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.

VerbDictionary 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).

VerbDictionary 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.

VerbDictionary 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 rōmaji. In other words, they end in う, い, く, ぶ, る and so on. By 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 Present 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.

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

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.

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.

VerbPresentSimple Past
to go homeかえかえった
to say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!

VerbPresentSimple Past
to see
to leave
to existいるいた

Group 3

VerbPresentSimple 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 present negative 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:

VerbGroupPresentPast Negative
to write1かなかった
to read1まなかった
to leave2なかった
to see2なかった
to do3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 place to the left. On to this verb stem we add ます to end up with the polite form.

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

to seeます
to leaveます
to existいるい〜います

Group 3

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 TenseEnding
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.

EnglishPresentNegativeSimple PastPast 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 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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