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Tenses In Japanese


Japanese verbs have just two tenses: present and past. The dictionary form is present tense. Present tense refers to both present and future, which makes the verb taberu not just "I eat," but also "I will eat." The context usually tells you which meaning the verb is expressing.
As in English, the present tense often doesn't refer to this very moment but to some habitual action, such as "I eat dinner every day at 6:00."

If you know a verb's te-form, expressing that verb in the past tense is easy. You simply change the final vowel from an e to an a. For example, tabete (tah-beh-teh; eat) becomes tabeta (tah-beh-tah; ate), and nonde (nohn-deh; drink) becomes nonda (nohn-dah; drank).

To say that you didn't do something in the past, you need to fashion verbs into their negative past forms. Simply take the negative form, drop the final vowel, i, and add -katta. For example, tabenai (tah-beh-nah-ee; don't eat) becomes tabenakatta (tah-beh-nah-kaht-tah; didn't eat). Cool, huh?

Speaking politely

In Japanese, the verbs you choose say a lot about you. Although using the plain/informal verb form when you talk with close friends or family members is fine, if you use them in a business situation or with strangers, the listener may think you're unsophisticated or even rude. Judging the situation and knowing what level of formality is appropriate is an integral part of speaking Japanese. Making polite/neutral verb forms is easy. You just have to remember four verb endings (one each for the affirmative present, negative present, affirmative past, and negative past) and add one of them to the end of the verb's stem form.

  • For affirmative present verbs, add -masu.
  • For negative present verbs, add -masen.
  • For affirmative past verbs, add -mashita.
  • For negative past verbs, add -masen deshita.

Below the table gives you some examples.

Making Polite/Neutral Verb Forms

 tabeni [ru](eat)miru[ru](watch)nomu[u](drink)
Stemtabeminomi
Affirmative Presenttabemasumimasunomimasu
Negative Presenttabemasenmimasennomimasen
Affirmative Pasttabemashitamimashitanomimashita
Negative Pasttabemasen deshitamimasen deshitanomimasen deshita

Enhancing Verbs With suffixes

Japanese has a rich inventory of verb suffixes that add either concrete meaning or subtle implications. Different suffixes require different verb forms: plain/ informal form (dictionary form, negative form, past tense, or negative past tense), stem form, or te-form. You may think that I'm slipping a whole new form in on you, but plain/informal form is just the term I use to indicate that the verb form isn't the stem or the te-form. Dictionary form, negative form, past tense, and negative past tense verbs all follow the same pattern, so I call them all the plain/informal form.

Note:In this table, I use hyphens to show you the boundary between the verb and the verb suffix, but you pronounce the verbs as one word or phrase.

Common Verb Suffixes

Meaning/FunctionSuffixExampleTranslation
Suffixes that Follow Plain/Informal Forms
should-beki desutaberu- beki desu1 should eat.
probability-deshotaberu-deshoI'll probably eat.
possibility-kamo shiremasentaberu- kamo shiremasen1 might eat.
person-hitotaberu-hitothe person who eats
because-karataberu-karabecause 1 eat
noun-maker-kototaberu-kotothe act of eating
things-monotaberu-monothings to eat
time-tokitaberu-tokiwhen 1 eat
intention-tsumori desutaberu-tsumori desu1 plan to eat.
Suffixes that Follow Stem Forms
while-nagaratabe-nagarawhile eating
purpose-nitabe-niin order to eat
difficulty-nikuitabe-nikuiIt's hard to eat.
overdoing-sugirutabe-sugiru1 overeat.
desire-taitabe-tai1 want to eat.
Suffixes that Follow Te-forms
doing a favor-agerutabete-ageru1 eat for you.
present perfect-arutabete-aru1 have eaten.
present progressive-irutabete-iru1 am eating.
requesting-kudasaitabete-kudasaiPlease eat.
attempt-mirutabete-miruI'll try to eat.
completion-shimautabete-shimauI finish eating.



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