Mastering Japanese Past Tense Verbs

Once you’ve mastered present tense verb conjugations, what comes next? Now you’re ready to take your skills to the next level with Japanese past tense verbs. Past tense verbs add dimension to your Japanese language ability, allowing you to talk about past events and completed actions.

Before we begin, take a moment to review the polite form, dictionary form, and negative form of present tense verbs. We’ll build on these to conjugate past tense verbs, so it will help to have the information fresh in your mind.

 

Japanese Past Tense Verbs—Formal/Polite ConjugationA young girl on the left side and a young man on the right holding paintbrushes, painting a large light blue pack on a white wall. Within the light blue painted surface, the title, Japanese Past Tense Verbs: Formal/Polite Conjugation" is written in black.

We will start with the polite form, which is also called the -masu form. In the polite form, the -masu suffix is modified to make affirmative and negative past tenses, like this:

  1. -ました (-mashita, affirmative past tense)
  2. -ませんでした (-masen deshita, negative past tense)

As you can see, only the suffix changes. This makes the polite form of past tense verbs much easier to conjugate than the dictionary form, but we’ll get to that later.

Let’s look at how we conjugate the past tense of “masu” verbs.

 

Group 1 Verbs -う Verbs

Dictionary Form2nd Row Stem+ました (+Mashita)Polite Affirmative Past Tense
行く (iku)
行き (iki)
+ました行きました(ikimashita) - went
飲む (nomu)
飲み (nomi)
+ました飲みました(nomimashita) - drank
話す (hanasu)話し (hanashi)
+ました話しました(hanashimashita) - spoke

Remember that for Group 1 verbs, we change the end of the verb stem to the 2nd row of the hiragana chart (the い row). Then add “ました” to the suffix to form the past tense of the verb.

 

Example Sentences

  1. 病院に行きました。(Byouin ni ikimashita): I went to the hospital.
  2. お母さんと話しました。(Okaasan to hanashimashita): I spoke with my mother.

 

Group 2 Verbs – るVerbs

Dictionary Form2nd Row Stem+ました (+Mashita)Polite Affirmative Past Tense
食べる (taberu)
食べ (tabe)
+ました食べました (tabemashita) - ate
見る (miru)
見 (mi)
+ました見ました (mimashita) - saw
寝る (neru)寝 (ne)
+ました寝まし (nemashita) - slept/went to sleep

For Group 2 verbs, we add “ました ” to the verb stem.

 

Example Sentences

  1. ピザを食べました。 (Piza o tabemashita): I ate pizza.
  2. 10時に寝ました。 (Juji ni nemashita): I went to sleep at 10.

 

Group 3 Verbs – Irregular Verbs

Dictionary Form2nd Row Stem+ました (+Mashita)Polite Affirmative Past Tense
する (suru)
し (shi)+ましたしました (shimashita) - did
来る (kuru)


来 (ki)+ました来ました (kimashita) - came

Change the irregular verbs する and 来る to a stem based on the 2nd row of the hiragana chart, as we did with the masu form. Then add “ました” to form the past tense of the verb.

 

Example Sentences

  1. 宿題をしました。 (Shukudai o shimashita): I did my homework.
  2. 友達が家に来ました。 (Tomodachi ga ie ni kimashita): My friend came to my house.

 

Polite Negative Past Tense FormA light tan background with a painting of green bamboo on the right side. The title, "Japanese Past Tense Verbs: Polite Negative Paste Tense Form" is written in black in the center

Next, let’s look at the negative past tense form.

 

Group 1 Verbs -う Verbs

Dictionary Form2nd Row Stem+ませんでした (Masendeshita)Polite Negative Past Tense
読む (yomu)

読み (yomi)+ませんでした読みませんでした
(yomimasendeshita) - didn’t read
買う (kau)買い (kai)+ませんでした買いませんでした
(kaimasendeshita) - didn’t buy
分かる (wakaru)分かり (wakari)+ませんでした分かりませんでした
(wakarimasendeshita) - didn’t understand

As with the affirmative form, change the suffix of the verb stem to the 2nd row of the hiragana chart, and add “ませんでした.”

 

Example Sentences

  1. あの本を読みませんでした。 (Ano hon o yomimasen deshita): I didn’t read that book.
  2. 牛乳を買いませんでした。 (Gyunyu o kaimasen deshita): I didn’t buy milk.

