The te form is without doubt one of the most used and important conjugations in Japanese grammar. Unfailingly, you will hear it used in just about every conversation. It is probably the single piece of grammar that let’s you move from speaking in short, separate sentences to being able to expressing yourself fluidly in clauses. Because the te form is essentially a conjunctive form of the verb or adjective we only have two tenses—affirmative and negative. The tense of the final verb determines the tense of the sentence. This distinction of positive and negative is better understood through an example. With the grammar we have learnt thus far we can say:
I ate breakfast. I went to work.
In this case we would use the te form on the verb to eat to join the sentence and say, “I ate breakfast and then went to work”. Now either you ate and then went to work or didn’t eat and then went to work—there are only two options.
Before we jump into the different (and many) usages of the te form, let’s look at how you form it. Both verbs and adjectives have te forms. Let’s start with verbs.
Conjugating to the affirmative te form is very easy once you know the standard simple past tense for each verb. All we need to do is replace the final syllable of the past tense like so:
- Verbs with the standard past tense ending in た ⇒ て
- Verbs with the standard past tense ending in だ ⇒ で
|Verb||Group||Dictionary||Simple Past||te Form|
There are two forms of the negative for verbs—the appropriate form depending on the usage.
We take the standard negative form and add で at the end.
We take the negative form of the verb and replace the い with くて.
For i-adjectives we change the い into a くて. For na-adjectives we add で (the te form of the auxiliary verb).
For i-adjectives we take the negative form and change the ない into なくて. For na-adjectives we change to the negative form of the auxiliary verb.
Note that for the na-adjective we are just using the なくて form of the auxiliary verb.
As mentioned above, the te form has many different usages but the big five are as follows:
- Creating a simple command for someone to do something
- Creating a simple conjunction (“I did A and then did B”)
- Forming the present participle (“I am eating a cake”)
- Expressing a means or a reason (“I argued with my friend and now we’re not speaking to each other”)
- Asking permission to do something (“May I sit here?”)
1. A Simple Command
On its own, the te form creates a request or order for someone else to do something.
|Go to the cinema.|
However, you rarely ever hear the te form used in this way—it is too direct and it is more natural in Japanese to opt for indirect expressions, especially when a request is being made. Most commonly, you will hear the te form used with ください (“please”).
|Please take the medicine.|
In Japanese, you “drink” medicine.
|Please do your work.|
In fact, ください is an archaic conjugation of the honorific verb くださる which means “to deign”. Essentially, the phrase is asking the other person to deign to do something. It is used all the time and it is perfectly fine to remember it as the phrase that mean “please do x”.
For the negative we need the ないで form.
|Please don’t press the button.|
|Please don’t play on the computer.|
2. Using the te Form as a Simple Conjunction
One of the most core functions of the te form is to express sequential order and join clauses, essentially creating the meaning of “and” in Japanese.
Take the following as an example:
|Today I met a high school friend. We had lunch together in Shinjuku.|
This would sound far more better as two clauses rather than individual sentences. We can join them using the te form of the verb “to meet”.
|Today I met a high school friend and we had lunch together in Shinjuku.|
Firstly, note that the te form also dictates the chronological order of events—first you met your friend then you had lunch. Secondly, note that the tense of the entire sentence is determined only by the final verb. In English, for each individual clause in the sentence we need to adjust the tense of the verb accordingly.
|I went to work and then had dinner with a friend.|
|I will go to work and then have dinner with a friend.|
Nor are we limited to using the te form only once. Overuse, however, sounds just as unnatural in Japanese as it does in English.
|Today, I woke up, then I went to school, then I took a class, then I went home.|
Using the te form of the verb “to hold” with the verbs “to go” and “to come” we can create the verbs “to take” and “to bring”.
|It will rain. Please take your umbrella.|
|I brought beer.|
For a negative sentence we must use the ないで form.
|I came to work without eating breakfast.|
|Please come to school without forgetting your homework.|
Finally, let’s not forget about the auxiliary verb because that let’s just join clauses ending in nouns.
|Saori is new employee of the company and will work from tomorrow.|
|Wada-san isn’t a teacher—he’s a student.|
Remember that we can change では to じゃ.
