There are three different groups of verbs in Japanese—referred to as group 1, 2, and 3 in textbooks. The vast majority of verbs belong to group 1. Some belong to group 2. Only two belong to group 3. Unfortunately, with this categorisation there are exceptions within group 1—verbs within the group that don’t behave like the others for certain conjugations and so forth, so it’s not quite a case of just needing to learn the conjugation rules for each group. That being said, there are only a few exceptions and they relate to verbs that you will use daily (“to go”, “to exist”) and so you’ll get used to their idiosyncrasies in no time.

The Present

As stated previously, all verbs have both a standard form and a polite form. For now we’re going to conjugate the standard form because from there the polite form is easy. But first a quick introduction to some of the verbs in each group.

Here are some commonly used verbs from Group 1.

Verb Dictionary Form
to go
to read
to wait
to reply かえ
to go home かえ
to exist* ある

* used for inanimate objects (a desk, a car, a building etc.)

Here are some verbs from group 2. All group 2 verbs end in る (but not all verbs ending in る are group 2 verbs).

Verb Dictionary Form
to eat べる
to see
to leave
to exist* いる

* used for animate objects (a person, a dog, a frog, etc.)

And here are the two awkward verbs from group 3.

Verb Dictionary Form
to do する
to come

As you will see, the verb “to come” actually conjugates like a group 2 verb. What makes it special is that the pronunciation of the kanji changes depending on its conjugation, hence why it is included in group 3.

When the hiragana syllables were first introduced (see here) a point was made regarding the structure of the table. The columns were laid out in the following fashion.

There is a reason the table is laid out this way. All verbs in their dictionary form—regardless of group and without exception—end in the letter “u” when written in rômaji. In other words, they end in う, い, く, ぶ, る and so on. By laying using this table structure, when we conjugate verbs the final syllable changes to a syllable that sits on the same row in the vast majority of cases. For instance, く might go to か or む might go to め. Consequently, memorising the hiragana table in this way helps a great deal with verb conjugation.

As you may have noticed verbs that end in る are found in all three groups. Ignoring group 3 verbs because there are just two of them, it is not possible to see whether a る-ending verb is a group 1 or group 2 verb just by looking at its dictionary form. They need to be learnt. Fortunately, there are only a handful of る-ending verbs which actually belong to Group 1; most are in Group 2.

The Negative

Group 1

For group 1 verbs, to change to the negative we first look at the relevant row for the final character of the verb. Let’s take the verb よむ (to read). The final syllable is む so ま, み, む, め, も is the relevant row.

To change to the negative we skip along two columns to the left and replace the syllable with the a-ending syllable (in this case ま) and add ない.

よま ⇒ よま+ない ⇒ よまない

There are two exceptions. Firstly, う ending verbs. For these you need to replace the う with わ like in the example below for the verb “to say”.

う ⇒ いわ+ない ⇒ いわない

Secondly, the verb ある (to exist). This does not go to あらない as you might reasonably have been expecting, but goes to ない.

Verb Present Negative
to go かない
to read まない
to wait たない
to go home かえ かえらない
to say わない
to exist ある ない

Japanese makes no distinction between “I do not do” and “I will not do”. The nuance is quite subtle in English, e.g. “I do not drink beer” and “I will not drink beer”. In Japanese to express these nuances you would need to say “I don’t drink beer today” (or something similar) to express that you do drink beer, you just don’t want to drink it today.

Group 2

For Group 2 verbs all we need do is remove the last syllable and add ない. That’s it! Taking the verb たべる (to eat):

たべる ⇒ たべ+ない ⇒ たべない

Verb Present Negative
to see ない
to leave ない
to exist いる いない

Group 3

There is no one rule for the group 3 verbs, but there are only two of them so they don’t present a major headache.

Verb Present Negative
to do する しない
to come ない

Note the change in pronunciation for the kanji of the verb “to come”.

The Simple Past Tense

Group 1

Group 1 is a little awkward here as we need to remember the following table.

Verbs ending… … change to…
う / る った
ぬ / ぶ / む んだ

The verb いく (to go) is the only exception. It doesn’t go to いいた but changes instead to いった. Some examples are given in the table below.

Verb Present Simple Past
to go home かえ かえった
to come った
to write いた
to read んだ
to reply かえ かえした
to go った

Group 2

For Group 2 all you need do is change る to た and you’re done!

Verb Present Simple Past
to see
to leave
to exist いる いた

Group 3

Verb Present Simple Past
to do する した
to come

The Past Negative

To form the past negative tense for all groups we simply take the simple past tense and replace ない with なかった (as we did with the auxiliary verb). We don’t have to think about different verb groups because we’ve already done the leg-work when we changed to the negative.

Let’s take the verb かく (to write).

かく ⇒ かか+なかった ⇒ かかなかった

And a selection of verbs from all three groups:

Verb Group Present Past Negative
to write 1 かなかった
to read 1 まなかった
to leave 2 なかった
to see 2 なかった
to do 3 する しなかった

Polite: The Present Tense

What about the polite form? The polite form really isn’t that difficult so long as you know what is called the verb stem. By knowing the verb stem you know in the vast majority of cases to which group the verb belongs.

Group 1

First let’s determine the verb stem from the dictionary form. We need to find the relevant row for our ending verb syllable and move along the row—this time one to the left. Let’s take the verb いく (“to go”) as our example. Doing so gives us the verb stem, onto which we add ます to end up with the polite form.

Verb Dictionary Stem Polite
to write き〜 きます
to read み〜 みます
to say い〜 います
to reply かえ かえし〜 かえします
to go home かえ かえり〜 かえります

Group 2

As always, the group 2 makes life easy. Just remove the る and add ます and voila! The verb みる (to see) becomes:

みる ⇒ み+ます ⇒ みます

Verb Dictionary Stem Polite
to see ます
to leave ます
to exist いる い〜 います

Group 3

Verb Dictionary Stem Polite
to do する し〜 します
to come ます

Note the change of reading for the verb “to come”.

Polite: The Negative, Past Negative & Simple Past

Once we know the verb stem, turning any verb—regardless of group—into the polite negative, polite negative past or polite simple past tense is easy. You just need to add the following to the verb stem.

Verb Tense Ending
Negative 〜ません
Past Negative 〜ませんでした
Simple Past 〜ました

You should begin to notice the similarities between the polite verb endings introduced for the auxiliary verb and the table above.

English Present Negative Simple Past Past Negative
to read みます みません みました みませんでした
to see ます ません ました ませんでした
to do します しません しました しませんでした

Learning these conjugations may seem like a tedious nightmare at first. But if you look back over what we’ve covered you should realise that actually the number of conjugation rules and exceptions to those rules isn’t that much of a burden. Moreover, the exceptions and irregular verbs are the more common verbs and precisely because of this you’ll be forced to use (and get used to) them in a relatively short space of time. Armed with our verbs, we can now add a topic to make a sentence.

わたしは べます。
I will eat.
わたしは きません。
I will not write.
先生せんせいは しませんでした。
The teacher didn’t do (it).
かれは いません。
He will not say.

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