 

Group 2 Verbs – るVerbs

Dictionary Form2nd Row Stem+ませんでした (Masendeshita)Polite Negative Past Tense
開ける (akeru)
開け (ake)+ませんでした開けませんでした
(akemasendeshita) - didn’t open
できる (dekiru)でき (deki)+ませんでしたできませんでした
(dekimasendeshita) - couldn’t do
起きる (okiru)起き (oki)+ませんでした起きませんでした
(okimasendeshita) - didn’t wake up

For Group 2 verbs, add -ませんでした to the stem to form the negative past tense verb.

 

Example Sentences

  1. 窓を開けませんでした。 (Mado o akemasen deshita): I didn’t open the window.
  2. 間に合うことができませんでした。 (Ma ni au koto ga dekimasen deshita): I couldn’t get there on time.

 

Group 3 Verbs – Irregular Verbs

Dictionary Form2nd Row Stem+ませんでした (Masendeshita)Polite Negative Past Tense
する (suru)

し (shi)
+ませんでしたしませんでした
(shimasendeshita) - didn’t do
来る (kuru)来 (ki)+ませんでした来ませんでした
(kimasendeshita) - didn’t come

As we did above, change the irregular verbs する and 来る to a stem based on the 2nd row of the hiragana chart. Then add “ませんでした” to form the negative past tense of the verb.

 

Example Sentences

  1. 洗濯をしませんでした。 (Sentaku o shimasen deshita): I didn’t do the laundry.
  2. お父さんと一緒に来ませんでした。 (Otousan to issho ni kimasen deshita): I didn’t come with my father.

 

When to Use the Polite Form?Light Purple textured paper with orange and green pressed leaves in it. The title "When Should You Use the Polite Form?" is written in black in the center

Use the polite form when you are talking to a superior like a teacher, supervisor, coworkers, customers, people you don’t know or are meeting for the first time. Use the plain form (dictionary form) when talking to friends and family and coworkers with whom you have a close relationship.

SituationPolite FormPlain Form
Talking to nurses and doctors at the hospital when you are a patient
Talking to close coworkers at a party outside of work
Talking to your friend’s mother
Talking to a new neighbor who you just met

 

Japanese Past Tense Verbs—Casual/Plain FormThe side of a Japanese style wall and roof. The wall is light brown, and the title, "Japanese Past Tense Verbs: Casual Plain Form" is written.

Now that you’ve studied the polite form of past tense verbs, you’re ready for the more difficult plain form, also known as the dictionary form.

The past tense of dictionary form verbs is conjugated by adding the following:

  1. -た・だ (-ta/da, affirmative past tense)
  2. -なかった (-nakatta, negative past tense)

 

Let’s look at how to conjugate the affirmative past tense.

Group 1 Verbs – う Verbs

If the verb ends in…the ending changes to…

った
った

った

した

いた
いだ

んだ

んだ
んだ

As you can see, the verb stem changes depending on the –う row ending of the verb. These changes are important, so let’s look at some examples of each.

 

Dictionary FormChanged Stem+た or だPlain Affirmative Past Tense
買う (kau)買っ (ka)+た
買った (katta) - bought
持つ (motsu)
持っ (mo)+た
持った (motta) - had
分かる (wakaru)
分かっ (waka)+た
分かった (wakatta) - understood
話す (hanasu)
話し (hanashi)
+た話した (hanashita) - spoke
書く (kaku)
書い (kai)
+た書いた (kaita) - wrote
泳ぐ (oyogu)泳い (oyoi)+だ泳いだ (oyoida)- swam
読む (yomu)
読ん (yon)+だ読んだ (yonda) - read
遊ぶ (asobu)
遊ん (ason)+だ
遊んだ (asonda) - played
死ぬ (shinu)死ん (shin)
+だ
死んだ (shinda) - died
行く (iku)
行っ (i)+た行った (itta) - went

**The exception to this is 行く, which changes to 行った rather than 行いた.

 

Example Sentences

  1. 手紙を書いた。 (Tegami o kaita): I wrote a letter.
  2. 新聞を読んだ。 (Shinbun o yonda): I read a newspaper.
  3. 新しい車を買った。 (Atarashii kuruma o katta): I bought a new car.

