Choosing the Right Verb Tenses in Japanese

Published on
October 11, 2017
Contributors
Niko

The most difficult thing about learning Japanese is not kanji.

It's not grammar.

It's knowing how a native speaker would be likely to phrase an idea.

In other words, creating natural-sounding sentences is by far the most difficult challenge for a learner of this langauge.

Differences Between English and Japanese Grammar

99% of my mistakes in Japanese are due to fundamental differences in the way ideas are expressed in Japanese and English.

These fundamental difference are usually due to diction (sentence structure) and syntax (word choice).

Let's just dive into an example:

English: This tastes good.

A common mistake that I hear Japanese people making in English is saying something like, "This is good taste" or "This is delicious taste."

The reason for this mistake is that a Japanese person is unlikely to think of the word "taste" as a verb. And if they do think of it as a verb, they would probably think of the transitive version: "He tasted the pizza."

If we're talking about how something tastes good, then in Japanese we could just say:

これ美味しい
kore oishii
This is delicious.

Even that, however, might sound unnatural if you say it because これ (kore // this) can be inferred from context. So you can just say:

美味しい!
oishii!
Yum!

Japanese: おいしい。

In English, 'Subject-Verb-Adjective' — This (S) tastes (V) good (A) — is becoming just 'Adjective' in Japanese — おいしい (A).

Looks to me like that Japanese is way simpler than the English version.

Choosing Correct Verb Tenses in Japanese

I just got sidetracked, sorry. The main purpose of this article is to explore common verb tense mistakes that us foreign fools make all the time in Japanese.

These are mistakes that I probably made 1,000 times before anyone ever corrected me.

That's chill, though. Making mistakes is for cool kids.

Pop Quiz!

Your dying grandmother buys you a book for your birthday. You then go visit her in the hospital two weeks later, and she asks if you've read the book yet.

Do you say...

A) I read it.

B) I'm going to read it this weekend.

C) I haven't read it yet.

D) I'm reading it now.

E) I'm not going to read it yet.

...?

I'm just kidding, you don't actually need to answer this question. However, do you know how to say all of those sentences above in Japanese?

That's when we start getting into tense jungle.

Hints:

I = about a hundred different words in Japanese, but you don't need to say "I" in any of those sentences above, so don't worry about it.

to read = 読む (yomu)

it = a bunch of things in Japanese, depending on the context. But in most cases (this one included) the pronoun "it" is not necessary in Japanese sentences, so we're going to ignore this.

yet = まだ (mada)

this weekend = 今週末 (konshuumatsu)

So now you know all of the words. Can you make the sentences above in Japanese?

Japanese Translations:

A)
I read it.
読んだ (yonda)

B)
I'm going to read it this weekend.
今週末読む (konshuumatsu yomu)

C)
I haven't read it yet.
まだ読んでない (mada yondenai)

D)
I'm reading it now.
今読んでる (ima yonderu)

E)
I'm not going to read it yet.
まだ読まない (mada yomanai)

How'd you do? 100%?

I'll point out some ways that I used to mess up sentences like this when I was at a lower level of Japanese.

Saying "Haven't [Verb-ed] Yet" in Japanese

I used to mess this up all the time.

If you see above, we have "I haven't read it yet" translated to まだ読んでない (mada yondenai).

I don't know why, but for some reason, I always used to want to put simple past verbs (like 読まない // yomanai) after まだ (mada) when I wanted to say "haven't (verb-ed)".

In Japanese, though, they use the te-form plus ない (nai). For a beginner student, 読んでいない (yonde inai) means "not reading."

For example, if someone says...

A)
あの本読んでる?
ano hon yonderu?
Are you reading that book?

Then you can respond...

B)
読んでない
yondenai
I'm not reading it.

(You may have noticed that I'm removing the い (i) from 読んでいない (yonde inai) because that's the norm in casual speech.)

Putting a little まだ (mada) before 読んでない (yondenai) would, following a direct translation, mean: "I'm not reading it yet." In a more natural translation, though, this becomes the negative present perfect tense (i.e. have not [verb-ed]):

まだ読んでない
mada yondenai
I haven't read it yet.

This sentence has the nuance of "I haven't read it yet, but I'm planning on reading it eventually."

まだしてない VS まだしない

There's a huge difference between these two constructions:

1)
まだ + Vて(い)ない
haven't [done] yet

2)
まだ + Vない
not going to [do] yet

So maybe someone's like:

A)
Did you already go (grocery) shopping?
もう買い物行った?
mou kaimono itta

And then you could say one of two things:

B-1)
I haven't gone yet.
まだ行ってないまだ
mada ittenai

B-2)
I'm not going (to go) yet.
まだ行かない
mada ikanai

As you can probably guess, this small difference can cause huge changes to the meaning of your sentence.

So if your grandma asks you if you've read the book she gave you yet, and you say:

まだ読んでない
mada yondenai
I haven't read it yet

...then it sounds like "(I've been meaning to read it, but) I haven't read it yet."

This is much different than:

まだ読まない
mada yomanai
I'm not going to read it yet

...which sounds kind of like you're waiting until she's dead or something to read it.

Why would you say something so horrible to your grandmother? Not cool.

How To Perfect Your Verb Tense Choices

Just get tons of consistent, level-appropriate, structured language exposure over a long period of time.

In other words, you'll pick this stuff up naturally. But it's nice to get an explanation every now and then, too, yeah? We have thousands of such explanations in NativShark.

