Follow Basic Conjugation Patterns
Japanese verbs may sound complex, but their conjugation in the past tense can be quite simple.
There are two ways to conjugate verbs in the past tense if the verb is positive and did happen, and two if it is negative or did not happen. There are two ways because there is a more commonly used way and a more polite way to say each conjugation. This does not mean that there are always only two ways, as in Japanese there are many levels of politeness used to speak to elders and those of different social status as well as gender.
The first way is less formal and can be used when speaking amongst friends. Remove the last syllable of the verb in its dictionary form and then simply add ‘ta’ or ‘tta’ to the end of the verb. For example, the verb ‘taberu,’ which means to eat, would become ‘tabeta.’ ‘Watashi ha takoyaki wo tabeta’ means I ate takoyaki. If you did not eat takoyaki, and need to say this in the past tense, you would again remove the last syllable from the verb, in this case, ‘ru’ and add ‘nakatta.’ The fragment ‘nakatta’ means that something did not happen. You could say, ‘Watashi ha takoyaki wo tabenakatta,’ meaning I did not eat takoyaki.
If you are speaking to someone who is a higher social rank, or older than you, you would want to speak more politely and try to use more formal speech. First remove the last syllable for the verb then add ‘mashita.’ ‘Watashi ha takoyaki wo tabemashita.’ This also means ‘I ate takoyaki’ but it implies more respect for the listener. If it did not happen, you would add ‘masen deshita.’ ‘Watashi ha takoyaki wo tabemasen deshita.’ As the earlier example states, this still means ‘I did not eat takoyaki,’ but in a more polite way.
Examples of Conjugation
Not all verbs end in the syllable ‘ru’ in Japanese. For other verbs you would still remove the last sound (like the u) before conjugating, and then follow the similar pattern for regular verbs. Here you can download the examples below. Notice the slight differences between the conjugation depending on the last syllable of the verb in basic form.
Verbs that end in ‘ru’ (most common dictionary form of verbs):
- Taberu=to eat
- Tabeta=ate (informal)
- Tabemashita=ate (formal)
- Tabenakatta=did not eat (informal)
- Tabemasen deshita=did not eat (formal)
Verbs that end in ‘ku’ (follow this pattern for ‘gu’ also)
- Kiku=to hear
- Kiita=heard (informal)
- Kikimashita=heard (formal)
- Kikanakatta=did not hear (informal)
- Kikimasen deshita=did not hear (formal)
Verbs that end in ‘su’
- Hanasu=to speak
- Hanashita=spoke (informal)
- Hanasanakatta=did not speak (informal)
- Hanashimasen deshita=did not speak (formal)
Verbs that end in ‘mu’ (also follow for ‘bu’)
- Nomu=to drink
- Nonda=drank (informal)
- Nomimashita=drank (formal)
- Nomanakatta=did not drink (informal)
- Nomimasen deshita=did not drink (formal)
Verbs that end in ‘u’
- Arau=to wash
- Araitta=washed (informal)
- Araimashita=washed (formal)
- Arainakatta=did not wash (informal)
- Araimasen deshita=did not wash (formal)