’t be altogether disregarded).

By grasping the subject-object nature of が ga and を wo, and understanding them in ways uncluttered by the often rather different way in which English  sometimes understands subject and object, we can get a clear grasp of how Japanese actually works and avoid the muddle and sense of vagueness that besets many learners of Japanese as they progress.

If you take only one thing from this article, take this:

Whatever else it is doing (and it does do other things) が ga, always marks the doer of an action or manifester of a quality. In other words, it always marks what Western Grammar calls the subject, of which an action or a quality is predicated.

If it appears not to, as in Tae Kim-sensei’s crepe example, that is because we are looking at the concept of doing or manifesting a quality in Western terms. By seeing Japanese in Japanese terms, we can unlock its true simplicity, logic and beauty. It is not at all difficult to do, and you can learn how to in one evening from Unlocking Japanese, and simplify Japanese for the rest of your life!

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How Japanese Is Just Like English

japanese-is-like-englishOne thing that intimidates people about Japanese is how different it is from English.

Yet many of the supposedly “complex rules” of Japanese work just like English.

A lot of things that are presented by the textbooks as if they were strange and complex rules in fact work very similarly to English and are much more easily understood once one realizes that.

Of course Japanese is not related to English, but since both are essentially dialects of Universal Grammar, there are many fundamental similarities.

Let’s look today at a point that sometimes puzzles people – because it is explained so unintuitively in the standard textbooks: Japanese absolute and relative time expressions.

To に or not to に

We are told (correctly) that Japanese generally uses the particle に when speaking of an event taking place at an absolute time (say, 3pm or Friday the 22nd) but omits it when speaking of an event taking place at a time relative to the present (say, this morning or last week or tomorrow).

The way it is expressed in standard descriptions it sounds as if we have a rather abstract rule to memorize, but in fact all we have to remember is that it works the same way as English. In English we use a preposition for absolute time expressions but not relative ones.

Let’s look at some examples:

2月5日ジャガイモを食べた
nigatsu itsuka ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes on the fifth of February

3時ジャガイモを食べた
Sanji ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes at three o’clock

But

今朝ジャガイモを食べた
Kesa jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes this morning

明日ジャガイモを食べる
Ashita jagaimo wo taberu
I will eat potatoes tomorrow

You see, English leaves out the preposition (in, on or at) for all relative time expressions, just as Japanese leaves out に for all relative time expressions. It is just the same, except that Japanese is simpler because it always uses に, while English uses in, on or at depending on the particular time expression.

Now that really is an abstract rule that you just have to learn. If you speak Japanese and want to use English time expressions correctly it is a little complicated.

But if you speak English and want to use Japanese time expressions correctly, all you have to do is just what you do in English. Where you use a preposition in English use に in Japanese. Where you leave the preposition out in English, leave the に out in Japanese.

It is as simple as that. I wonder why it is often made to seem more complicated.

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Ki ga suru vs Ki ni suru vs Ki ni naru : How Japanese actually makes sense

ki-ni-suruThe expressions ki ga suru, ki ni suru and ki ni naru are very frequently used. They sound similar but have different meanings, and many learners find them confusing.

One great problem of learning from textbooks and grammar sites is that they tend to treat many aspects of Japanese as if they were a list of arbitrary rules that just have to be learned.

In most cases, such as the rules governing i- and na-adjectives or the use of sou to mean “seems like” or “I heard”, there is nothing arbitrary about them at all. Once you understand what the textbooks don’t tell you, they make perfect sense.

The same is true of ki ga suru, ki ni suru and ki ni naru. So, what is the secret? How do we tell them apart?

Watch the Particles

In a magic show you keep your eye on the magician’s hands. In Japanese you keep your eye on the particles. They are often the primary clue as to what is going on.

In all cases the particle-marked noun is ki – one’s spirit, thoughts or feelings.


Ki ga suru

気がする uses the active ga-particle. In other words, your spirit is doing something. It is active. What your spirit is doing is having a feeling or a hunch. It may also be wanting to do something. In all cases your ki takes the initiative. It is your feeling, your impetus.

Ki ni naru

In 気になる ki is marked by the passive ni-particle and uses the passive naru rather than the active suru. Something is happening to your spirit. It may be worrying you, arousing your curiosity or your desire. But it is all more passive than ki ga suru.

Ki ni suru

With 気にする we are back to the active suru verb, but the marker is the passive ni. This means that something is being done to your spirit. It is almost the reverse of ki ga suru. The tone of this is much more negative. Something is worrying you, literally preying on your mind.

Ki ni suru is often used negatively, as in ki ni shinaide (don’t worry), ki ni shinai (I don’t care/it doesn’t bother me).


While these expressions ovelap to some extent, they are distinct in nuance.

Ki ga suru and ki ni suru are the furthest apart in meaning and barely overlap at all, whereas ki ni naru comes in between and, depending on usage, will be closer to one or the other.

