Verb Conjugation Groups

    • Verb
    • Conjugation Form
    Japanese verbs can be separated into three conjugation groups: godan verbs (五段動詞), ichidan verbs (一段動詞), and irregular verbs (変格動詞). They are also sometimes called う verbs, る verbs, and irregular verbs, or Group I, II and III, respectively.

    Table of Contents

    Japanese Verb Conjugation Groups

    Japanese verbs conjugate differently depending on which of the three verb groups they belong to. There are multiple names for these verb groups, but we'll cover the most common here so that you can access the information no matter what your learning background is. There is a lot of information to take in here, but don't fret. Rather than try to memorize this information, just think of it as a reference guide to use when you need it. As you continue to practice conjugating new verbs into different forms, the info in this page will become like second nature!

    Godan Verbs (五段動詞)

    Also known as う verbs or Group I verbs (and consonant-stem verbs in linguistics), verbs in this group end with an /u/ vowel sound (pronounced "oo," as in the hiragana character う).

    Examples of verbs in this category are 読む (yomu) "to read," 書く (kaku), "to write," 話す (hanasu), "to speak," and 聞く (kiku), "to listen." Notice that each of these end in a character on the う line of the hiragana chart. When these verbs are conjugated, the /u/ sound on the end will shift to other vowels, changing the hiragana character along with it. The fact that these verbs shift through the five lines of the hiragana chart is where they get the name 五段 (five level) verbs.

    Let's check this out with one of our example verbs, 聞く (to listen):

    Hiragana Chart Line (5) 日本語 ローマ字 English
    あ /a/ ない kik-anai not listen
    い /i/ ます kik-imasu listen (polite)
    う /u/ kik-u listen (plain)
    え /e/ kik-eru can listen
    お /o/ kik-ou let's listen

    Now that we can see everything laid out for us, let's revisit the linguistics terms for this verb group: consonant-stem verbs. To do this, we need to quickly define what the "stem" of a verb is in Japanese. Basically, it is the part of the verb that remains the same, no matter what conjugation the verb takes. In this case, the stem is the bold part of the word in the ローマ字 column of the table: kik.

    Now wait — the stem ends in /k/? If you know your hiragana, then you might be confused since there is no character for /k/ in Japanese. As weird as it may seem, we have to separate hiragana characters into two distinct parts in order to find the stem: the consonant and the vowel. Let's take the く from 聞く, for example. In ローマ字, we write this character as "ku." The /k/ part is the consonant, and the /u/ part is the vowel. Because the /u/ part of this character changes when the word is conjugated, as in 聞 (ku) → 聞ます (ki), it is not part of the stem. Only the part that remains the same, the /k/, is part of the stem. Since the last part of the stems of these verbs are consonants like /k/, these verbs are called "consonant-stem verbs." Are you with us so far?

    If you're wondering what the point of all this is, just hang in there for a minute! The value of looking at verbs in this way will become abundantly clear when we begin comparing godan verbs with the next verb group.

    Ichidan Verbs (一段動詞)

    The next group of verbs we'll look at is ichidan verbs. These verbs are called る verbs in many Japanese textbooks because they all end in the hiragana character る. Some textbooks call them Group II verbs, though. In linguistics, they are known as "vowel-stem" verbs (spoiler alert: their stems end in vowels! 😉).

    Examples of these verbs include 見る (miru), "to see," 起きる (okiru), "to wake up," 開ける (akeru), "to open," and 食べる (taberu), "to eat." Conjugating these verbs is easy — the る ending is replaced with a new verb ending. The character that comes before the る is unaffected, and so it remains on the same single hiragana line. Because only one hiragana line is involved per verb stem, these verbs are called 一段 (one level) verbs.

    Let's use another table to make this clear. Notice how the べ in 食べる remains the same in each conjugation:

    Hiragana Chart Line (1) 日本語 ローマ字 English
    え /e/ ない tabe-nai not eat
    ます tabe-masu eat (polite)
    tabe-ru eat (plain)
    れる tabe-reru can eat
    よう tabe-you let's eat

    Just like we did with godan verbs, let's use the table above to examine the linguistics name for ichidan verbs: vowel-stem verbs. This time, we've bolded "tabe" part of the verb because it is the part of the verb that remains the same throughout all conjugations (i.e. is the stem). If we separate べ into its consonant /b/ and vowel /e/, you can see that the final sound in the stem is the vowel, /e/. And there you have it — the reason these verbs are called "vowel-stem verbs."

    Godan Verbs Disguised as Ichidan Verbs

    Some godan (う) verbs are not immediately recognizable as such because they end in the hiragana character る, so they appear to be ichidan (る) verbs. Despite that, る is on the う line of the hiragana chart, so it makes sense that some る ending verbs could potentially be considered godan (う) verbs, right?

    Luckily, there is a trick to how you can tell whether a verb ending in る is a godan verb or an ichidan verb: if the vowel sound that comes before る is /a/, /u/, or /o/, it is definitely a godan (う) verb. If the vowel sound that comes before る is /e/ or /i/, it is probably an ichidan verb (but there are exceptions, unfortunately!).

    Let's take a look at the table below to see how this works:

    Verb Group 日本語 ローマ字 English
    Godan (る Ending う Verb) 分かる wakaru to understand
    作る tsukuru to make
    折る oru to fold
    Ichidan (る Verb) 食べる taberu to eat
    起きる okiru to wake up

    Remember, the test we described above is watertight if the vowel before る is /a/, /u/, or /o/. In those cases, like in 分かる (wakaru), 作る (tsukuru), and 折る (oru), we can be completely sure that they are godan verbs. However, if the vowel is /e/ or /i/, like in 食べる (taberu) or 起きる (okiru), we can only be cautiously optimistic that they are ichidan verbs.

    If you're unsure how to conjugate a る ending verb, we recommend looking it up in a dictionary. Most of the time, it will indicate whether the verb belongs to the godan or ichidan verb group. Just to put your mind at ease, below is a list of common exceptions. Don't fret, with enough practice, you'll learn how to conjugate these verbs without even thinking about which verb group they belong to!

    Common る-ending godan verbs: いる (to need), 入る (to enter), 走る (to run), 帰る (to return), 減る (to decrease), and 喋る (to chat).

    Irregular Verbs (変格動詞)

    Out of all the verbs in Japanese, only two fall outside of the godan and ichidan verb groups: する (to do) and 来る (to come). These verbs are so common, that as you learn new conjugations for them, you'll get enough practice that they will seem easy as pie.

    Now go forth and conjugate!