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In a recent question I asked, this example sentence was offered:

映画を見る。 (I will watch a movie.)

What struck me about this was that the translated version was the future tense.

However, I always thought the plain form of a verb was tense-less.

映画を見る。 I watch a movie.

When I think about it, though, if the plain form is without tense (or at least not future tense), then it wouldn't really be used much except in answer to a question:

Q: 退屈しているときには、通常に何をしている? (What do you usually do when you're bored?)

A: 映画を見る。(I watch a movie.)

Maybe I just have it all wrong.

Is the plain form usually assumed to be future tense? Or at least an expression of intent?

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I think an important part of the ambiguity here, is the verb used: 見る. By definition, it tends to be a "progressive" action (especially with a film) and a progressive form ("見ている") would be used in most cases to refer to an ongoing action. The plain form is therefore statistically more likely to be a future action. I don't think this would be true of any verbal form (e.g. 好きです). –  Dave Jun 21 '11 at 5:06
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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I imagine most grammar texts break Japanese tenses into past and non-past. So the plain form can be used to describe something you will do (once) in the future as well as something you do on a regular basis or something that tends to happen. Context tells you which is meant:

明日【あした】は映画【えいが】を見【み】る。 Tomorrow I will watch a movie.

毎週【まいしゅう】金曜日【きんようび】に映画【えいが】を見【み】る。 Every Friday I watch a movie.

今夜【こんや】はレストランで夕食【ゆうしょく】を食【た】べる。 Tonight I will have dinner at a restaurant.

夕食【ゆうしょく】をいつもレストランで食【た】べる。 I always have dinner at a restaurant.

In English the auxiliary "will" marks the future tense, but Japanese doesn't discriminate between the two usages shown above, so the same plain form 見【み】る and 食【た】べる can satisfy both cases.

Your Q&A example is an instance where the non-past (plain) form of the verb shows a habitual action (I'm going to edit it a bit):

Q: 退屈【たいくつ】なときは、何【なに】をする? What do you do when you're bored?

A: 普段【ふだん】は映画【えいが】を見【み】たり、漫画【まんが】を読【よ】んだりする。 Usually I watch movies or read manga.

So when you have a verb all by its lonesome without anything to tell you which of the two cases it fits into (like 映画【えいが】を見【み】る), you kind of have to guess. I usually fall back on translating it into the English future tense unless I have reason to believe it's better left as English present.

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Thanks for the explanation. It all makes sense, I just have a small side question: Was my Japanese for "What do you usually do when you're bored?" incorrect? Or did you change it up just for variety's sake? –  Dave M G Jun 21 '11 at 4:01
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@Dave: 退屈なとき sounds a bit more natural to me, but it could probably go either way. I got rid of 通常 because according to the usage note in Daijisen, it's more of a literary term (普段 is better for conversation). 何をする is more natural than 何をしている here, because (as addressed in the answer) you're talking about something that tends to happen. And the ~たり pattern for the response feels better because those probably aren't the only things you do when you're bored; there are other things, but you're just listing one or two (you could answer with only one ~たり if you like). –  Derek Schaab Jun 21 '11 at 12:26
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This form is called in many names: the base form, the dictionary form, the imperfect form (which is a rather inaccurate term), and the non-past form. Its Japanese name (which you'll commonly find used on Japanese.SE.com) is [終止形]{しゅうしけい}, but that term refers to the shape of this form (i.e. how it conjugates) and not to its meaning.

The broadest (and probably only sufficient) definition of this form, is that it is unmarked for time and completion of the action. In essence, it's the most generic form, that tells us very little - if you want more information, you'd have to use other forms or glean it by looking at adverbs and judging from the context.

The base form does have some common uses:

  1. Generic present: This is not truly "present" in the meaning that the event is ongoing now (for that meaning you'd have to use the present progressive tense: ~ている), but it rather refers to things that happen in general. This is very similar to the English present simple: When you say "I read books" you're definitely not saying that you're engaged right now in the reading of multiple books (at once?). You're just saying that's something that happens in general: it happened in the past, and it will probably happen again in the future. Please note, though, that there are many specific differences between the English simple tense and this: for instance, in English you generally say "I live in New York", but in Japanese you'd say:

    東京に住んでいる.

