1. Basic Word Order
Japanese word order is very different from English. In English we use Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) but in Japanese it is usually Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). Observe:
Notice the “extra” words (wa and o). These are called particles (or grammatical markers) and they tell us a lot about the function of the word it follows. Don’t worry! We’ll get to particles soon enough.
2. DESU です
Desu is a copula. (A word used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate.) It shows that something is or isn’t something else.
You can think of it as like the English "to be" except it does not show existence--Japanese uses two other verbs for that いる iru and ある aru for that. Don't worry, we will get to those.
Also, desu is one of the very few irregular forms in Japanese.
Let’s take a look:
ゾウは 大きい です。
zou wa ookii desu.
Elephants are large.
これ は ねこ です 。
kore wa neko desu.
This is a cat.
The three main forms of です desu are:
- だ da (simple; informal)
- です desu (polite; normal form)
- でございます de gozaimasu (formal; honorific or humble speech)
- Always at the end
- Is used to state some information about the subject (its identity; its state; or a membership in some group)
- Is like the English "to be" except it doesn't show existence
- It doesn’t change like its English cousin (is, are, am) in the present tense
- Usually pronounced like “dess” instead of "de - su"
3. And—と・そして to / soshite
There are several ways to say “and” to connect words and phrases.
Let’s look at two of them: と and そして
と to - connecting nouns
私は 日本語 と 英語 と フランス語が 話せます。
watashi wa nihongo to eigo to furansugo ga hanasemasu.
I can speak Japanese and English and French.
そして soshite - connecting phrases:
新しい 本を 買いました。そして 今日 から 読みます。
atarashii hon wo kaimashita. soshite kyou kara yomimasu.
I bought a new book. And today, I will start to read it.
(Lit. And from today, I’ll read.)
4. Two Basic Verb Forms
There are many ways to conjugate Japanese verbs, but here we will focus on two present tense forms: “dictionary form” (also known as “plain form”) and “~masu form” (also known as “polite form”).
NOTE : Switching between these two verb forms does not change the meaning of the verb, but the dictionary form is more casual.
- The dictionary form gets its name because this is how it is found in dictionaries.
- The dictionary form verbs ends in -u and many end in -ru
- The masu form verbs are so called because they always end in -masu in the present tense.
- Your textbook or a more in-depth guide on verbs will give you more information. For now, familiarize yourself with these two forms.
Both mean "to eat"
Both mean "to drink"
Both mean "to run"
Both mean "to do"
You will notice some other changes with the two forms. For our purposes right now, just memorize a few examples and try to find patterns with other verbs. And remember: Mistake making is memory making! (As long as you correct yourself, of course.)
5. Making questions—か ka
Making questions in Japanese is easy! Usually you can change a statement into a question by simply adding aか ka to the end!
First, a statement:
(I) am an American.
(He or she) is an American
And now, add a か ka.
アメリカ人 です か。
amerikajin desu ka.
Are you an American?
- か ka is added to the end of sentences.
- Word order is not changed as in English.
- In Japanese (see example) the ? (Question mark) is not required but may be used.
- Just like in English, the last syllable of a question goes up in intonation, especially if a question word (who, what, where, etc.) isn't used.
- In spoken Japanese, sometimes the ka can be dropped if you raise your voice at the end as we do with “You want to eat?” But for now, let’s stick to using the ka.
6. Question Words
By mastering these question words, your conversational skills will be much stronger! It may take you longer than five minutes but try to at least memorize these six words and their meanings before progressing.
いつ itsu - when
いつ きました か？
itsu kimashita ka?
When did you come?
[Lit. When came? Notice the “you” is understood.]
どこ doko - where
どこ から きました か？
doko kara kimashita ka?
Where did you come from?
[Lit. Where from came?]
どうして doushite - why
どうして きました か？
doushite kimashita ka?
Why did you come?
[Lit. why came?]
なぜ naze - why
[Used in the same way as doushite]
だれ dare - who
だれが きました か。
dare ga kimashita ka?
なに nani - what
nani o kaimashita ka.
What did you buy?
[This is also pronounced なん nan before nouns and in certain cases.]
- Even with the question word a か ka is used. (Except in casual spoken Japanese.)
