Using Verb て Form for Connecting Actions

    • Verb
    The て form is used to connect two (or sometimes more) actions or events in a sequence, similarly to how we use “and” in English. Depending on the context, it could also be interpreted as an action and its means.

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    て Form for Linking Actions

    When verbs in the て form are not used at the end of a sentence (the way they are with the て form for making requests, it is used to connect two (or sometimes more) actions or events in a sequence. It's similar to "and" in English, as in "I did this, and I did that"—in this case, it's not only used to show off how busy and productive you were, but also to express the order of the events or actions. You can read about how to conjugate to this form here.

    • 起き顔を洗う。
    • I wake up and wash my face.

    This example demonstrates the basic function of the て form: to describe a sequence of actions or events. First I woke up, then I washed my face. Depending on the context though, the relationship between the actions or events can be interpreted differently.

    て For Means of Completing an Action

    • 走っ駅に行く。
    • I go to the station by running.
      ( Literally: I run and go to the station. )

    This example is still a sequence of actions, but if you think about it, the actions are overlapping. For this reason, the relationship between these can also be interpreted as a main action (go to the station) and the means by which it was completed (by running).

    In this use of 〜て, you can also use the negative form to show what means you didn't use to complete an action. Let's say you almost got hit by a car on your way to the station because you were running. From now on, you might decide to stop running to the station (probably a wise choice). In that case, you could say:

    • 走らないで駅に行く。
    • I go to the station not by running.
      ( Literally: I don't run and go to the station. )

    て For Reasons

    • 目に虫が入っ泣いた。
    • A bug went in my eye and I cried.

    Another use of 〜て is for a causal relationship. By linking two actions or events, this 〜て is showing an action and its consequence. Because of this, you could swap out "and" for "so" in the translation to capture this nuance:

    • 目に虫が入っ泣いた。
    • A bug went in my eye so I cried.

    For this causal relationship usage of 〜て, the consequence is usually something you don't have control over, such as crying or forgetting.

    How is て Different from Similar Grammar Concepts?

    There are a couple similar grammar concepts you might want to be careful not to mix up.

    たりする

    Similar to the particle や, which is used for listing nouns, 〜たりする is used to list actions or events. However, 〜たりする implies that the list is incomplete, and you could continue to list more, kind of like a built in "etc." For example, when you ask someone what they like to do for fun, they might say:

    • 食べたり飲んだりするのが好きです。
    • I like things like eating and drinking.

    The use of 〜たり implies that these are just a few of their favorite activities. Using the て form instead creates a totally different meaning:

    • 食べ飲むのが好きです。
    • I like to eat first and then drink.
      ( Literally: I like to eat and drink. )

    Rather than listing a few favorite activities, this means that these favorite activities occur in a specific order: eating and then drinking.

    と (Strong Causal Relationship)

    There are times that the て form and particle と (Strong Causal Relationship) are interchangeable. However, since と shows strong causal relationship, it is used for a sequence of actions where the result is always the same given a certain condition or an action is immediately followed by another. The て form on the other hand is simply used to show the order of the actions.

    Let's look at an example of と showing a surefire result under a certain condition:

    • 起きると顔を洗う。
    • Whenever I wake up, I wash my face.

    Now let's compare with an example using 〜て:

    • 起きて顔を洗う。
    • I wake up, and then I wash my face.

    Now let's take a look at an example where と shows an action that is immediately followed by another:

    • ノックの音が聞こえるとドアを開けた。
    • Once I heard the knock, I immediately opened the door.

    Now an example using 〜て:

    • ノックの音が聞こえてドアを開けた。
    • I heard the knock, and then I opened the door.

    Now you've hopefully got the gist of the difference in nuances between these two. (It feels subtle even for native speakers of Japanese, so if you've got the hang of this difference, you're doing a great job. 🎉)