Verb Conjugation #1: Japanese Verb Classes – The Basics

Updated: Apr 13, 2021


What Are the Japanese Verb Classes?


The Japanese language has three types of verbs:

  • Godan verbs (also often called class 1 verbs or う verbs).

  • Ichidan verbs (also known as class 2 verbs or る verbs).

  • Irregular verbs (commonly referred to as class 3 verbs).


How do you know what kind of a verb you are dealing with? Unfortunately, you cannot always tell just by looking at a verb. For example, the nickname "る verbs" seems to imply that all verbs that end with the る syllable are ichidan/class 2 verbs. However, there are several godan and irregular verbs that end in る as well.


Therefore, the different classes of verbs cannot be strictly defined by what syllable they end with. Instead, they are defined by the way they conjugate. If you know how a verb is conjugated, you can identify what class it belongs to and vice versa.



Godan Verbs


How do you identify godan verbs?


While I stated above that you can't always define a verb based on its ending syllable, there are times when you can. Here are some surefire ways to identify godan (class 1) verbs:

  • If a verb does not end in る, it is definitely a godan verb (e.g., 書、泳、立、買、飲、死、学、話).

  • For verbs that do end with る, if the syllable that comes immediately before る is found in the あ, う, or お column of the hiragana chart, it must be a godan verb (e.g., 渡る (わる), 作る (つる), 乗る (る). (There are two exceptions to this rule—these are the irregular verbs, which are discussed later.)

Among all remaining verbs that do not meet the above criteria, some are godan verbs, while some—or most, I should sayare ichidan verbs. So, how do you know which is which out of these verbs? You either need to know how they conjugate, or you'll have to look it up in the dictionary. If you were forced to guess, the safe bet is that such a verb is an ichidan verb.



How do you conjugate godan verbs?


Conjugating godan verbs is more complicated than conjugating ichidan verbs. There are five different ways to conjugate godan verbs. (ご/go means "five" in Japanese, which can help you remember that class 1 verbs are called godan verbs in the dictionary.) Which of the five conjugation methods you need to use depends on the ending syllable of the verb.


The five godan verb conjugations are listed below. One of the most common verb forms in Japanese is the て form, and so I will use this form in the examples throughout this article. You do not need to know what the て form represents to understand this lesson—I'm using it here simply to illustrate the differences between the three verb classes. The て form conjugation is explained in the next lesson.

  1. Replace く with いて (e.g., 書く ---> かいて). (There is one exception to this: 行く becomes 行って, not 行て.)

  2. Replace ぐ with いで (e.g., 泳ぐ ---> 泳いで).

  3. Replace む, ぶ, or ぬ with んで (e.g., 飲む ---> 飲んで).

  4. Replace う, つ, or る with って (e.g., 買う ---> 買って).

  5. Replace す with して (e.g., 話す ---> 話して).



Ichidan Verbs


How do you identify ichidan verbs?


Ichidan (class 2) verbs always end with the る syllable. However, as shown above, that does not mean that all verbs that end with る are class 2 verbs. In most cases, if you have a verb that ends in る and the syllable immediately before る comes from the い or え column of the hiragana chart, it's a safe bet that it's an ichidan verb.


However, it's not a sure bet. For example, while 食べる (たる) and 見る (る) are ichidan verbs, 帰る (かる) and 着る (る) are godan verbs. You'll need to memorize the exceptions that are godan verbs since, unfortunately, there is no rule for identifying them.



How do you conjugate ichidan verbs?


Unlike godan verbs, there is only one way to conjugate ichidan verbs. As with godan verbs, you can use this fact to remember that class 2 verbs are labelled ichidan verbs in the dictionary (いち/ichi means "one").


To conjugate ichidan verbs, you just need to remove the final る syllable and add something else in its place, depending on what you want to communicate. In the present article, I've been focusing on て conjugations, which I'll continue doing here:

  1. Replace る with (e.g., 食べる ---> 食べて、起きる ---> 起きて).



Irregular Verbs


How do you identify irregular verbs?


Fortunately, there are only two irregular verbs in the Japanese language—する ("to do") and 来る ("to come")—which makes memorizing them extremely easy.



How do you conjugate irregular verbs?


If する were a regular godan verb, its て form would be すって, but it's not. Instead, する becomes して.


Similarly, if 来る were a regular godan verb, its て form would be 来って, but it's not. Instead, 来る becomes 来て (pronounced きて, not くて).


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