Grammar you need to know

On another thread someone raised the point that they had recently started Japanese and when they tried to read something they could not understand it at all.

From my own experience I think a big part of the problem is that what seem very common grammatical structures and concepts are treated as intermediate or advanced and so not addressed early on yet without those structures almost all spoken or written Japanese would be unintelligible. Maybe I am being biased but I think a lot of people wanting to learn Japanese do so because of an interest in Japanese culture and if you are not living there that would likely be manga, anime, films and books.

I did do a Japanese course at the beginning of my journey. The teacher focused on the ますform but given that most Japanese sentences, even in 敬語 include a lot of plain form that seems like perhaps not an ideal approach.

Learning how to say the time and the different counters are necessary but if you are trying to read a manga you would likely understand the text without having learnt that explicitly yet there are so many structures eg use of って or しまう that are absolutely essential.

Has anyone done a list of the key bits of grammar necessary to decipher texts? Or list of grammar in descending order of importance for understanding every day Japanese?


I think you’re absolutely right that getting used to grammar in practice is a very big obstacle when starting to read, and that a certain point a strong base of a certain level of grammar is going to cover 90-99% of sentence with context often letting you gloss over or learn the remaining outliers…

… but I think it’s difficult to impossible to pin down exactly where that certain level of grammar is, because every text is going to be slightly different.
In general I think the order in the JLPTs in something like bunpro (boy that site got a lot more professional from when I used it), or the basic one of the grammar dictionaries does a good job of arranging what’s immediately useful.

But In practice maybe even more useful than knowing grammar in your head is just knowing how it’s used in a text and the different forms it can take. Sources can teach you what しまう means and how to conjugate it but it might still take time to immediately recognize しまった in context, or ちゃう, or when a character was gonna say it but got cut off, or when they’re making a pun on the word, or when they’re a child and aren’t pronouncing it quite right, etc.
And there’s nothing for that but practice.

I remember a great bit of advice from this article about reading a lot, but in particular reading a lot from the same source and same topic when possible. That’s great for this because quirks for one source’s usage of language are gonna differ from another, and really internalizing what to look for in one will make other sources’ quirks stand out.


The most important grammar is always going to be the basic “glue” grammar points that any resource covers. は, が, を, の, に, で, etc. You’d be hard pressed to understand anything without them, and I can’t really imagining a resource neglecting that kind of thing.

Resources that start with です/ます are crafted with travelers and people who want to try engaging with people they aren’t close friends with in mind. There are other resources that are more media-focused, though I’ve never used them myself.

I realize I’m not answering the question really, but it doesn’t feel like it has a clear answer to me. The most important things to know beyond the basics will vary wildly from title to title. There isn’t just one type of “everyday” Japanese. Casual Japanese knowledge might be totally useless for a manga set in a business or historical setting.


I mean, most beginner textbooks. There’s not a single thing in Genki that I wouldn’t consider fundamental.


I agree, that a lot of the stuff that teaches ます/です first is predicated on the assumption that people are going to go out and try to communicate with native Japanese speakers, and they don’t want these people to come off as rude just cuz they don’t know about ます/です. When I started studying Japanese, I started with Tae Kim’s guide, and even though it does have some problems as others have pointed out, I really enjoyed the fact that he starts off teaching the dictionary forms of the verbs, and then everything else from there. Later when I actually started taking Japanese classes in college they started us with the ます/です form and it seemed very confusing when they would try to teach a new conjugation because they would still treat ます/です as if it were the base form of the verb, and have to teach us how to conjugate it to the plain form from ます/です and then after that put it into the target conjugation…

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I agree that this is weird. But it’s frankly kinda puzzling why so many places still teach like this, when teaching the conjugation is pretty straightforward, and common.

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I don’t know if it’s just because of my phone but that link says it 行く is a ru verb and that 食べる is an u verb.

I know it’s just because it isn’t optimised for a phone but super bad if an early learner stumbles onto that site!