But as you see, it is not a question of rote-learning. The expressions mean what they mean because of the way they are constructed. Once we understand them, we are much more likely to remember them and use them correctly.

Japanese does make sense!

Do you want to learn more about how Japanese is logical, beautiful and far easier than the textbooks ever tell you? Read Cure Dolly’s groundbreaking book Unlocking Japanese. You can read it in an evening and Japanese will make sense for the rest of your life!

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Upside-Down Japanese: how the textbooks are teaching you wrong

Japanese is so much harder when it's explained like this! Here's how to flip it right-side-up!
Japanese is so much harder when it’s explained like this! Here’s how to flip it right-side-up!

In learning Basic Japanese Grammar, you will use standard texts like Genki or Tae Kim. And you should. They are very useful and thorough.

However, there are a number of things they don’t explain. They tend to treat Japanese grammar as if it were West European grammar. With the same categories: nouns, verbs, adjectives. This is helpful for grasping the concepts. I do recommend reading the “classic” explanations (if you haven’t already) along with our articles.

But…

The “classic” Western-grammar-based explanations do falsify Japanese to some extent and this makes it much harder to get an intuitive grasp of the language.

In many cases, because Japanese is presented in terms of European grammar and English uses, it is turned upside down and becomes near impossible to understand correctly.

Simple explanations like

コーヒーが好きです
(watashi wa) koohii ga suki desu
X I like coffee

日本語ができます
(watashi wa) nihongo ga dekimasu
X (I) can speak/understand Japanese

are unfortunately just plain wrong and confusing. They do not represent what the Japanese is actually saying. They represent what an English speaker would be saying in a similar situation.

If we were translating an anime for an English audience, this would be fine. But when students are told that this is what the Japanese means, it lays the ground for confusion and difficulty, especially at a later stage when things get more complicated.

For example, it sows complete confusion about how the ga-particle works. And the ga-particle is the single most fundamental element in Japanese. There is a “ga” in every Japanese sentence whether we can see it or not. Ga is always there, either implicitly  or explicitly, or else it is not a sentence.

If we are confused from the beginning about what ga actually does (and the “translations” above create exactly that confusion), the very clear and simple structure of Japanese – one of the most regular and logical languages in the world – becomes obscured.

So how do we turn Japanese the right way up in our minds?

We just need to learn a few simple facts about the language that the textbooks never teach.

Because there is such a need for this information, we have put these facts into a very short concise little book called Unlocking Japanese. It isn’t another heavy task to add to your study schedule – it is a simple, clearly written book that you can read in an evening (though you will probably want to go on referring to it for years).

It takes you in a clear step-by-step way through the “hidden” basics of Japanese that the schools don’t teach.

If you don’t know any Japanese grammar this isn’t the book for you, but if you know even the very beginnings you should read this, because it is going to make every step easier and much clearer.

If you have been studying Japanese for years, Unlocking Japanese will make a lot of things fall into place. Intermediate Japanese learners report that the book is full of “Aha!” moments.

We apply the knowledge contained in Unlocking Japanese throughout this website, but we highly recommend reading the book first because it prepares you in a systematic way for so much of what we have to tell you here.

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Japanese Grammar: The Golden Key – Mighty Morphin’ Modularity

Japanese Grammar is like morphing lego-blocks. Once you know how they fit together you can build anything!
Japanese Grammar is like lego blocks. Once you know how they fit together you can build anything!

We sometimes liken Japanese to an RPG. A great open world where there are many things to see and discover, treasures to be found and monsters to overcome.

In some RPGs (like the Dragon Quest series), at a certain stage you can get a master key that will unlock lots of doors and treasure chests without your having the particular key for that item.

There is a key like that to Japanese grammar. It won’t unlock every door, but it will unlock a lot of them.

This key is the modular nature of Japanese. We learn early on about “conjugations” of Japanese words, but the truth is that while conjugation does exist in Japanese (for example, putting verbs into the past tense) much of what is called conjugation is not conjugation at all. It is something else that doesn’t really happen in European languages, but because textbooks and teachers describe Japanese in terms derived from Europe, it is never properly explained.

In Japanese words don’t only conjugate. They also metamorphose (or “morph”) into completely different kinds of words. Verbs regularly become adjectives, ichidan verbs become godan verbs, adjectives become verbs, nouns become adjectives.

You may be only partially aware of it because current Western teaching does not draw much attention to the matter. And it may sound very complicated and strange, but in fact it is very simple once you understand it.

Many of the things that are done in English by adding three or four extra words are done in Japanese by morphing the word into a different type of word meaning what the English phrase would mean.

The good news about this is that Japanese is almost 100% regular. Once you know how these metamorphoses work, you can build just about any meaning by morphing and lego-ing words and phrases together by methods that almost never change.

This is completely different from English and other European languages, which are a maze of exceptions and special cases where you have to learn many many things individually.

