I’ve been studying Japanese, this time around, for 3 or 4 years. I also took 3.5 years of it in college (years ago). And I have trouble with verb conjugation. When I write, I lean heavily on JapaneseVerbConjugator.com. And when I speak or listen, I often just get it wrong.
I’ve decided this is not entirely my fault; the way verb conjugations are taught simply sucks. Here’s a better way. (I just made this up this morning, so please read skeptically, and point out any problems you find!)
- No more verb classes. Well, you have to remember that する and 来る are exceptions and do their own thing, but all other verbs will follow the rules.
- When you learn a verb, learn it in three common forms. I’m currently thinking the dictionary form, the -te form, and the nonpast negative. So for example, “to go” is iku/itte/ikanai. “To see” is miru/mite/minai. “To run” is hashiru/hashitte/hashiranai. All your Anki verb cards present them this way, and you just always think of them that way, just like “sing/sang/sung” in English.
- We can derive all other conjugations from these three, using only simple rules.
Now, the verb classes aren’t entirely gone — they’re implicit in the rules, typically based on the past negative form, which will end in -anai or -wanai for Godan verbs, but not for Ichidan verbs. That’s why we memorize the past negative form. But you no longer need to know this fact; the rules are impossible to misapply, as you’ll see in a moment. And notice that the three forms we memorize are themselves very commonly used, so if you need the plain present, plain past, or -te form, you are done because it’s one of the three forms you already know.
OK, so what are these amazingly simple rules for the other forms? Here we go:
Masu form (polite present): replace -anai or -wanai with -imasu; otherwise replace -nai with -masu.
- iku/itte/ikanai: ik anai -> ikimasu
- miru/mite/minai: mi nai -> mimasu
- hashiru/hashitte/hashiranai: hashir anai -> hashirimasu
Plain past form: replace -e with -a in the -te form.
- iku/itte/ikanai: itte -> itta
- miru/mite/minai: mite -> mita
- hashiru/hashitte/hashiranai: hashitte -> hashitta
“Let’s” form (plain): replace -anai or -wanai with -ou; otherwise replace -nai with -you.
- iku/itte/ikanai: ik anai -> ikou
- miru/mite/minai: mi nai -> miyou
- hashiru/hashitte/hashiranai: hashir anai -> hashirou
Imperative (command) form: replace -anai or -wanai with -e; otherwise replace -nai with -ro.
- iku/itte/ikanai: ik anai -> ike
- miru/mite/minai: mi nai -> miro
- hashiru/hashitte/hashiranai: hashir anai -> hashire
Ba form (provisional conditional: replace -anai or -wanai with -eba; otherwise replace -nai with -reba.
- iku/itte/ikanai: ik anai -> ikeba
- miru/mite/minai: mi nai -> mireba
- hashiru/hashitte/hashiranai: hashir anai -> hashireba
And so forth. Most of the rules are of the same complexity as what has always been taught, but easier to apply. I used to think, “OK, let’s see, hashiru, that’s a -ru verb, wait no this is one of those bastards that’s actually a -u verb, OK what’s the rule for u verbs, replace -u with -eba… hashireba?” Now I just try to replace -anai or -wanai: hashiranai -> hashireba. And if I can’t (because my word is like miru/mite/minai, which doesn’t have an -anai or -wanai to replace), then I know to use -reba instead: minai -> mireba. Even I can’t screw this up.
And of course of all the traditional conjugation rules, the one that’s the worst is making the -te form (or in some textbooks, they teach it as making the -ta form… these are equivalent except for the last letter). Instead of 2 verb classes we have 5, because the -u verbs here are a real bitch. But with this new system, you literally don’t care, because the -te form is just one of the three forms you memorize with every verb.
What do you think? Am I a friggin’ genius or what?