Learning the Japanese sentence structure is probably one of the most taxing challenges for any language learner. The Japanese language presents the same hurdle and can be especially tricky for native English speakers. Nevertheless, proper Japanese sentence structure is a baseline for communication – without it, all your sentences will sound like baby talk!
This article tells you all about Japanese sentence structure to help you make Japanese sentences. It also points to the ins and outs of Japanese as a whole to help these words make even more sense!
- 1 Japanese Sentence
- 2 Japanese Sentence Structure vs. English
- 3 What is a Japanese sentence?
- 4 Japanese Sentence Structure Rules
- 5 How to Write a Sentence in Japanese
- 6 What are particles?
- 7 How to Write Questions in Japanese
- 8 Making natural-sounding Japanese sentences
- 9 Advanced tips for Japanese Sentences
Learning to create a Japanese sentence is the next step you’ll definitely take once you’ve familiarized the Japanese alphabet and have gained quite a good vocabulary.
You’ll need to learn the Japanese sentence structure and the rules that govern them. However, you only need the basic sentence structure and important rules to help you express yourself in the language. The basic Japanese sentence structure will allow you to build a hundred or more sentences.
Japanese Sentence Structure vs. English
Every language is made up of ideas that form themselves into words. These words are smashed together to form sentences that we speak and communicate. And believe it or not, these sentences are entire creatures of their own!
No, really. Once words are used to form sentences, they take on another character that’s dictated by the physical nature of the sentence itself. These words and ideas then become elements and take on the name of noun or adjective, just to name a couple. Through such classification, linguists can apply reason and compartmentalization to all languages known to man.
Unfortunately for English speakers, the basis of Japanese sentence structure is diametrically opposite to that of English sentence structures! Those elements we just mentioned just don’t organize themselves in English the same way they do in Japanese.
That’s important to note. Moreover, without at least some idea of how a Japanese sentence is structured, you won’t know how to connect complex thoughts. Even with an extensive vocabulary, the connective glue will be missing. So while you can make sense of the sophisticated babble offered by native Japanese speakers, you’ll fall short of a fair exchange.
Have a closer look at this phenomenon below.
English Sentence Structure
In English, the basic sentence structure is made up of the following: subject, verb, object.
These can be abbreviated as S, V, and O, respectively. This is known as the SVO structure. Thus, English sentences are formed:
S + V + O
Here’s a short sentence to help you visualize this function in action:
Harry + eats + pizza.
Harry would be the subject, eats is the verb, and pizza is the object being eaten.
Japanese Sentence Structure
The Japanese sentence structure is also made up of the same components as English sentences: subject, verb, object.
However, the basic structure of a Japanese sentence is kind of flipped. It doesn’t follow the same sentence structure with the English sentence. A Japanese sentence uses this basic pattern: subject – object – verb.
S + O + V
As you can see, in the subject-object-verb pattern, the word order of the verb and object in English is interchanged in a Japanese sentence.
Here’s an example:
かれはてをあらいます. (kare wa te wo araimasu.)
He washes (his) hands.
He is the subject, his hands are the object receiving the action, and washes is the verb itself.
Yet and still, Japanese structuring isn’t hard to master. In fact, compared to English and other romance languages, Japanese isn’t very grammar heavy. Words don’t really change based on aspect, number, sentence topic, and other stuff like that. Once you get used to its unique structure, the Japanese language is actually easier to maneuver than English is!
Note: Due to a grammatical quirk of the language, there are both a topic and subject within Japanese. However, sometimes they are used interchangeably as we’ve demonstrated above.
What is a Japanese sentence?
A long, long time ago, you learned in school what defines a sentence in English. Technically, a sentence is a simple clause or idea that contains a subject and a predicate. The subject is what the sentence is about, and the predicate is what is said about the subject.
In English, even the simplest of sentences must contain at least one subject and one verb. It’s a little bit different for Japanese speakers.
In order to be grammatically correct, Japanese sentences only require one verb. Of course, they can be and often are more complex than just that, but it’s not necessary. And so, if you want to say that you understand something, you can simply say わかる (wakaru). We’ll debrief you on why this is possible in just a moment.
Japanese Sentence Structure Rules
There are also some hard rules about Japanese that every Japanese speaker should know. These rules are completely unchanging and you’ll never have to worry about some weird anomaly where the rule doesn’t apply. Yay Japanese!
Japanese is not a romantic language and, therefore, has no gender. There are no masculine, feminine, or neutral nouns. So while gender as a general concept does manipulate the language to some degree, it’s not a true function within the language.
Articles are words like a, an, and the in English. In Japanese, these words/articles simply do not exist. Yay again for Japanese!
No noun inflection
Inflection is to a noun, and conjugation is to a verb. In other words, how the noun changes based on gender, number, grammatical structure, etc. In the Japanese language, nouns are basically immutable! (so much so that it’s made this list)
If a noun ever is to change in meaning, it’s done by way of a prefix or suffix to which the original unchanging noun is added. Which means… the nouns never change! How sweet a fact it is~
No future tense
There is no future tense in the Japanese language – only present and past. The present tense form of a verb is used to represent the future in a Japanese sentence.
