4

What is the difference between ~ru and ~masu? For example: taberu and tabemasu. Don't they mean the same thing? Are there certain instances when one is acceptable and the other isn't?

5

A couple of things the other answers didn't address:

  1. The ~る form is also referred to as the "dictionary form" ([辞書形]{じ・しょ・けい}). This is how you look up verbs in the dictionary. So if you need to look up "to eat" in a Japanese dictionary, you search for [食]{た}べる, not [食]{た}べます. Likewise, if you see the verb [会]{あ}う in the dictionary, you know this is the correct entry corresponding to the verb [会]{あ}います.

  2. The ~ます form is usually referred to as "Polite form/speech" ([丁寧語]{てい・ねい・ご}). It is sometimes used in formal situations, but not necessarily. It's one thing to speak politely; it's another to speak formally. @BrandonAzer's examples at the top are not quite correct. It is more like:

  • ケーキを食べる → Informal/Familiar
  • ケーキを食べます → Polite, neutral
  • ケーキをいただきます → Formal, humble

Formal speech/situations are most often accompanied by special words called [敬語]{けい・ご}, not different forms of informal words.

  • I would add "dictionary" form is the word. Just like in English you look up "eat" not "eating" and not "ate" because the word is "eat" and the other forms are conjugations of the word "eat". As you kind of pointed out the example of ”いただきます” is not really relevant to 〜る vs 〜ます form. It's not a conjugation of 食べる and while it might be appropriate in certain situations it has a completely different meaning. (1) is "I eat cake", (2) is "I eat cake" (3) is "I (humbly) receive cake" – gman Sep 10 '16 at 2:17
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〜る is used in informal situations (e.g. in daily conversation with your friends)

〜ます is used in formal situations (e.g. in public, or when you speak to a stranger, to people older than you, and to your senior)

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