 

Group 2 Verbs – るVerbs

Dictionary FormVerb Stem+たPlain Affirmative Past Tense
食べる (taberu)食べ (tabe)+た食べた (tabeta) - ate
見る (miru)見 (mi)
+た見た (mita) - saw
寝る (neru)寝 (ne)
+た寝た (neta) - slept/went to sleep

The Group 2 past tense verb conjugation is much easier. Just add “た” to the verb stem.

 

Example Sentences

  1. あの映画を見た。 (Ano eiga o mita): I saw that movie.
  2. 友達とレストランで食べた。 (Tomodachi to resutoran de tabeta): I ate with my friend at a restaurant.

 

Group 3 Verbs – Irregular Verbs

Dictionary Form2nd Row Stem+たPlain Affirmative Past Tense
する (suru)し (shi)+たした (shita) - did
来る (kuru)来 (ki)+た来た (kita) - came

Form the irregular past tense verb by adding “た” to the irregular verb stem.

 

Example Sentences

  1. 何をした? (Nani o shita): What did you do?
  2. どこから来た? (Doko kara kita): Where did you come from?

 

Plain/Casual Negative  Past Tense VerbsA painting of a tree and branches. The title, "Plain Casual Negative Past Tense Verbs written over the tree on a black transparent rectangle

Next, we will look at the negative form of plain past tense verbs.

 

Group 1 Verbs -う Verbs

Dictionary Form1st Row Stem+なかったPlain Negative Past Tense
話す (hanasu)話さ (hanasa)
+なかった話さなかった (hanasanakatta) - didn’t speak
行く (iku)行か (ika)
+なかった行かなかった (ikanakatta) - didn’t go
飲む (nomu)飲ま (noma)
+なかった飲まなかった (nomanakatta) - didn’t drink
分かる (wakaru)分から (wakara)
+なかった分からなかった (wakaranakatta) - didn’t understand

For Group 1 verbs, change the end of the verb stem to the 1st row of the hiragana chart (the あ row). Then add “なかった” to form the negative past tense verb.

 

Example Sentences

  1. 公園に行かなかった。 (Koen ni ikanakatta): I didn’t go to the park.
  2. ビールを飲まなかった。 (Biiru o nomanakatta): I didn’t drink beer.

 

Group 2 Verbs – るVerbs

Dictionary FormVerb Stem
+なかったPlain Negative Past Tense
食べる (taberu)
食べ (tabe)+なかった食べなかった (tabenakatta) - didn’t eat
見る (miru)
見 (mi)
+なかった見なかった (minakatta) - didn’t see
寝る (neru)寝 (ne)+なかった寝なかった (nenakatta) - didn’t sleep/go to sleep

For Group 2 verbs, add “なかった” to the verb stem to form the negative past tense.

 

Example Sentences

  1. その看板を見なかった。 (Sono kanban o minakatta): I didn’t see that sign.
  2. 昼ごはんを食べなかった。 (Hirugohan o tabenakatta): I didn’t eat lunch.

 

Group 3 Verbs – Irregular Verbs

Dictionary FormIrregular Stem

+なかったPlain Negative Past Tense
する (suru)
し (shi)+なかったしなかった (shinakatta) - didn’t do
来る (kuru)
来 (ko)+なかった来なかった (konakatta) - didn’t come

Form the irregular past tense verb by adding “なかった” to the irregular verb stem. Note that the reading of 来 changes to “ko” in the plain negative form.

 

Example Sentences

  1. 何もしなかった。 (Nani mo shinakatta): I didn’t do anything.
  2. 誰も来なかった。 (Dare mo konakatta): Nobody came.

 

More Information About the Plain FormA zen sand garden, with one rock in the upper right hard corner, and streaks of sand that was raked to look like a wave. The title, "When to Use the Plain Form" is written in the upper right hand corner

Use the plain form when talking to family, friends, and coworkers with whom you are close. When in doubt about whether to use the plain form or not, follow the other person’s lead. (Note that this doesn’t apply with a superior like a supervisor or teacher, who may use the plain form with you, but you should still use the polite form when replying.) You’ll often see the plain form in writing, such as in novels and newspaper articles.

By now, you should be familiar with all types of Japanese past tense verbs. We’ve covered the polite and casual forms of both affirmative and negative verbs. Now you’re ready to talk about the past and completed actions. Use this guide as a reference as you continue to learn new verbs, and eventually, you will be able to automatically conjugate new verbs. Happy studying!

 

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