Your path to fluency starts with a sentence.
There will be many things that seem intimidating when we start learning Japanese. For some, grammar is one of these things. Some learners even prefer to ignore/postpone learning about grammar for a while, thinking that building a vast vocabulary will be enough to communicate. Unfortunately, that's not the case.
While it's true that words are the blocks that make up our conversions, it is also true that individual words can't hold themselves up without some sort of structure—grammar. This in mind, we can only go so far if we don't have a solid understanding of the structure of Japanese sentences.
If you want to start speaking Japanese, you've got two big questions to answer:
- How do you put Japanese words into a sentence?
- What is the logic behind these sentences?
After reading this article, you'll be able to build your own (simple) Japanese sentences—and, hopefully, be motivated to learn even more.
Japanese sentences end with verbs
In addition to its unique writing system, the word order/structure of Japanese sentences is another thing that might be shocking for some Japanese learners.
As opposed to English and Spanish, where the order is subject-verb-object (SVO), Japanese uses subject-object-verb (SOV) word order. This is to say that the verb (which defines the sentence's meaning) goes at the end of the sentence, rather than in the middle of it.
Consider this example sentence:
Watashi wa sushi wo tabemasu.
I eat sushi.
The good news is that Japanese sentence structure is quite flexible, meaning its word order isn't completely fixed. We'll get more into that down the road, but for now, just know that you've got some wiggle room. The only hard-and-fast rule to remember is that Japanese sentences end in a verb. Japanese often omits subjects (and even objects) if they are made clear by context, so the other parts of the sentence can shift around a bit.
Let's see another example!
Kanojo wa pasuta wo tabemasu.
She eats pasta.
Again—note how the word eats comes in the middle of the English sentence, but 食べます comes at the end of the Japanese sentence. This is a really important concept to grasp.
A Brief Introduction to the Japanese Parts of Speech
The term "part of speech" refers to the classification of words according to their meaning, form, or grammatical function. That's fancy talk to say that different types of words do different things. Some common parts of speech you might have heard of include nouns, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions. While many languages utilize the same parts of speech, how exactly they work can vary a bit from language to language.
Let's look at some Japanese parts of speech and their characteristics.
Nouns (名詞, meishi)
Nouns are words used to name people, animals, places, things, ideas, and so forth. They're often concrete things you can point at—at least, they're concepts you can encapsulate in a word. Japanese nouns differ from nouns in many European languages because they are not accompanied by articles (a, an, the) and have no grammatical gender, among other things.
A few Japanese nouns:
- 人（ひ, hito) – person
- 猫（ねこ, neko) – cat
- 肉（にく, niku) – meat
- 水（みず, mizu) – water
- 犬（いぬ, inu) – dog
Verbs (動詞, doushi)
Verbs are words that express an action—they might also express existence or state of being. One way or another, they tell us what the subject of the sentence is doing.
In the previous section, we mentioned that Japanese verbs usually come at the end of the sentence. Another important aspect of Japanese verbs you should keep in mind is conjugation. Conjugation refers to how a verb changes forms to communicate certain types of information (think I run but he runs). In Japanese, Japanese verbs conjugate to show:
- Tense (past or non-past [present/future])
- Meaning (many sentence structures require one conjugation or another)
- The level of formality of a sentence (the physical language you use to speak to a boss vs a friend is different in Japanese!)
A few common Japanese verbs:
- 飲みます (のみます, nomimasu) – to drink
- 食べます (たべます, tabemasu) – to eat
- 来ます (きます, kimasu) – to come
- 勉強します (べんきょうします、benkyō shimasu) – to study
(Note: The above verbs are in the polite -masu form. To go deeper into the world of Japanese verbs and learn about the different forms/conjugations they can take, we recommend this article from Imabi.)
Adjectives (形容詞, keiyoushi)
Generally speaking, Japanese adjectives perform a similar function to that of English adjectives—they describe/attribute characteristics to nouns. However, they don't work in quite the same way. Japanese adjectives are divided into two main categories:
- い-形容詞 (i-keiyōshi, i-adjectives)
- な-形容動詞 (na-keiyōdōshi, na-adjectives).
As their name implies, the い-形容詞 are distinguished by the fact that they end in い (i), while な-形容動詞 end in a な (na).