In Japanese, once you know how your box of lego-pieces works and how they morph and fit together you can construct just about anything.

Before you are ready to do this, you need to learn a few other things the textbooks never mention.

That is why we recommend that you read Unlocking Japanese, which leads you step-by-step to the point where you can use the Japanese morphing system like a pro.

Mighty Morphin’ Modularity is the ninth chapter of the book and by the time you get to it you will be ready to use everything in it.

Unlocking Japanese is a short book that you can read in an evening and grasp the essential points, but you will want it by you for a long time afterward because it gives the keys to understanding Japanese that the textbooks don’t teach.

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The Simple Secret of Sou (“seems like” or “I heard”): “Complex” Grammar Made Easy

Don't be confused. It all makes sense once you know!
Don’t be confused.
It all makes sense once you know!

Putting sou da/desu on the end of a word can represent either hearsay or similarity. Which of the two it means depends on seemingly subtle and arbitrary grammar rules.

But actually that confusing “list of rules” boils down to one simple secret.

Every grammar explanation I have seen makes it seem that there is a complex set of rules that just happen to be what they are and all you can do is learn them by brute force.

But that isn’t really true. Like much of Japanese, the rules make perfect logical and intuitive sense once you understand them.

Tae Kim’s excellent site gives a run-down of all the rules. I won’t try to explain them here. Tae Kim, or your textbook, is much better at that sort of thing than I am. I am just a doll.

What I am going to do is tell you why those rules actually make sense and are not just an abstract set of rules to be learned.

For example, Tae Kim tells us that for the “seems like” meaning:

  1. Verbs must be changed to the stem.
  2. The 「い」 in i-adjectives must be dropped except for 「いい」.
  3. いい」 must first be conjugated to 「よさ」.
  4. For all negatives, the 「い」 must be replaced with 「さ」.
  5. This grammar does not work with plain nouns.

One might also add that na-adjectives have the sou attached directly to them (rather than having putting da/desu between the adjective and the sou as you do when you mean “I heard that…”)

But the truth is that once you know what you are actually doing when you are doing all this,  it all becomes very easy and intuitive, and there are no “rules” to remember.

“The Simple Secret of Sou” is chapter 8 of Unlocking Japanese. You do need to have read the previous chapters to grasp what it is saying, but the whole book is very straightforward. You can read it in an evening and Japanese will become simpler, and more intuitive for the rest of your life.

The simple secret of sou is part of a ground-breaking new way of seeing Japanese that simplifies not just sou, but everything! If you are serious about learning Japanese you owe it to yourself to learn the secrets that make it easy and intuitive.

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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 by theory 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  I would say the best are Genki 1 and 2. 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 Inside Secrets! Official grammars are necessary, but in some areas they set you on the wrong path and make grammar seem much harder than it really is. I strongly recommend getting Unlocking Japanese, which does just what the title says! Yes, it’s our book, but it came out of seeing how seriously misled most students get by some aspects of official grammar and what problems that creates later on. It’s only a small book and quite cheap, but it will really make Japanese far easier to understand. Take a look at it now!

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3. 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.

4. 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 and re-read Unlocking Japanese, it is short but it will leave you knowing how things like Japanese particles, adjectives and tenses really work. Actually understanding in depth the is far better for your memory than brute-force drill-learning. And for some reason the textbooks never tell you these things.

But remember: What is going to make Japanese grammar stick in your long-term memory and become instinctive is not artificial exercises, but real encounters and use of it in anime, books conversation etc.

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 I really loved it. 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:

Kana
(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. Keep Unlocking Japanese by your side too. It will help you to know what is really going on in the sentences you hear.

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→

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

i-and-na-adjectives
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 da “is 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:

chiisai chiisakute

kirei na kirei 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 are commonly used as both i and na adjectives (though occasionally others can be too). 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”.

Upside-down Japanese: How the textbooks teach you wrongly→

This article comes from Unlocking Japanese, if you would like to learn how not only adjectives but most of Japanese is far easier clearer and more logical than the textbooks ever tell you, get your copy now!

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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:

For the full version of this charming song, go here!

The song begins with two simple statements.

アンパンにはアンコは入ってる
Anpan ni wa anko wa haitte(i)ru
There is anko in anpan

メロンパンにはメロンが入ってない
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:

昔々小さい女の子いました。
Mukashi mukashi, chiisai onnanoko ga imashita.
Once upon a time there was a little girl.
女の子心優しいでした。
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:

アンパンにはアンコは入ってる
Anpan ni wa anko wa haite[i]ru
There is anko in anpan

メロンパンにはメロンが入ってない
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.

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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:

私が一番好きなのはメロンパン
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

Want to understand how Japanese is regular, logical and much simpler than the textbooks make it seem? Read Unlocking Japanese by Cure Dolly. You can read it in an evening and it will make Japanese clear and easy for the rest of your life!

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