The te form with adjectives lets us turn…
|She is pretty. She is kind.|
|She is pretty and kind.|
|Wada-san is large with a round face.|
3. Forming the Present Participle
So far we’re able to say, “I eat”, “I won’t eat”, “I ate”, and “I didn’t eat” but we can’t yet express the current state of “eating”. In fact, we’ve already learned it—we just need to combine the te form of the verb with the verb “to exist”!
I study and then I exist… so I’m studying! We already know the conjugation for the verb いる (group 2) and so saying “I am not studying”, “I was studying” and “I wasn’t studying” is easy.
|I’m not exercising at all at the moment.|
|I’ve not yet submitted the report.|
You will see the combination of まだ and the negative present participle often. まだ means until “yet” and is used with the negative present participle. The phrase is very likely to appear in the N5 JLPT examination.
|She’s not arrived yet.|
|What have you been doing recently?|
4. Expressing A Means or a Reason
The te form can also be used to express a means or reason for a subsequent action or event.
With positive sentences the difference in grammatical usage between expressing sequential order and expressing a means or reason can be a little ambiguous.
|I overslept and was late for work.|
|Yesterday, I got drunk and lost my wallet!|
|I rode my bicycle to work.|
The difference becomes clearer with intransitive verbs.
|The train was delayed and so I couldn’t board my flight.|
It is clear that we are expressing a reason when we use the negative as we must use the なくて form.
|Sorry! I didn’t have any signal so I couldn’t call.|
|I didn’t make it on time for the plane and so I couldn’t go on holiday.|
Two common “phrases” are to use the te form with よかった and すみません (this structure may come up in JLPT N4) to express gladness or regret at an action.
|It’s a good job I called you.|
|Sorry I was late for the meeting.|
Incidentally, when I introduced the で particle, I explained that one of its usages is to express a reason. It is in fact the te form of the auxiliary verb that is being used not the で particle—a technicality given that they are identical, but one which is worth noting.
There is no chronological sequence of actions for adjectives so in the below sentences it is clear the te form is used to give a means or a reason.
|I’m so busy with work I don’t have time to eat lunch.|
|Yusuke likes natto and so he often eats it.|
|The shoes were cheap so I bought them.|
It’s worth spending a minute thinking about the different meaning of the above example sentence and the following:
|I bought cheap shoes.|
The latter sentence is factual and doesn’t tell us anything about why you bought the shoes; whereas the former sentence suggests that if the shoes had been expensive you might not have bought them.
|I like the library because it’s quiet.|
5. Asking Permission
Used with も the te form can create the expression “even if” (as in, “even if it is expensive I will buy it”). Take a look at these two sentences:
|I will eat lots and not get fat.|
|Even if I eat lots, I will not get fat.|
The simple introduction of も in the second sentence changes the meaning completely. Very often learners are introduced to this structure as a set phrase to ask permission to do something.
|May I make a phone call?|
Literally, you’re asking, “Even if I make a phone call, is that good?”
|Is it okay if I smoke here?|
The two phrases below will almost certainly appear on the JLPT. Both mean, “Is it okay if I…?”
大丈夫might just be the most common word in the Japanese language. 大 means “big” and 丈夫 means “robust” but together they create the most common way of saying, “Nothing wrong” or “No problem”.
Remember that for the auxiliary verb the same phrase becomes でも. The te form of the auxiliary verb with the addition of も.
|I don’t have any beer. Is green tea okay?|
The same structure can also be used with the negative.
|Is it okay if I don’t write my telephone number?|
The negative is a little confusing. Logically you would expect to see も added to the ないで structure as this was the form required to join phrases or express sequential order, and the logic here is basically saying the same thing; namely, “even if I do not A, B will/will not happen”. Alas! For some reason to form the hypothetical with the negative we need the なくて form.
|Even if I don’t exercise, I will not get fat.|
|He’s clever. Even if he doesn’t study he will pass the exam.|
And we can apply the same grammar to adjectives.
|Even if the exam is difficult I will do my best.|
|The quality of this brand is poor so even if it’s cheap I definitely won’t buy it.|