Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond the Basics
〜ない is a suffix that makes verb it's attached to negative. In other words, it adds "not" to the verb. So for example, 食べない is "not eat", 飲まない is "not drink", and 来ない is "not come".
Conjugating Verbs to Take 〜ない
|Godan||会う → 会わない
立つ → 立たない
写す → 写さない
割る → 割らない
書く → 書かない
泳ぐ → 泳がない
死ぬ → 死なない
学ぶ → 学ばない
休む → 休まない
|Ichidan||食べる → 食べない
起きる → 起きない
閉じる → 閉じない
|Irregular|| 来る → 来ない
する → しない
ある → ない
To add 〜ない to a godan verb, take a look at the character on the end of the verb. You'll need to change it to the correct あ-line character from the hiragana chart.
For example, if the verb ends in 〜く, we remove the 〜く and replace it with 〜か, then add 〜ない, giving us 〜かない.
く+ か + ない = 書かない
く+ か + ない = 聞かない
This same rule then works for all the other endings, so 〜す becomes 〜さない, 〜る becomes 〜らない, and so on.
す+ さ + ない = 写さない
る+ ら + ない = 割らない
Be careful with verbs ending in 〜つ. It might not seem obvious at first, but the あ-line character for つ is た, so つ-ending verbs will change to 〜たない, like 立たない or 持たない.
つ+ た + ない = 立たない
つ+ た + ない = 持たない
Also be on the lookout when a verb ends in 〜う. You would expect 〜あない in this case, but う-ending verbs become 〜わない when negative:
う+ わ + ない = 会わない
う+ わ + ない = 買わない
For ichidan verbs, the conjugation is—as usual—nice and simple. Just remove the 〜る at the end of the verb and add 〜ない:
る+ ない = 食べない
る+ ない = 見ない
来る and する are the usual offenders when it comes to irregular conjugations. To made them negative with 〜ない, the pronunciation changes for the whole word, including the first syllable:
る+ ない = 来ない
る+ ない = しない
Added to these staples is ある, which is usually regular, but behaves irregularly when it comes to the 〜ない. Despite its irregularity, it shouldn't be too tricky to remember. Instead of changing to 〜あらない as you might expect, it simply becomes 〜ない:
ある → ない
Patterns of Use
In Japanese, you can form an entire sentence with a single verb, and verbs with the 〜ない ending are no exception. This is most common with mental verbs, like 分かる (to understand), and verbs for abilities and possibilities, like 出来る (to be able to do) and anything in the potential form.
- I don't understand!
- I can't do it!
- I can't swim!
Note that in this last sentence, 泳げない is the negative version of 泳げる, which is the potential form of 泳ぐ. That's why it's 泳げない in this sentence, and not 泳がない.
Of course, these sentences can include many other words, to give more details. In this case, the verb stays at the end of the sentence, perhaps followed by a sentence-ending particle or two.
- Sky diving looks interesting, but I definitely can't do it!
Japanese verbs can also come just before a noun, to describe the noun, much like an adjective can. For instance, if we want to say "an interesting TV show" we can simply put おもしろい (interesting) before 番組 (TV show) to give us おもしろい番組. To say "a place I go to," we put 行く (to go) before the noun 場所 (place) for 行く場所. You can use verbs with the 〜ない in this way, too.
- a place I don't go to
- a person I don't know
- a word I can't say
Again, just a side note that this last sentence includes the potential form, which is why it's 言えない and not 言わない.
Notice that in English, the information that describes the noun comes after the noun, but in Japanese it comes before. While this takes a little getting used to, it's a very handy way to make more complex sentences and you'll come across it in Japanese all the time. You can read more about this grammar concept on our page about relative clauses.
Beyond the Basics
So far we've covered how to conjugate verbs to take 〜ない, as well as where 〜ない ending verbs typically appear in Japanese sentences. Next up, we'll look at putting 〜ない to use!
Time and Tense with 〜ない
The 〜ない ending is said to be in the "non-past" tense, meaning that it can refer to the present moment, or to the future as well. Interestingly, even though 〜ない attaches to verbs, it conjugates just like an い-adjective (see that 〜い on the end?). So if you want to talk about something that was not, you'll use 〜なかった.
For the Present
When 〜ない is used for the present, it is usually to talk about general truths or statements that have some kind of permanence.
- I don't eat meat.
The use of 食べない here suggests that this is a firm, somewhat permanent stance towards meat eating. If the speaker wants to highlight that it is a temporary thing, they'd be more likely to use 〜ていない instead:
- I'm not eating meat lately.
When spoken, 〜ない is often combined with conversational particles to add a particular nuance or to give a more conversational tone:
- Jenny, you don't eat meat, right?
For the Future
We can also use this form to talk about things we won't do in the future. This can refer to the very near future, like a party tonight:
- I'm not going to the party tonight.
It can also be used to talk about our intentions for the more distant future:
- There's no way I'm ever going back to where I come from!
〜ない and Politeness
〜ない is associated with the plain form, so when it comes at the end of a sentence it is casual. For example, you could say 日本語を上手に話せない to your friends and family, but it might not be the right option when speaking to your boss or teacher. If you want to make your sentence polite, you have two options. The first, is to remove 〜ない and use the polite form negative suffix, 〜ません. If your grammar teacher is a traditionalist, this is what they'll want you to use. For example:
- I can't drink coffee.
Your other option is to add the politeness marker です after the 〜ない ending. Some might look down their noses at this choice, but you'll hear it all the time in spoken Japanese:
- コーヒーを飲めない + です。
- I can't drink coffee.
Just like other plain forms, when 〜ない appears somewhere other than the end of the sentence, it doesn't mark the politeness. This is because politeness is marked at the end of the sentence in Japanese. There are plenty of sentence-ending structures that only work when paired up with some kind of plain form, and for these, 〜ない will come in very handy. For example, かもしれない (probably) and と思う (I think) can both be used only with the plain form. So if we want to say we probably won't go to a party tomorrow, we can use かもしれない or its polite form かもしれません:
- I might not go to the party tomorrow.
Although the overall sentence above is polite, and so has the polite form at the end, using the polite form before かもしれません would be incorrect:
〜ない for Invitations
You may have already learned the polite way to make invitations using 〜ませんか. We can use the ない form in the same way, to make casual invitations. Simply adding the question particle か to the ない form is one way to do this:
- How about we go together next time?
However, this has an assertive feel to it so is not very common in everyday conversations. Rather, as so often happens in casual Japanese, we simply use the ない form as it is and rely on intonation to make it clear that we are asking a question:
- How about we go together next time?