Doing away with verb classes

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 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!)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?


If your assumptions are correct, then this makes sense to me and I’d use it.

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I’m sort of doing the same thing as I learn japanese. Conjugation rules are unnatural. It is not how any of us speak or write in English or any language.

I’ve been remembering the dictionary form, the Te-form and the -masu form - not too different that what you have. In the end, its easier to remember the Te-form - to know that the Te-form of nomu is nonde instead of deriving it.

So, in summary, yes you are a genius and this is a good tip. :slight_smile:

Yeah… I think we all end up memorizing the Te form, as the rules for it are just too cumbersome.

Japanese The Manga Way recommends learning the dictionary form and the -masu form for all verbs; if you throw in the Te form, you get the same set you’re learning… and that’s where I was too, but it’s a little unsatisfying because you can’t generate all the other conjugations from these; you still have to learn the whole Class 1/Class 2 verb thing.

For example, you can’t easily go from the -masu form to the plain past negative (-nai) form. Hashirimasu could become hashinai or hashiranai, depending on which class of verb it is. But you can readily go the other way. So, while we’re pretty much all going to remember the -masu form anyway because it’s so common, if you have to pick a minimal set of things to memorize, better to leave it out and include the -nai form instead.

I’ve been memorizing the -te form, sometimes before the dictionary form, because that’s the way it’s often presented in the materials I use (I started with Rosetta Stone, which uses the -te imasu form in sentences). I don’t know the -nai forms yet.

I don’t agree with that part. If it were an Ichidan verb, aka the negative form would be はしない, then the -masu form would be はします and hence there’s no way to misunderstand it for the Godan はしります. But, I admit that Godan verb ending in る can be so tricky sometimes, and means you kind of have to know an extra form.

Wish they’d just tell you about う and る verbs and that you should remember which is which at the very beginning instead of just making it look simple by only teaching ます and then dropping the bomb halfway through N5…

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[quote=“Erkanamen, post:6, topic:17349, full:true”]
I don’t agree with that part. If it were an Ichidan verb, aka the negative form would be はしない, then the -masu form would be はします and hence there’s no way to misunderstand it for the Godan はしります. [/quote]

Hmm, you’re right. So can you easily go from the masu form to the nai form?

I still don’t see how you can, because nothing in the masu form is unique to Ichidan or Godan verbs. 走ります ends in -imasu, and so does 行きます. But the former is a Godan verb (replace -imasu with -anai) while the latter is Ichidan (replace -masu with -nai). You can’t know what to do just from looking at it; you have to also know what verb class it is.

[quote=“pabbles, post:7, topic:17349, full:true”]
Wish they’d just tell you about う and る verbs and that you should remember which is which at the very beginning instead of just making it look simple by only teaching ます and then dropping the bomb halfway through N5…[/quote]

Well, I was taught that way — but years later, I’m still screwing it up. It’s a long walk from the verb (memorized in either dictionary or masu form), to remembering which class it is, to remembering the appropriate conjugation rule (heaven help you if it’s the -te or -ta form you need), to doing the conjugation.

Nobody can do all that fast enough to speak or understand speech, so eventually we end up just memorizing all the common conjugations of all the common verbs. But with the traditional approach, you also spend a lot of time trying to remember and use verb classes (which are not useful in themselves) and these complex rules that you won’t be using in the end anyway.

So I’m thinking, why not memorize three commonly-needed forms right from the beginning, that also happen to make the rules (when you need them) much simpler?

Oh I don’t disagree, your technique does sound more efficient, like thinking in radicals instead of strokes for kanji.

I just used your thread to vent about something kind of related :stuck_out_tongue:

To each their own I guess, but I never had a problem with Ichidan/Godan classes.
It seems easier to learn a few simple rules than remembering three forms for every single verb.
The only difficult part about conjugation is the past/て-form of godan verb, but you get used to it after a while. The rest is basically following the same rules as you described.

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I think this is more or less how Genki encourages you to learn new verbs.