So the sentence かのじょはたべます (kanojo wa tabemasu | 彼女は食べます) can mean either “she eats” or “she will eat.” Again, it’s all about context!
Verbs come last
Verbs in Japanese grammar always come last. Simple as that. So while a sentence can contain many verbs which appear somewhere within the sentence, a final verb will always appear at the end of the sentence.
How to Write a Sentence in Japanese
Using the verb です in Japanese
This verb is the first verb any respectable Japanese teacher will teach their students. です(desu) is usually taught as the verb “to be” in English – that includes all the English-equivalent conjugations, being “is,” “am,” and “are.”
Technically, this makes です (desu) a copula that connects the predicate and subject of a sentence as well as a verb. Here are some examples of です in action.
This is Mr. Tanaka.
kore wa tanaka san desu
Mom is already fine. Thanks.
okaasan wa mou genki da yo. arigatou
I don’t really like cats.
neko wa amari sukijanai desu
We’ve included both the formal and informal forms of です (desu) in the sentences above. Both are used quite frequently, and sometimes the short form だ (da) is used with other grammatical transformations. For a fuller understanding of how to use desu in Japanese, check out our in-depth article on Japanese verbs!
When our friend です (desu) is conjugated to one of its past tense forms, it reflects the English “was” and “were.” Keep in mind, again, that any pluralization of this verb is implied only since there are no plural verb forms in Japanese. Here are a few past tense examples:
That person was really nice.
ano hito wa hontou ni rakkii datta
I was shy when I was in elementary school.
shougakusei no toki ni rin wa hazukashigariya deshita
What are particles?
Particles are grammatical tools that basically define the roles of each part of a sentence. There are quite a few particles in Japanese, and each has its own function. You should think of them as being the “of, in, on, at, to” et cetera of English. Particles add to the overall fluidity of Japanese and are a major reason why the language allots the amount of freedom that it does.
Using Japanese Particles
Let’s briefly look at how to use particles in Japanese just for the sake of understanding Japanese sentence structures better.
Each of the particles in Japanese, while serving a specific purpose, can also be used in several contexts. What’s more, the Japanese language uses what are called post-positions instead of prepositions, which are used in English.
These post- and pre-positions essentially show the relationship between different parts of a sentence. In English, they appear before the noun (hence, the pre), but in Japanese, they appear after the noun (hence, the post).
Let’s take the Japanese particles は (ha) and に (ni), for example. は is used to denote the subject of a sentence while に is used to denote movement and time, among other things. While in English, you might say “we went to the store,” you’d have to say わたしたちはみせにいきました (watashitachi ha mise ni ikimashita | 私たちは店に行きました).
“We” would be the subject of the sentence, while the “store” is the subject of where movement occurs. In both cases, it’s clear that the piece/particle that connects the subject to the action comes after the subject itself.
Okay, and what about the particle も (mo), which is the inclusive Japanese particle meaning “also” or “as well”? You guessed it–it also follows the corresponding subject:
Kyuushuu is also hot, right?
kyuushuu mo atsui desu ne
The も (mo) here refers to 九州 (kyuushuu) which is explicit since it comes directly before the particle. This post-positional particle structure in Japanese will never fail, so keep that in mind when creating Japanese sentences.
Note: There are enough Japanese particle functions to throw a book at. Mastering them takes time, so don’t sweat the journey. But a healthy piece of advice considering English vs Japanese sentence structure and particles is this: In English, the word order tells us who/what did what. In Japanese, the particles tell us who/what did what. Look to the particles for guidance!
How to Write Questions in Japanese
If you are to concern yourself with generating a Japanese sentence, of course, you’ll want to know how to create questions in Japanese.
In English, a question sentence is recognizable depending on two things. The first is whether or not one of the question words is present – you know, the 5Ws and 1H. The second is the ending intonation of the sentence.
To ask a question that doesn’t have a question word in English, just increase the ending intonation. “He’s really a woman?”. Did you catch that extra pitch increase at the last part of “woman”? Yup, that’s it.
In order to make Japanese question sentences, you need the help of the particle (ka). か is a particle with many functions, and this is one of them; any sentence that ends in か becomes a question. Even when the question words are used in the sentences, this Japanese particle must still be added on.
What time is it now?
ima nanji desu ka
Where is the takoyaki shop?
takoyakiya wa doko desu ka
Did the train arrive? Quick!
densha ga tsuitaka. hayai!
Something like that
The か (ka) will always go at the very end of the sentence after the verb.
Note: At a more advanced spoken level, Japanese questions are created in the same way English questions are by the use of intonation. This happens at the advanced written level too, and that’s when the question mark becomes useful in Japanese writing!
Also, sometimes it pops up after the question particle か anyway, but it’s a redundant addition in such cases.