- The question word is at the beginning, but after the topic particle は wa if there is one. For example:
あなた は だれ です か？
anata wa dare desu ka?
Who are you?
(The question word だれ dare is after the は wa)
7. Possessive—の no
To show relationship or possession between two things just put a の “no” between them. The trick is knowing (erm... “no”-ing) which goes to the left of the no and which goes to the right... の is also used when one word modifies another.
Simplified Tip: Think of no as a ‘s (apostrophe S)
わたし の ねこ
watashi no neko
日本 の 車
nihon no kuruma
["Japan" modifies "car"]
ねこ の おもちゃ
neko no omocha
Also just memorize these as words:
- わたしの watashino as “my”
- あなたの anatano as “your”
8. But—でも demo
But: a small word, but... There are other “buts,” but demo is the most common. Learn this first and you can pick the others up later.
日本語 が 好き でも フランス語 は きらい です。
nihongo ga suki demo furansugo wa kirai desu.
I like Japanese, but I hate French.
Pronouns are not used nearly as much in Japanese as they are in English. Often the pronoun is used once and then after that (until the topic shifts to someone else) the pronoun is dropped.
And yet, for a language that downplays pronoun usage, Japanese sure has a lot of them.
- You can say かのじょたち kanojo tachi for multiple women/girls, but for mixed and general use, かれら karera is used for "they."
- “It” isn’t used, but in its place, それ sore (that) is often used.
- Another meaning of kare (he) is actually “boyfriend” and kanojo is “girlfriend”!
- When the meaning is obvious, the pronoun is usually dropped. Both of the following is clear in meaning:
わたしは アメリカ から きました。
watashi wa amerika kara kimashita.
I came from America.
アメリカ から きました。
amerika kara kimashita.
(I) came from America.
10. Fillers—ええと eeto
In English, we have our “ah” and “um.” in Japanese, they have their “eeto.” This is the sound you make when you can’t think of what to say but want to say something!
何 の 動物 が 好き です か？
nan no doubutsu ga suki desu ka?
What animal do you like?
ええと。。。 ねこ が すき。
eeto... neko ga suki.
Um... I like cats.
11. Introduction to Particles
Particles may seem a little foreign to you at first, but for the most part, they aren’t too difficult to grasp.
These particles are placed after a word (or phrase) and show its relationship (grammatical function) to the rest of the sentence. In other words, the particle itself isn’t translatable, but it tells you a lot about the function of the word it follows.
The best way to learn to use them is to memorize useful examples and try them out for size!
Overall Topic Particle
This shows the main topic of the conversation. It may be helpful to think of it as “as for...” or "regarding this..."
NOTE: it is written as a hiragana は ha but pronounced as “wa.”
あなた は やさしい。
anata wa yasashii.
You are nice.
[Makes “you” the main topic: “As for YOU, you are nice.”]
The Subject / Object Particle
Very often the difference between は wa and が ga is hard to tell. Sometimes they can be used interchangeably with only a slight change in meaning.
neko ga hen.
The cat is strange.
[Makes the “cat” the subject.]
The Direct Object Particle
Place after the direct object of the sentence. This is sometimes romanized as "wo," but the pronunciation is usually more of an "o" sound.
本 を よみました。
hon o yomimashita.
(I) read a book.
[NOTE: を o makes “book” the object. If we were to say “I” (probably unnecessary within context) it would be わたしは watashi wa at the beginning.]
The Movement and Time Particle
When this particle shows movement, you would usually translate it as "to":
日本 に 行きましょう！
nihon ni ikimashou!
Let’s go to Japan!
[There is movement going to Japan]
Or when に ni shows time, it means "at":
６時 に 行きましょう！
roku ji ni ikimashou!
Let’s go at six.
The Location Particle
公園 で 遊びましょう！
kouen de asobimashou!
Let’s play (have fun) at the park.
[Notice there is no movement]
This is a very simplified look at particles. Some particles have other functions and there are particles missing from our list. But these are the most encountered and necessary for the beginner to understand.
12. If - もし moshi
We will look at a few examples that contain advanced grammar. In other words, to say “if...” you must start with もし moshi—and while this is easy, you must also change the verb at the end with a ～ば ~ba, たら tara, or なら nara or some other conditional form.
