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There’s a Japanese hurdle that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get past. The thing is, I have a super-high comprehension level of Japanese.  I’m not trying to brag or anything (most of this article is about stupid mistakes I make, after all). 

So, yeah, I guess you could say understanding of Japanese is ninja-status:

derp niko 1

My output ability, though? That’s more like twelve-year old status. I mean, I can say anything in Japanese. The problem is that I can’t say it naturally.

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).

I often hear people complaining about how Japanese grammar is complicated.  However… people who are good at Japanese don’t think Japanese grammar is complicated. Or, everyone I know that ‘s good at Japanese thinks that Japanese grammar is ridiculously simple.

Way easier than, say, Spanish, which will conjugate your brain to death.

But talking about ideas is boring. Instead, let’s just dive into an example:

this tastes good apple deer

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 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 これは美味しい / kore wa oishii, literally “this is delicious.”

Even that, however, will probably sound unnatural if you say it, because we don’t need to include これは / kore wa / “(as for) this” in most cases.

Usually when we say “This is good” or “This tastes good,” we’re talking to someone who’s sitting right in front of us. If they see me eating “this,” then I don’t need to say “this” in Japanese. So naturally, I would just say 美味しい / oishii / literally, “delicious.”

oishii deer apple

Japanese: 美味しい / おいしい / oishii

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

I’m sorry, but it looks to me like that Japanese is way simpler than the English version.

Choosing Correct Verb Tenses in Japanese

I just got totally 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 make 1,000 times before anyone ever corrected me.

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

Pop Quiz, Bitch!

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.

dying grandma

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, babe.

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 / よむ / 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 / こんしゅうまつ / 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
よんだ
yonda

B)
I’m going to read it this weekend.
今週末読む
こんしゅうまつ よむ
konshuumatsu yomu

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

D)
I’m reading it now.
今読んでる
いま よんでる

E)
I’m not going to read it yet.
まだ読まない
まだ よまない
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 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 what, but for some reason, I always want to put simple past verbs (like 読まない / よまない / yomanai) after まだ / mada when I want to say “haven’t (verb-ed).”

In Japanese, though, they use the te-form plus ない / nai. 

For a beginner student (or a beginner Niko, at least), 読んでいない / yonde inai means “not reading.”

For example, if someone says…

A)
あの本は読んでる?
あの ほん は よんでる?
ano hon wa yonderu?
Are you reading that book?

Then you can respond…

B)
読んでない
よんでない
yondenai
I’m not reading it.
(Note: you’ll notice that I’m removing the い / i from 読んでいない / yonde inai, because that’s super common 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 (= “have not [verb-ed]”):

まだ読んでない
まだ よんでない
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 +[して](い)ない
= haven’t [done] yet

2)
まだ +[しない]
= not going to [do] yet

So maybe someone’s like:

A)
Did you go (grocery) shopping?
もう買い物行った?
もう かいもの いった?
mou kaimono itta
(Literally: “Already shopping went?”)

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 いってない
mada ittenai
(Literally: “Yet not going”)

B-2)
I’m not going (to go) yet. (= “I’m going (to go) later.”)
まだ行かない
まだ いかない
mada ikanai
(Literally: “Still/Yet not go.”)

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

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

using japanese verb tenses

まだ読んでない
まだ よんでない
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:

correct japanese verb tenses

まだ読まない
まだ よまない
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, dude? Not cool.

How To Perfect Your Verb Tense Choices

I don’t know, yo.

Well, the best way, like I say in the Hacking Japanese Supercourse 28,000 times, is to 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?

How To Perfect Your Japanese Studies

All the cool Japanese students in the world know what’s up: This boss (free) Japanese study course:

If this article was majorly confusing… uh, I’m sorry? Also, I respond to every single comment on this website, so you could always put questions there.

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. Here’s a really similar article to the one you just read: The Difference Between 忘れた and 忘れてた. Get you some.

Niko

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Portland, Oregon! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is tricky-tikki-tavi. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. If you like my articles, you may very well love my daily lessons.