Making natural-sounding Japanese sentences
The Japanese language runs deep. With all the words and particles and grammatical structures, deconstructing a sentence can be a real headache – and let’s not even talk about constructing a sentence! Not to mention, making a sentence is one thing, but making it sound natural is another thing entirely.
But fear not – we’ve drawn up a super simple map to remember how to create fluent Japanese sentences! Here’s the general order you should look for and follow to make natural-sounding sentences:
Main topic/subject > time > location > [[verb > subject]] > indirect object > direct object > verb
Okay, we know what you’re thinking – can there be more than one subject in a sentence? Yes, there can! Actually, very often, sentences have more than one subject and in a number of ways at that. Consider this English sentence example:
“When Larry got home, his wife was cooking dinner.”
Both Larry and his wife are subjects of this sentence – and here’s just one example. There are also sentences like “my mom and my sister did blah blah blah” where both mom and sis are sentence subjects.
Remember, this is about as complicated as it gets. By no means does a sentence need to have all of these components (they usually don’t), but this is the order to look for! To emphasize how this entire sentence structure might play out in a real Japanese sentence, we’ve created an example below:
While reading a book at 2:30 in the library, my big brother gave water to the dog.
boku wa nijihan ni toshokan de hon o yominagara oniisan ga inu ni mizu o agemashita
Very often the time or location is placed before the topic as well. Also, keep in mind that we’re referring to non-specific time here, like the month of the year or time of day.
senshuu ni imouto ha yatto sotsugyoushita! | 先週に妹はやっと卒業した！
Last week my little sister finally graduated!
The non-specific time of “last week” comes before the subject “little sister” in this sentence. “Clock time” or specific time will almost always be placed after the subject.
Advanced tips for Japanese Sentences
Sure, we demonstrated some nifty applications above to help with forming a Japanese sentence… but what about everything else? Where, when, who, how, and all the good stuff needs to take its proper place within any sentence, or else things just don’t fall into place as they should. It’s something that English speakers know all too well.
To put it to the test, take a look at the 2 English sentences below. We’ve rearranged the time placement in each sentence. Decide which you feel is most correct:
“I will at 1 o’clock go fishing tomorrow.”
“I will go fishing tomorrow at 1 o’clock.”
Sure, you’ll get your point across with the first sentence, but it isn’t grammatically correct. Other times, even when an element is more grammatically flexible, some placements sound much better than others. Here’s another example:
“He probably thinks you don’t like him.”
“He thinks probably you don’t like him.”
See what we’re getting at? The second sentence just doesn’t sound right to the native English ear. Well, in the same vein, Japanese grammar has its own feng shui and rhythm too. Some placement rules are never broken, while others are rarely broken.
As you move along with your studies, you’ll eventually get a feel of what’s right and what’s wrong. Until that time comes, you’ll speed up the journey by remembering a few things along the way. And so, here they are!
Omitting Japanese Subjects
We’ve been taught that the topic or main subject usually comes first in the Japanese language. And while that’s true, In reality, the Japanese language is extremely context-sensitive and lets you omit information wherever it can be inferred from the context.
That means that if the Japanese can help it, they’ll never disclose a sentence’s subject! And believe it or not, it’s a tool used by Japanese natives to sound more fluid and less robotic while conversing in day-to-day conversation. For this reason, it’s possible to have a sentence with just a verb if the context is implied.
Remember we said earlier that simply saying わかる (wakaru), or, “I understand” can be a complete sentence? Well, if your mom has been explaining to you how to load the laundry for the past 10 minutes and you say わかる, it’s implied that the “understanding” is referring to yourself. For that reason, the sentence subject doesn’t need to be specified.
Get used to relying on context clues to make left from right when it comes to Japanese sentences.
Shortening Japanese Words
Just like any other language, Japanese too has its own slang, lazy words, mumblers, and what have you. What’s more common and accepted of these all within the Japanese language is the shortening of words.
For example, the Japanese word for “excuse me” is すみません(sumimasen), but oftentimes you’ll find this word said and written as すいません (suimasen) instead. It’s usually rather easy to comprehend the meaning based on the sound and situation, but don’t be surprised if it crosses your path.
Non-Ending Japanese Verbs
Okay, we know we said that verbs absolutely always come at the end of a sentence, but that was only 99% true! (whoops!) At a very advanced and casual level, sometimes the subject or object of a sentence is placed at the end of a sentence in Japanese.
In such cases, the sentence will finish with a hanging particle. This way of speaking probably came about due to the fact that sentence subjects can so easily be omitted in Japanese. So frequently, folks just get straight to the clause or main idea of what they’re trying to say.
From there, they sometimes decide that the subject or object should be specified and throw it onto the end of the sentence. Here are some examples:
It’s hot! (today, that is)
samui, kyou wa!
It hasn’t been paid yet (the money, that is)
mada harawanai yo, okane wo
We would highly recommend not to focus on this point until you’ve come to a pretty advanced level in Japanese, but we thought you should know anyway! Now that you’ve learned how to form sentences in Japanese, try writing simple or complex sentences (if you’d like some challenge).
がんばってください (Ganbatte kudasai)! ^^