I feel this is where the book “Japanese the Manga Way” shines. It goes over grammar from very basic to slightly more complex (but still common) grammar, with actual manga examples to show it in action.

As an example, “Manga the Japanese Way” covers て+しまう in lesson 25, in the following sections:

  • -てしまう can imply “completely/without delay”
  • -てしまう can imply regret or undesirability
  • -てしまう can express surprise
  • -てしまう can imply an impulsive/involuntary action

…each with a manga panel showing it in action.

Earlier lessons tend to use manga panels with very simple dialogue using only grammar that’s already been covered, with later lessons having manga panels with more complex dialogue since more grammar has been covered by then.

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I think they may have changed the layout of the site at some point. But looking at it on my computer, where it says Ru-verbs / u-verbs is improperly formatted and “Ru-verbs” is directly over “verb bases”, and the phone formatting seems to break it even more by shifting it over one more. In other words, it should really be three columns.

Probably worth shooting an email to the email they provided with that screenshot.

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Both Tae Kim and Imabi, super-popular grammar resources, start building sentences with plain forms of verbs first, and then introduce the polite forms. I agree that in a classroom setting, that’s how I would want to learn it too, at least at some point in the first semester, so I would understand better how verb conjugation actually works, and how to do it on my own.

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I think a list like this is impossible - Or let’s say, it depends on what you want to read. At the moment, I am trying to read とんび and at the very beginning there is the following paragraph:


So what do we have here. Besides different verb forms we have fundamental grammar points like particles, if clauses and direct speech. Looking at the verbs, we can identify the てform, the plain form (including the past form), the ますform and ましょう. On top of that you can find casual everyday Japanese like すまん including (Kyushu (I think)) dialect けん and other sentence ending 終助詞 like なよ.

Now you can start to debate what is important and what not. If you finished Genki you should be familiar with almost all of this and I would guess that your problem is not grammar but vocabulary. As @Syphus said, every grammar point in Genki is fundamental. I would like to add that there is a reason why professionals write textbooks with carefully edited readings, which just use the grammar you already know and introduce new on step by step. Hence, if you do not know the basic grammar of Genki or a similar series, I would suggest a textbook. However, if you still want to read a “real” book, perhaps you can find something suited for you in the graded readers series. They have a list of grammar points for each level here.
If you have a higher grammar level, perhaps the book from the Minna no Nihongo series is worth your time, besides I found the story pretty boring. It should be around N3 level.

Last but not least, as I said in the beginning, I think it depends on what you want to read. If you want to read a manga, perhaps ます and formal stuff is not so important and you want to learn casual grammar point first. However, if you want to read Haikus or a newspaper, rather different grammar points are required. Sometimes you can find (text)books, which deal with this matter, so perhaps these are worth a look for you. (I can not say anything about them since I do not have them)

A book about Haiku grammar is gonna be things like 体言止め、切れ字、季語、字余り、字足らず、反復法、擬人法, etc etc


All thethings you specifically mentioned as essential, are covered in for example, the beginner textbooks of Minna no Nihongo and Genki.

I agree that teaching ます as the base form of a verb, instead of starting from jishokei right away, is not ideal. My teacher teaches jishokei from the start.

It makes sense though. Regardless of which grammar you learn first, as a beginner you wouldn’t have enough overall grammar knowledge to understand most native content.

There’s a lot everyday grammar even in N2 level grammar but it doesn’t mean the points you study before N2 aren’t used. In fact, most of the grammar up to N3 is commonly used. And depending on the context you may need even the stiffest formal grammar, which is used by politicians and some manga characters.

And as for a “short” list of essential grammar for getting into native content a usual recommendation is to study all the grammar recommended for JLPT N5, N4, N3. It’s not really a short list though and you may take years to learn that grammar but learning a completely new grammar system takes time. Even if you try to make a somewhat optimized list you won’t save much time.


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