The most difficult thing about learning Japanese is not kanji.

It's not grammar.

It's knowing how a native speaker would be likely to phrase an idea.

In other words, creating natural-sounding sentences is by far the most difficult challenge for a learner of this langauge.

Differences Between English and Japanese Grammar

99% of my mistakes in Japanese are due to fundamental differences in the way ideas are expressed in Japanese and English.

These fundamental difference are usually due to diction (sentence structure) and syntax (word choice).

Let's just dive into an example:

English: This tastes good.

A common mistake that I hear Japanese people making in English is saying something like, "This is good taste" or "This is delicious taste."

The reason for this mistake is that a Japanese person is unlikely to think of the word "taste" as a verb. And if they do think of it as a verb, they would probably think of the transitive version: "He tasted the pizza."

If we're talking about how something tastes good, then in Japanese we could just say:

これ美味しい
kore oishii
This is delicious.

Even that, however, might sound unnatural if you say it because これ (kore // this) can be inferred from context. So you can just say:

美味しい!
oishii!
Yum!

Japanese: おいしい。

In English, 'Subject-Verb-Adjective' — This (S) tastes (V) good (A) — is becoming just 'Adjective' in Japanese — おいしい (A).

Looks to me like that Japanese is way simpler than the English version.

Choosing Correct Verb Tenses in Japanese

I just got sidetracked, sorry. The main purpose of this article is to explore common verb tense mistakes that us foreign fools make all the time in Japanese.

These are mistakes that I probably made 1,000 times before anyone ever corrected me.

That's chill, though. Making mistakes is for cool kids.

Pop Quiz!

Your dying grandmother buys you a book for your birthday. You then go visit her in the hospital two weeks later, and she asks if you've read the book yet.

Do you say...

A) I read it.

B) I'm going to read it this weekend.

C) I haven't read it yet.

D) I'm reading it now.

E) I'm not going to read it yet.

...?

I'm just kidding, you don't actually need to answer this question. However, do you know how to say all of those sentences above in Japanese?

That's when we start getting into tense jungle.

Hints:

I = about a hundred different words in Japanese, but you don't need to say "I" in any of those sentences above, so don't worry about it.

to read = 読む (yomu)

it = a bunch of things in Japanese, depending on the context. But in most cases (this one included) the pronoun "it" is not necessary in Japanese sentences, so we're going to ignore this.

yet = まだ (mada)

this weekend = 今週末 (konshuumatsu)

So now you know all of the words. Can you make the sentences above in Japanese?

Japanese Translations:

A)
I read it.
読んだ (yonda)

B)
I'm going to read it this weekend.
今週末読む (konshuumatsu yomu)

C)
I haven't read it yet.
まだ読んでない (mada yondenai)

D)
I'm reading it now.
今読んでる (ima yonderu)

E)
I'm not going to read it yet.
まだ読まない (mada yomanai)

How'd you do? 100%?

I'll point out some ways that I used to mess up sentences like this when I was at a lower level of Japanese.

Saying "Haven't [Verb-ed] Yet" in Japanese

I used to mess this up all the time.

If you see above, we have "I haven't read it yet" translated to まだ読んでない (mada yondenai).

I don't know why, but for some reason, I always used to want to put simple past verbs (like 読まない // yomanai) after まだ (mada) when I wanted to say "haven't (verb-ed)".

In Japanese, though, they use the te-form plus ない (nai). For a beginner student, 読んでいない (yonde inai) means "not reading."

For example, if someone says...

A)
あの本読んでる?
ano hon yonderu?
Are you reading that book?

Then you can respond...

B)
読んでない
yondenai
I'm not reading it.

(You may have noticed that I'm removing the い (i) from 読んでいない (yonde inai) because that's the norm in casual speech.)

Putting a little まだ (mada) before 読んでない (yondenai) would, following a direct translation, mean: "I'm not reading it yet." In a more natural translation, though, this becomes the negative present perfect tense (i.e. have not [verb-ed]):

まだ読んでない
mada yondenai
I haven't read it yet.

This sentence has the nuance of "I haven't read it yet, but I'm planning on reading it eventually."

まだしてない VS まだしない

There's a huge difference between these two constructions:

1)
まだ + Vて(い)ない
haven't [done] yet

2)
まだ + Vない
not going to [do] yet

So maybe someone's like:

A)
Did you already go (grocery) shopping?
もう買い物行った?
mou kaimono itta

And then you could say one of two things:

B-1)
I haven't gone yet.
まだ行ってないまだ
mada ittenai

B-2)
I'm not going (to go) yet.
まだ行かない
mada ikanai

As you can probably guess, this small difference can cause huge changes to the meaning of your sentence.

So if your grandma asks you if you've read the book she gave you yet, and you say:

まだ読んでない
mada yondenai
I haven't read it yet

...then it sounds like "(I've been meaning to read it, but) I haven't read it yet."

This is much different than:

まだ読まない
mada yomanai
I'm not going to read it yet

...which sounds kind of like you're waiting until she's dead or something to read it.

Why would you say something so horrible to your grandmother? Not cool.

How To Perfect Your Verb Tense Choices

Just get tons of consistent, level-appropriate, structured language exposure over a long period of time.

In other words, you'll pick this stuff up naturally. But it's nice to get an explanation every now and then, too, yeah? We have thousands of such explanations in NativShark.

Contributors
Niko
How to Learn Japanese
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