OK, I appreciate the balancing perspective. In a way it’s good to know the traditional approach is working for somebody, even if it isn’t working for me. :slight_smile:

It’s just that I don’t see the difference between learning dictionary form + class and learning dictionary form + negative form. The rules you listed work the same way:
“Masu form (polite present): replace -anai or -wanai with -imasu; otherwise replace -nai with -masu.”
can also be formulated as:
“Masu form (polite present): replace -u with -imasu for godan; replace ru with masu for ichidan.”
For the past/て-form, I can understand learning the form separately if you’re not used to it.

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There are a couple of differences in my view.

First, learning the class is learning a bit of otherwise useless information, which moreover isn’t encountered “in the wild.” Miru is (looking it up) class 2, while hashiru is class 1. But you never use or see “class 1” while reading, writing, speaking, or listening… but you do see 見ない or 走らない on occasion. So those forms get reinforced and naturally learned, while the classes do not.

(Yes, you could work backwards from the forms that you see, recalling the conjugation rules to deduce what the verb class is and so reinforce that useless bit of information, but this hasn’t worked for me in practice.)

Second: the rules based on (mainly) the nai form are harder to screw up than the rules based on verb class, particularly in the case of -u verbs that happen to end in -ru. If not for those, then I would agree these approaches are equivalent. We could just remember: “replace -ru with masu, or else -u with -imasu” and that would be hard to screw up. But because of those exceptions (there are a couple dozen), the rule here is not so simple; you need that extra piece of information about the verb class.

Contrast this with my version: “replace -anai or -wanai with -imasu, or else -nai with -masu.” There are no exceptions. No extra information needed. It’s simple and complete, and can be applied to any verb.

OK, now I hear you objecting that it’s only simple and complete because we’ve memorized two extra forms — how is this better than memorizing the class?

It’s better because the extra stuff we’re memorizing in this case is stuff we actually use. So (1) we’re going to memorize these in the end anyway — it’s impossible to speak or comprehend at full speed otherwise; and (2) they’re things you are naturally going to absorb anyway as you ingest material. Our brains work mainly by recalling stuff we’ve seen/heard/used in the past. We don’t see/hear/use verb classes! You might think you do because you’ve trained yourself to jump through these hoops in order to work out conjugations you haven’t memorized yet. But it’s an entirely artificial construct, invented by somebody or other to try and make some sense of the patterns that actually exist.

So the idea here is, forget the artificial stuff, and just learn the patterns — and you can do it starting with just three core forms of each verb.

I don’t get you. Both 走る and 行く are Godan (or group I or う verb), the ない form for 行く is 行かない. You can definitely get ない form from -masu form. Aka, if い(column)ます => transform to あ(column)ない (basically the simplified rule for Godan verb, う verb, group I) with the obvious exception of わない. And if ます => ない (Ichidan, る verb, group II). But there’s a reason why most textbook advise you to learn dictionary form + -masu form, while I agree you can swap the -masu form, if you want to bother rewriting most of the grammar point of your textbook, as you’ve done in your first post.

@Erkanamen, it’s a matter of making the rules easier to internalize. What @jstrout is doing makes a lot of sense from a neuroscientific perspective.


Argh, yes, I’ve screwed up again. I should have used 走ります and say 起きます, which look similar but are different classes, and so conjugate differently (走らない and 起きない respectively). Sorry for the confusion.

But maybe it’s telling that I keep screwing up when I try to actually use the verb classes… but when I start with things like hashiru/hashitte/hashiranai and okiru/okite/okinai, I can get it right. :slight_smile:

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To be honest I only skimmed the OP because it looks complicated and this isn’t one the areas of Japanese that I tend to struggle with. But in case it’s helpful to anyone else I wanted to share the te-form song my high school 先生 taught us because it’s something I still go back to occasionally, even 15+ years later.

[sung to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”; for all u-type verbs]

I’m serious, give it a try! :smiling_imp:


I really like this approach as it takes away the more cumbersome aspects of conjugating certain forms and synergises them all into much simpler to apply rules that work across the board.

As someone who studies Arabic as well I follow a similar method which just requires memorising the perfect and imperfect tenses when learning a new verb and all the other conjugations can be made from there.

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