That being said, you should become familiar with もし moshi early on since it is extremely useful. Try to memorize one or two example sentences and then listen or look for other examples online or with friends. Even if you confuse the verb endings, by saying moshi, you will probably be understood.
もし あなた が きたら。
moshi anata ga kitara.
If you come...
もし はれ たら。
moshi hare tara.
If it is sunny...
Special useful phrases:
If it is okay with you...
[let me do this...]
If you want (it),
[when offering something to someone]
13. Using さん san
The equivalent to Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. is ～さん ~san.
USAGE: Right after the name.
It is best to always add “san” (or an equivalent) to other people’s names. Even when we wouldn’t use "Mr." or "Ms" in English—such as with friends. It is used with males and females, old and young.
BIG POINT: Never use “-san” when referring to yourself.
クレイさん kurei san - Mr. Clay [Non-Japanese names are written in katakana.]
山田さん yamada san - Mr. (Or Mrs...) Yamada
Other name titles: (used the same way)
～さま sama - very polite
～ちゃん chan - used for girls and very young boys (kiti-chan = Hello Kitty)
～くん kun - used for young boys
～先生 sensei - used for teachers, doctors, and professionals
For now just use さん san. As you know from watching all the Karate Kid movies (the original ones!), it is the most common—and the safest.
14. Easy Adjectives
There are two types of adjectives:
- -i adjectives - adjectives that end in -i
- -na adjectives - adjectives that add -na when placed before nouns
The -i adjectives change:
[Has the “i.”]
[drop the “i” and add kunai]
[-i + katta]
[Now, put the negative together with the past:]
[-i + kunakatta]
Learn this and you can use all -i adjectives!
The -na adjectives don’t change!
But when placed before nouns they add a -na
healthy; active; fine
genki na ko
healthy (active) child
15. Past Tense
For now, let’s stick with the -masu form of verbs (this is polite and useful).
Japanese doesn't have a future tense. So, we will call the present tense "non-past."
Non-Past Negative Masu
Past Negative Masen Deshita
The “-masen” makes the negative; “deshita” makes the past.
16. Very - とても totemo
Sometimes mom’s cooking isn’t just おいしい oishii (delicious) it is VERY OISHII!
Add とても totemo before adjectives to say “very.”
とても おいしい です。
totemo oishii desu.
It’s very delicious!
totemo ookina ki.
A very big tree.
Another "Very" Word:
非常に hijou ni
17. To Want~ ～が ほしい ~ga hoshii
Saying, “I want (something)” is easy. Just say the thing you want and add ga hoshii to it.
のみもの が ほしい です。
nomimono ga hoshii desu.
(I) want a drink.
NOTE: The です desu is optional and is usually dropped in casual speech. nomimono ga hoshii. is perfectly fine in spoken Japanese.
Next, let’s ask a question. Do you remember how to make a question? That’s right add a ka. Ask if your guest would like some cake.
ケーキが ほしい ですか？
ke-ki ga hoshii desu ka?
Do you want cake?
18. Want to do~ ～たい ~tai
First, get the ～ます masu form of the verb you want to use. Then drop the ～ます masu and add たい tai.
want to eat
want to drink
want to do
Of course, if you want to say, “do you want to...,” just add ka.
ケーキ を たべたい です か？
ke-ki wo tabetai desu ka?
Do you want to eat cake?
19. は、が wa and ga
wa – the main topic particle of the conversation
ga – the particle that usually marks the subject of the sentence
These two particles can be easily confused. This is mainly because sometimes the topic (the overall direction of the conversation) and the grammatical subject of the sentence can be the same thing. If this is the case, the が disappears and the は acts as both the topic and subject marker.
In other words, the は can override the が.
Worse, sometimes the "subject marker" が can actually mark the grammatical direct object of the sentence. You may remember, this is usually done with the を particle.
Also, は and が can sometimes be interchangeable with only a slight difference in nuance. One trick, in this case, is to think of
- は as stressing what comes after and
- が as stressing what goes before it.
