Japanese Verb Conjugation

Polite and Plain Forms

In Japanese, there are polite and plain forms of speech.
In plain speech, you use the dictionary form of verbs, but in polite speech, you use the ーです and ーます forms of verbs. Plain speech is used between friends and family, while polite speech is used when you speak to seniors and strangers.

We will focus on using polite forms in the first stages of the course and will gradually learn to use the plain forms.

However, it is still extremely important you know how plain forms are formed.
Plain forms are also called ‘dictionary forms‘. As the name suggests, when you want to look up the meaning of a verb, they are not written as ーます forms in the dictionary. Rather, they appear in the plain form.

Therefore, in this lesson, we will aim to gain an overall understanding about how verbs conjugate for various meanings.

Verb Groups

There are three (3) grouping of Japanese verbs and the rules of inflection. Once you understand the Japanese verbs and their inflections, using them will become much easier.

Let’s assume that ーます form is the foundation of all verbs. 

For example, たべます, ねます, のみます, and かえります.

VERB STEM = ます form verb – ます

What does this mean? Take a look at たべます for instance.

たべます is the ます form, and its verb stem is the form without ます. Therefore, the verb stem is たべ.

In other words, if you write this out as a mathematical equation:

たべます=ます form
verb stem = ます form – ます
= たべます – ます
= たべ

∴ verb stem of たべます = たべ

Group 1

Verbs in this group have a verb stem that ends in a い sound (2nd column of the hiragana chart).

This includes verbs such as:

  • ます to buy
  • ます to listen
  • およます to swim
  • はなます to speak
  • ます to stand

Group 2

The rest of the verbs are in Group 2 including any verbs with only 1 syllable in the verb stem.

  • ます to see
  • ます to eat
  • ます to sleep

Group 3

Finally, Group 3 verbs are irregular. Unfortunately, there are no specific rules to remember these, so you just have to memorise these.

  • きます(来ます)to come
  • します to do
  • いきます(行きます)to go

There are more in these group, but let’s stick to the above three for now.


Practice Activity

Consider the following verbs. Determine whether they are Group 1, 2 or 3 verbs.

  • なきます
  • あそびます
  • たべます
  • よみます
  • なめます
  • きます
  • みます


Plain Forms

Now you know how to determine the stem of a verb and the corresponding groups. We can then apply the following rules to conjugate ーます form into its ‘dictionary form’.

Group 1

Change the い sound of the verb stem to the corresponding う sound. 

For example, the verb stem of かいます, かい, ends in a い sound. You need to change the い sound to the corresponding う sound on the same row of the hiragana chart. Therefore, the dictionary form of かいます is かう.

Here are some more to help you understand:

  • およぎます → およぎ → およぐ
  • しにます → しに → しぬ
  • よみます → よみ → よむ


Group 2

Simply add る to the verb stem.

  • たべます → たべ → たべる
  • みます → み → みる


Group 3

Remember the following:

  • きます(来ます) → くる (来る)
  • します      → する
  • いきます     → いく

Polite Form Conjugations

ーます form is the present/future positive form of any verbs. This means that the verb or the action IS HAPPENING or WILL HAPPEN. Japanese do not have a future tense, therefore, you will need to decipher this from the context.

  • よく本をよみます。I often read books.
  • 二じにともだちにあいます。I will meet my friend at 2 O’Clock.

Negative Present

Add ません to the verb stem.

  • たべます (I eat)  → たべません (I don’t eat)
  • かきます (I write)    → かきません (I don’t write)


Past Positive

Add ました to the verb stem.

  • みます (I see)      → みました (I saw)
  • あそびます (I play)  → あそびました (I played)


Past Negative

Add でした to the negative present.
I.E Add ませんでした to the verb stem.

  • はなします (I speak)    → はなしませんでした (I did not speak)
  • ねます (I sleep)       → ねませんでした (I did not sleep)

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