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wakatta and wakarimashita are used sometimes in anime. I understand one is informal and the other is formal past tense. When do you have to use the informal and when to use the formal tenses of the verbs? Are there a set of rules or is it something vague?

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    Your question has some confusion. "I understand one is informal and the other is informal past tense." -- Both are past tense. wakatta is not inflected for politeness, while wakarimashita is inflected for politeness. Also, it feels like you have misunderstood 'tense'. Tense is not the same as inflection. Words may be inflected to express tense. Japanese words may also inflect to express politeness. – Flaw Jun 26 '16 at 16:45
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    I have a feeling you're asking about the politeness conjugation -masu. I.e. when to use polite (masu) forms and when to use plain (non-masu) form. This is probably very hard to answer, and it depends on many factors. The problem gets more complicated when you want to insert formal vs. informal on top of polite vs. non-polite since they are not necessarily the same dichotomy. – Flaw Jun 26 '16 at 17:00
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    I suggest you try to sort out what you want to ask and edit the question, and at the same time you can try asking/discussing on Chat since I feel this is likely to have quite a bit of back and forth commenting/posting which is much better handled on our Chat site. – Flaw Jun 26 '16 at 17:04
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    The whole impolite / informal thing is a bit of a pet peeve; things like わらった are simply "plain", i.e. undecorated for extra formality / politeness. – Brandon Jun 26 '16 at 18:07
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    @Pablo I suggested Chat since the main site does not handle extended discussions as well as Chat does. Chat can help to organise our thoughts when users are unsure about questions or answers. Sometimes useful answers (and questions) get generated in Chat and it gets posted on the main site. Messages in Chat are not lost forever, they are saved by the system. – Flaw Jun 26 '16 at 19:07
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wakaru is the verb "to understand".

wakatta is its past tense informal form.

wakarimashita is its past tense polite or formal form.

So they both mean "Understood".

As a Japanese learner or foreigner in their country, you should be using polite forms until you make some friends and speak with them "informally".

Also the informal tense is used in some grammar situations, as for:

The relative clause (adjacent adjective):

分かった質問【しつもん】. "Understood question"

結婚【けっこん】した男【おとこ】です. "(he) is a married man".

  • The last part is pretty shaky. – l'électeur Jun 27 '16 at 9:52
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Most European languages have a clear distinction between formal and informal, which usually shows up as two conjugations for "you." The Japanese have multiple distinctions for politeness/formality, the most obvious of which is the です/ます distinction. However, it is not used in exactly the same way as the European versions.

The explanation I was given for this in university is that です/ます conveys social distance. When you use these forms, you are being polite to the listener, and not claiming them as a close acquaintance. It's a "safe" way of speaking, because you aren't implying a right to address this person as an intimate or subordinate. Of course, it also conveys a certain degree of coolness; it implies that you are not friends, just acquaintances.

In the case of 分かった and 分かりました, they are in the same tense (both are "completed" actions), but at different distances. 分かった is the plain form; it implies that you know the listener well enough that you don't need to be careful or especially polite. 分かりました is the distant form, and has the same literal meaning but is socially more careful, or distant..

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