Examples of い adjectives:
- 美味しい ( おいしい, oishī) – delicious
- 暑い （あつい, atsui) – hot
- 甘い （あまい, amai) – sweet
Examples of な adjectives:
- 元気 （げんき, genki) – energetic
- 静か （しずか, shizuka) – quiet
- 有名 （ゆうめい, yūmei) – famous
な adjectives—more formally known as 形容動詞 (けいようどうし, keiyōdōshi), or adjectival nouns—are a bit more complicated. As you can see in the examples above, their base form (used at the end of a sentence, before です) does not include a な. However, you must attach な to the end of their base form when you place them before a noun.
- 静かな場所 (しずかなばしょ, shizukana basho) — a quiet place.
Particles (助詞, jyoshi)
In Japanese, particles define the relationship between words within the sentence and generally give structure to the language. Particles are those little words like は, が,を, or で that you will find in all Japanese sentences. However, they are not as insignificant as they might at first look. Changing or misusing them can significantly alter the meaning of a sentence.
Let's see an example!
- 私は待っています。わたしは まっています。
Watashi wa matteimasu.
- 私を待っていますわたしを まっています。
Watashi wo matteimasu.
(Someone is) waiting for me.
Simply by switching the particle from は to を, the meaning of this sentence changes. In order to say what you mean and mean what you say, you need to get your particles down!
Adverbs (副詞, fukushi)
Similarly to other languages, Japanese adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They can provide information about when, how, and where events occurred—and so much more.
Some basic Japanese adverbs:
- とても (totemo) – very
- いつも (itsumo) – always
- 時々(ときどき, tokidoki) – sometimes
- よく (yoku) – well, often
- ゆっくり (yukkuri) – slowly
Basic Japanese Particles
In this section we’ll cover only the basics: think of this as being a very brief crash course. If you would like to dive deeper into the topic and learn more about them, we have an extended post where we explore the multiple use cases of all the basic particles.
Topic particle は
The particle は (pronounced wa) is known as the topic marker. As its name suggests, it is used to define the topic of the conversation. Imagine that someone had a stack of posters with different types of food on them. They periodically hold one of the posters up, then people comment on them: Delicious! Expensive! Good to eat in winter time!
In the above example, the posters are kind of like は signs. They simply indicate what it is that you’re supposed to be commenting about.
Here's how the particle は gets used in a sentence:
Sumire wa nihonjin desu.
Sumire is Japanese.
Object particle を
Pronounced oh, though typed/input as wo, the particle を works as an object marker — it defines the direct object of a sentence. A direct object refers to the thing a verb is acting upon: it’s the food you’re eating, the movie you’re watching, and so forth.
How the particle を gets used in a sentence:
Sumire wa pasuta wo tabemasu.
Sumire eats pasta.
Pasta is the thing being eaten, so it takes the を particle.
Subject particle が
The particle が (ga) marks the subject of a sentence. (We go into more detail about its use cases in our extended article on Japanese Particles.)
How the particle が gets used in a sentence:
Sumire wa sushi ga suki desu.
Sumire likes sushi.
(More literally: as for Sumire, sushi is liked.)
This sentence deserves a bit of unpacking. If you're looking at the translation and scratching your head, it might help you to know that:
- Differentiating topics and subjects is a bit awkward because we don't do so in English. Try to remember that the は serves to establish Sumire as our topic—it means that whatever comes later in the sentence is a comment that's somehow related to her.
- "Like" is a verb in English, but 好き is actually an adjective in Japanese. Following Japanese logic, then, the particle を doesn't get used because we're not actually talking about an action that's being done to a noun.
- While it can be a headache, a big part of learning another language is becoming familiar with the (often arbirary) conventions they employ to describe/communicate certain things. There are many ways you could describe something, in theory, but people tend to prefer one way over the others. That particular way, as with this example, may be different than the way it's done in your native language. It's just something you have to figure out as you go.
Inclusion particle も
The particle も (mo) is the Japanese equivalent of “too” or “also.”
How the particle も gets used in a sentence:
Sumire wa soba mo suki desu.
Sumire likes soba, too.
(Note: Because も is attached to the word soba, we know that it's providing information about soba. This sentence is saying that Sumire likes soba [in addition to some other food], NOT that Sumire [in addition to some other person] likes soba.)
Possession particle の
The particle の serves to express possession or ownership. It’s often translated as of or ‘s.
How the particle の gets used in a sentence:
Sumire no okāsan wa Yuka-san desu.
Sumire's mother is Ms.Yuka.
Destination particle に
This particle is used to mark destinations—the direction or goal of an action.
