Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
Is tabemasu a verb?
If you said yes: congratulations - you're about to defeat your second myth of learning Japanese Verbs.
I bet, if you're anything like me, you probably started out learning all kinds of Japanese 'verbs' like the above tabemasu.
One of the first sentances I learned in Japanese was:
Nani o tabemasu ka?
What are you eating?
At the time, I figured (logically) that tabemasu was the verb in the sentence. Worse, to an extent, it is the verb of that sentence. It does everything a verb should. It creates action in the sentence. It shows 'what' someone or something is doing. So why does believing that tabemasu is a verb make your life difficult?
Imagine you are an alien who lands on Earth and beams into a Halloween Party to ask for directions. The person who opens the door is wearing a black cloak, bone white face makeup, platform shoes, red contact lenses and Dracula teeth. Behind him/her is a host of other people dressed like the living dead. You’ll form some pretty quick (and possibly gruesome) impressions of the people on this planet.
Why shouldn’t you?
How are you supposed to know (without turning on your super space-aged scanning equipment) that the natives are in costume? It’s the same with Tabemasu. Tabemasu is a verb in costume. And as with people, it is a bad idea to form your real impression of a verb based on it’s costume.
The first step to really knowing your verb is to take off the costume it is wearing.
Tabemasu is wearing a very common costume generally called the masu form.
This costume is very easy to put on, and relatively easy to take once you know how it is put on.
So let’s get dressed:
First, start with the real/naked verb. The best way to find naked verbs is to look them up in the dictionary. The naked verb is just the dictionary form of the verb. It is also called the plain form, or the infinitive.
The naked form of Tabemasu is:
Taberu – to eat.
This is an ichidan verb. You can easily recognize ichidan verbs because they always end in iru or eru. If your naked verb ends in either iru or eru, 98% of the time it is an ichidan verb.
Other fun ichiban verbs include:
Iru – to exist (animate objects)
Dekiru – to be able to do
Uragiru – to betray
Eru – to gain/get
Tsutomeru – to work for
The other type of verbs are called godan verbs. If you see a plain verb and it doesn’t end in eru or iru, it is a godan verb (with the exception of Kuru (to come) and Suru (to do), the only two really irregular godan verbs)
Godan verbs come in nine flavors:
RU – eg: Odoru – to dance (note – this ends with oru NOT eru or iru, hence a godan verb)
SU – eg: Hanasu – to speak
KU – eg: Iku – to go
GU – eg: Oyogu – to swim
MU - eg: Yasumu – to take a break/vacation
BU – eg: Yobu – to call (out to someone)
NU – shinu – to die (often Romanized Sinu)
Vowel + U – Eg: Warau – to laugh
Occasionally, a godan verb will look exactly like an ichidan verb. The three most common examples of these are:
Hashiru – to run
Kaeru – only when it means to return home/to your place of origin
Hairu – to enter
Highly Irregular: (You have to memorize these)
Suru (to do) and Kuru (to come)
When learning verbs, is vitally important to learn the naked/plain form of the verb and form all of your conjugations from there. The plain form is the center of your wheel of conjugation. The masu form of the verb is one of many, many spokes that come from this plain form of the verb. It is one of many costumes.
Here is how you dress your naked verb up in the masu form:
For Ichidan verbs:
1. Take your base verb.
2. Drop the RU.
3. Add masu.
For Godan Verbs:
1. Take the last U of your verb
2. Turn it into an I
3. Add masu
2. Hanashi (remember, there’s no SI in the Japanese Alphabet, so SI is pronounced SHI)
How about this one:
Easy isn’t it?
Lastly, the two Irregulars: (there is no rhyme or reason to these, just be glad there’s really only two of them)
1. Suru (to do) = Shimasu (this looks exactly like what would if you just put SU ending of a Godan verb into this masu form. Scroll up and take a look. That is the best way to remember how Suru conjugates in this form)
2. Kuru (to come) = Kimasu (Other than the fact it sounds like Shimasu – a little – you just have to memorize this)
What’s even better is that you can attach more than just masu to the step two of this conjugation.
For example, what if you want to say, I start to speak:
1. Start with Hanasu (to speak)
2. Take it to Step 2 of the Masu shift = hanashi
3. Add hajimeru = hanashihajimeru
Congratulations – you’ve just made your first compound verb.
If you want to continue doing something, try tsuzukeru.
I continue to speak = hanashitsuzukeru.
You can combine tons of verbs using the base just before where you usually put the masu.
That’s because, in reality, the familiar masu form is just one of many endings you can attach to the STEP 2 base conjugation of your naked verb.
So, make sure to get your verbs naked before you have fun dressing them up.
Part 3: How to Conjugate
Minna Shiawase is an avid Japanese student and fan of Japanese culture. Read more about Japanese grammer at her blog, AI Love Bunpou.