わたしは日本人です。 watashi wa nihonjin desu. I am a Japanese (person). [The speaker is being described as a Japanese person. Translate the は as "as for": As for me, I am a Japanese person. There may be other Japanese people around.]
わたしが日本人です。 watashi ga nihonjin desu. I am the Japanese (person). [The distinctive element is the speaker is the one who is Japanese. This might be to show a distinction between other Asians in the room.]
In the first case, we use は, and it emphasizes the "Japanese (person)." When we introduce ourselves (or give information about ourselves such as: 私は２０さいです。 watashi wa nijuu sai desu. I am 20 years old)), the details (the predicate) are what's important and not necessarily the who. "As for me (and then the important details follow)"
In the second sentence, we use が, and it emphasizes "I”. We are now stressing ”I” as if to say, “It is I, who is Japanese”. This is used, for example, in a room full of Asians where people are wondering which person is the only Japanese there.
Of course, the context can affect the meaning of the above sentences, but as a rough rule, you can think of は as stressing what comes after and が as stressing what comes before.
Let's look at a few more examples.
わたしは クレイ です。
watashi wa kurei desu.
I am Clay.
Clay is the topic and now this is known, it won’t be repeated unless the topic changes.
In this case, わたし is both the topic and subject so, we don't need a が, since は overrides が.
Here's an example of が ga being the subject:
あめ が ふる。
ame ga furu.
[literally, rain falls.]
が after question words:
Let's ask a friend what's good at a restaurant.
この レストラン は なに が おいしい です か？
kono resutoran wa nani ga oishii desu ka?
What is tasty at this restaurant?
Notice レストラン is the topic (marked by は), but there is also a が after the question word なに. When a question word comes at the beginning of a sentence, it is always followed by a が.
Just for your information, if the question word comes late in the sentence, は is usually used at the beginning: これは なん です か？
So, as a quick and dirty tip: If the question word comes first, use が and if the question word comes later, use ～は.
Okay, here is our friend's answer:
ピザ が おいしい です。
piza ga oishii desu.
The pizza is delicious.
Pizza is the subject. But the topic of the conversation may be something else. The full meaning of the answer may be, "As for this restaurant, the pizza is delicious." In this case, the "restaurant" is the unspoken は topic.
But let's add "I think" to the sentence. This will make "I" the topic but が will still mark ピザ as the subject.
わたし は ピザ が おいしい と おもいます。
watashi wa piza ga oishii to omoimasu.
I think this pizza is delicious.
[as for me, I - this - pizza - delicious - think]
が as Object
As I mentioned at the beginning, が can also sometimes mark the object of the sentence. You'll recall normally this is done with the direct object particle を, but sometimes が is used. This is especially true with words like:
- すき suki - to like
- きらい kirai - to dislike
- ほしい hoshii - to want
ねこが すき です。
neko ga suki desu.
(I) like cats.
You can substitute すき with きらい or ほしい and you would still use が
The unspoken わたし (I) is still the topic and subject. You could say:
わたしは ねこが すき です。
watashi wa neko ga suki desu.
I like cats.
However, in natural Japanese, the topic is almost always dropped if it is understood in context (or already stated.)
- If both are in a sentence, the wa is first.
- If a word is both the subject and the topic of a sentence, use just wa.
- The wa is written with a hiragana ha but pronounced as wa.
- When a question word comes at the beginning of a sentence, it is always followed by a が.
20. There is / There are あります arimasu
For inanimate objects (stationary objects, plants...), end the sentence with ～があります ~ga arimasu.
It’s a tree. [lit. tree is.]
木 が あります。
ki ga arimasu.
There is a tree.
For living things (people and animals) use ～がいます ~ga imasu.
ねこ が います。
neko ga imasu.
There is a cat(s).
To show the negative just add ～せん ~sen to the end.
have; exists (inanimate objects)
don't have; don't exist (inanimate objects)
have; exists (living things)
don't have; don't exist (living things)
Perhaps you know these useful phrases:
お願い が あります。
onegai ga arimasu.
I have a favor to ask.
[This is the casual form of arimasen.]
Note: This is where “to be” does not correspond with “desu” in Japanese. When dealing with existence (there is, there are), use あります or います instead of です.