How the particle に gets used in a sentence:
Sumire wa gakkō ni ikimasu.
Sumire goes to school.
(Note: This particle is also used with times to show when something happens.)
Question particle か
The particle か (ka) allows us to create basic Japanese questions. To use it, simply take a sentence and then attach the particle か to the end of it.
How the particle か gets used in a sentence:
Sumire wa pātī ni kimasu.
Sumire is coming to the party.
Sumire wa pātī ni kimasu ka.
Will Sumire come to the party?
6 Common Japanese Sentence Structures
Now that we know what goes into a Japanese sentence, let's look at some of the most common patterns in the language. The below example sentence patterns will utilize a mix of the parts of speech and particles you learned above.
Noun + です
This is the most basic grammatical structure that we can find in Japanese sentences. A noun attached to the word です creates an affirmative sentence in the present tense.
To be a bit more specific, です is what’s known as a copula—it’s Japanese’s equivalent of “to be.”
A few examples:
(It's) a dog
Noun + じゃありません
じゃありません is the negative form of です. It is used to construct negative sentences in the present tense—that is, to say what something is not.
In other words, to make a negative sentence, simply replace です with じゃ ありません.
A few examples:
Sumire ja arimasen.
(I'm) not Sumire.
- 雨じゃ ありません。
Ame ja arimasen.
(It's) not raining.
- 犬じゃ ありません。
Inu ja arimasen.
(It's) not a dog.
Noun + Particle + Verb~ます
Japanese verbs have a variety of conjugations. Here is the "~ます(masu) form," which is one of those conjugations. It is used to speak in a polite manner. This formula yields an affirmative sentence in the non-past (present or future) tense.
A few examples:
Watashi wa nihongo wo benkyō shimasu.
I study Japanese.
Mainichi otōsan wa shinbun wo yomimasu.
Dad reads the newspaper every day.
Ashita Doitsu ni ikimasu.
I will go to Germany tomorrow.
Noun + Particle + Verb~ません
~ません is the negative version of ~ます and is used to create negative sentences in the non-past (present or future) tense. (Note that, in linguistics, negative does not mean bad. It simply means that something is not or that it does not happen.)
A few examples:
Watashi wa bīru wo nomimasen.
I don't drink beer.
Pītā wa niku wo tabemasen.
Peter doesn't eat meat.
Raishū wa hatarakimasen.
I will not work next week.
Noun + Particle + い Adjective + です
Just like in the basic sentence structure shown in example #1, this sentence structure simply asks you to attach です to an adjective. Additionally, you’ll need to use a particle (likely は or が) to connect a noun to that adjective in order to show what it is that you’re describing.
Kono aisukurīmu wa totemo amaidesu.
This ice cream is very sweet.
Kono hana wa utsukushīdesu.
This flower is beautiful.
Kare wa segatakaidesu.
He is tall.
You may also invert the sentence structure and attach an い adjective directly to a noun: 美しい花 (beautiful flower) or 甘いアイスクリーム (sweet ice cream).
Noun + Particle + な Adjective + です
When な adjectives come at the end of a sentence, they work just like い adjectives. Simply attach です to your desired adjective, and you’re good to go
Kono pasokon wa benridesu.
This computer is convenient.
However, in some sentences, you might want a な-形容動詞 to directly precede a noun. Whereas い adjectives can directly precede a noun (美しい花), な-adjectives can not. To precede a noun with a な adjective, you need to attach な to the end of the adjective in question.
A few examples of な adjectives preceding nouns:
Haru kun wa genkina kodomodesu.
Haru is an energetic child.
Kanojo wa yūmeina kashudesu.
She is a famous singer.
To put these two options side by side:
- な-adjective at the end of a sentence: 有名です (~ is famous)
- な-adjective before a noun: 有名な歌手 (a famous singer)
As we can see, the basic structures of Japanese sentences are not as complex as we might have imagined. In fact, some aspects are much easier than in other languages—you don't have to worry about noun declensions, and verbs don't have hundreds of conjuated forms. Japanese is different, but that doesn't mean it's scary!
The truth is that when it comes to learning Japanese grammar, there are no shortcuts. You have to go through it because it is a fundamental part of the learning process. Try not to see it as just a chore, and make a point look for the fun side of it. Perhaps taking the time to think about how Japanese sentences get put together will make you look at your native language in a new way!
If you try, you can do it!
Thanks for reading!
Thinking about learning Japanese?