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I'm learning Japanese, N5 level. I wonder why Japanese verbs have so many forms. For example, to say that we are doing something, we use "te" form (which I am learning right now). To say we are able to do something, we use another "potential" form. When we say somebody must do something, we use another "imperative" form.

So, I guess for each meaning/variation of the verb, we need a new form. If the pattern continues to grow, there must be hundreds of forms? But I read that there are only about 10 forms(!?). I really don't understand. Can anyone explain to me what a verb form is? What is its role in the sentence?

I will list some use cases. Please let me know which form I should use:

  • should do something
  • need to do something
  • want to do something
  • hate to do something
  • like to do something
  • being told to do something
  • afraid of doing something
  • regret of having done something

Thanks.

  • 3
    There are other languages with multitudes of verb forms. French comes to mind. – ratchet freak Oct 1 '18 at 15:21
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    Japanese puts its complexity into its verb forms. English puts its complexity into its word ordering and combinations. It's all the same level of complexity, though. – Sjiveru Oct 1 '18 at 16:09
  • Lol my native language has 20+ verbs transformations per verb, and like 90% of them are actually used I. Daily conversations... (Brazilian Portuguese btw) – Felipe Oliveira Oct 1 '18 at 21:40
  • In case anyone is interested in some linguistics, the Japanese language is generally considered an agglutinative language. This means it is a language that generally sticks affixes to its words to change its meaning instead of using other 'helper' words or changing the words completely. – yushi Oct 2 '18 at 9:38
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Since you are a beginner, probably it's best to get used to the most useful "forms" of Japanese, including the te-form, masu-form (aka polite form), imperative form, etc. It's the fastest way to learn to communicate in Japanese.

But if you keep studying Japanese systematically, you will encounter something unusual like 食べさせられたくなかった, which roughly means "did not want to be forced to eat". Do we really have to name this "form" as something like "the past-negative-desire-causative-passive form" and learn it by rote? Certainly not.

Actually, there are only five (or six) basic verb conjugation patterns in modern standard Japanese. Some of the "forms" you have learned are actually combinations of one of the five patterns and "an auxiliary" (助動詞 in Japanese). Auxiliaries works very similarly to English auxiliary verbs ("can", "should", "may", etc.; also known as helping verbs) except that you don't need spaces and that they come after verbs. You can attach more than one auxiliary to say something complicated like "past + potential", "passive + causative", or even "passive + causative + volitional + negative + past". The most common auxiliaries you have probably learned already include ます (the polite marker), た/だ (the past-tense marker), れる/られる (the potential marker), て/で (the "continuation" marker of the te-form), etc. The part before た and て are exactly the same for all types of verbs, and people call it 連用形 ("continuative form"), which is one of the five basic patterns. So once you have mastered the te-form (I know it's a bit hard at first), that means you have also mastered the conjugation patterns of the ta-form (past tense), too.

So you don't have to worry too much; seemingly some textbooks for Japanese learners like to introduce many "forms", including "tari-form" and "nagara-form", but you can learn them quite easily once you have learned the basic five patterns. (Another good news is that there are very few irregular verbs in Japanese.)

For more details, please see the following (But don't worry if you cannot understand them now):

  • @ naruto I think it's very useful to the 活用 forms, but I have a question about that. Which category does the Volitional form fit into? Is it from 未然形? Also, am I correct in assuming that the て and た forms are from 連用形?Are て and た really auxiliary verbs? I might do a separate question based on this because I think it would be useful to match up the forms taught in JFL with the 活用 categories in Japanese. – kandyman Oct 27 '18 at 13:59
  • also, is the potential form derived from the 仮定形? – kandyman Oct 27 '18 at 14:09
  • @kandyman Yes, "the volitional form" is a 未然形 followed by う/よう, but there are two 未然形, one of which is specifically for う/よう. て/で doesn't conjugate, so they are called a 接続助詞 (conjunctive auxiliary?) instead of a 助動詞 (auxiliary verb). I admit "five" might not be the correct count. – naruto Oct 28 '18 at 1:19

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