  2. Unmarked relative present: It's also very common to skip using the longer present progressive tense when it appears in relative clauses and use the base form directly. That's why the base form 住む (which is very rare in the main sentence), is mostly found in relative clauses.

  3. In some narrative styles, especially prose, the base form can be used to indicate a vivid experience, even if it happened in the past. This is very much like the "so-and-so" present in English in colloquial narratives like "So I open the door and then he comes in and starts yelling at me [...]". The only difference is that these narratives are considered unsophisticated or even "incorrect grammar" in English (and in many other Western languages that have them), while in Japanese this is perfectly excellent prose, and you'll find in it in practically any novel, pulp or masterpiece. Strangely enough, some of the Japanese people I've asked never noticed that this is actually the so-called "present tense" used in novels, and this very important function is also neglected in most textbooks.

  4. Future events: Generally, Japanese doesn't grammatically distinguish events that have not yet taken place (i.e. future events) from events that have already been started. It only distinguishes events that are ongoing right now (the present progressive tense) and events that are already completed (the various past and perfect tenses, especially the た tense), but it doesn't distinguish future events (as long as they are quite certain) from events that happen in general or are otherwise unmarked for time.

The only way to distinguish the future from the general present in Japanese is to look at contextual cues and adverbs that point to time. Contextual cues are easy - if you think the speaker is talking about the future based on what he previously said, then he probably is, case closed. Time adverbs are also very easy in some cases: if you hear the adverb 明日 ("tomorrow") then the sentence is about tomorrow, case closed. You should also pay attention to other adverbs such as また or かならず, that most of the times firmly set the sentence in the future.

Completely out of context, 映画を見る just means "seeing a film". Yeah, it doesn't have any time at all, like the English gerund in this case. Add context or more adverbs and complements to the sentence, and things get clearer:

  • その映画は明日見るよ。I'll see that film tomorrow.
  • 映画を見るのは楽しいですね。Seeing films is fun, isn't it?
  • 毎週、映画館に行って映画を見る。Every week, I go to the cinema and see a film.
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@Dave M G, did you accidentally downvoted this post by chance when you revoked the accept? I find it strange he got a downote. And sorry If I was wrong :D –  YOU Jun 21 '11 at 7:13
    
@YOU @Boaz Sorry guys, I'm not totally clear on how this works. I definitely didn't mean to downvote anyone's answer, least of all Boaz's. What I want to do is mark both Boaz's and Derek's as correct. I thought it was possible to have two correct answers, but it seems when I mark one, the other gets deselected. –  Dave M G Jun 21 '11 at 8:14
    
@Dave M G, when you upvoted up, "up arrow" become yellowish like this, and when you downvote "down arrow" will be yellowish one. Accept button and downvote button are close, so I am just wondering if that is the case, may be I am wrong though. –  YOU Jun 21 '11 at 8:25
    
@Dave: There can be two correct answers, but never two accepted answers. :) –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 21 '11 at 8:49
    
I edited this answer to change the Japanese name of "dictionary form" from 連用形 to 終止形, but see the question japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/4375/… for discussion of whether "dictionary form" should be translated to 終止形 or 連体形 or both. –  snailboat Jan 31 '13 at 10:28
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It can go either way. I think it struck you as odd because that example lacks any context.

映画学のクラスでは何をする?What do you do in film class?
映画を見る。Watch movies.

授業が終わったら何をするの?What are you going to do after class?
映画を見る。[I will] Watch movies.

In Japanese they call it 辞書形 (dictionary form), and in English it's the imperfective.

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While the terms imperfective or imperfect often used to refer to this tense, I'd caution against them, since in most languages they refer to entirely different things. Only the verb form called imperfect ancient Semitic languages (like Biblical Hebrew and Classical Arabic) is somewhat close, and even then not by much. A better term is Non-Past or maybe even just Unmarked (since it is indeed used for more often than not for past when writing prose). –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 20 '11 at 19:59
    
Duly noted, Mr. Yaniv. –  Louis Jun 21 '11 at 1:47
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