This is a basic glossary of terms that new users (or users from different 'tribes' of language learning) have come across. This list serves mainly as a cross reference, so that people who are used to using "Vmasu" and people who are used to seeing 連用形 can understand each other.

As a secondary goal, we attempt to describe technical linguistic vocabulary using simple terms. Note that the attempt to describe, not to define, so expect to see examples and contrasts, rather than precise definitions.

This is not a language textbook. We are making no attempt to comprehensively label all aspects of the Japanese language. More complex explanations should be left to questions on the actual site, or links to standard reference sources.

Please note that we're using technical linguistic terms in Japanese here. Although educated language teachers will probably know them, the average Japanese native speaker will be no more familiar with most of this terminology than the average English speaker is with terms such as "dative", "orthographical", and "deference index".

If you have questions, comments, or corrections, please feel free to either edit directly, or drop by the Japanese SE Chatroom.

  • 1
    Great idea... But how about putting them all in a single entry? Such as: "What are some useful linguistic terms I might meet on the site?" etc. Artificial, yes, but maybe easier than having to track each one individually?
    – Dave
    Jun 30, 2011 at 15:44
  • @Troyen: what? you want @YOU to make it CW? Sure... Still, I could have done it... (ok. stupid joke)
    – Dave
    Jun 30, 2011 at 16:41
  • I've took down the 'one answer per term' part from the question statement and decided to go with a single answer from the start. Let's see how it works.
    – ento
    Jun 30, 2011 at 17:03

3 Answers 3


Parts of Speech 〜 品詞(ひんし)

Common constructs

  • 文書{ぶんしょ} - Text - Any collection of writing
  • 文{ぶん} - Sentence(s)
  • 文節{ぶんせつ} - Phrase(s)
  • 単語{たんご} - Simple word
  • 熟語{じゅくご} - Compound word
  • 修飾語{しゅうしょくご} - Modifier
  • 主語{しゅご} - Subject
  • 客語{きゃくご} - Object (also called 目的語{もくてきご})
    • 直接目的語{ちょくせつもくてきご} - Direct object
    • 間接目的語{かんせつもくてきご} - Indirect object

Types of words/単語

General Linguistics Categorization

  • 自立語{じりつご} (Independent Words) - Lexical Words - Words that convey meaning
    • 名詞{めいし} - nouns
      • (する動詞) - Verbal Nouns
      • 形容動詞{けいようどうし} - Nominal Adjectives (na-adjectives)
    • 動詞{どうし} - Verbs
      • 形容詞{けいようし} - Adjectives (i-adjectives)
  • 付属語{ふぞくご} (Ancillary Words) - Function Words - Words that assist to build sentences

Traditional Japanese Scholarship Categorization

  • 自立語{じりつご} (Independent Words) - Lexical Words - Words that convey meaning
    • 活用語{かつようご} - lexical word classes which have inflections
      • 動詞{どうし} - verbs,
      • 形容詞{けいようし} - i-type adjectives.
      • 形容動詞{けいようどうし} - na-type adjectives (some claim these are not 活用語)
    • 非活用語{ひかつようご}・無活用語{むかつようご} - lexical word classes which do not have inflections
      • 名詞{めいし} - nouns
        • 代名詞{だいめいし} - pronouns
        • 数詞{すうし} - numbers
      • 副詞{ふくし} - adverbs
      • 接続詞{せつぞくし} - conjunctions
      • 感動詞{かんどうし} - interjections (also called 間投詞{かんとうし})
      • 連体詞{れんたいし} - prenominals (or adnominal)
  • 付属語{ふぞくご} (Ancillary Words) - Function Words - Words that assist to build sentences
    • 活用語{かつようご} - Ancillary word classes which have inflections
      • 助動詞{じょどうし} - Conjugatable function words such as 〜ます, 〜ない, etc.
      • 補助動詞{ほじょどうし} - Auxiliary (subsidiary) verbs such as 〜いる
      • 補助形容詞{ほじょけいようし} - Auxiliary (subsidiary) adjectives such as 〜ほしい
    • 非活用語{ひかつようご}・無活用語{むかつようご} - Ancillary word classes which do not have inflections
      • 助詞{じょし} - Particles
        • 格助詞{かくじょし} - Case particles
        • 並立助詞{へいりつじょし} - Parallel particles
        • 副助詞{ふくじょし} - Adverbial particles
        • 間投助詞{かんとうじょし} - Interjectory particles
        • 係助詞{かかりじょし} - Binding particles
        • 終助詞{しゅうじょし} - Sentence-final particles
        • 接続助詞{せつぞくじょし} - Conjunctive particles
        • 準体助詞{じゅんたいじょし} - Phrasal particles
      • 助数詞{じょすうし} - Counter words

A chart from wikipedia

Origins of words in Japanese

Words in Japanese generally come from one of three places

"Sound-effect"/mimetic words/onomatopoeia

There is some general information available at wikipedia.

  • 擬声語{ぎせいご} - phonomimes (animate) - mimetic words - sound effect words made by living things (with a voice)
  • 擬音語{ぎおんご} - phonomimes (inanimate) - sound made by inanimate objects
  • 擬態語{ぎたいご} - phenomimes - words that depict non-sounds
  • 擬情語{ぎじょうご} - psychomimes - words that depict psychological states (sometimes 擬態語)


Verb Categories

There are a few different, highly overlapping, ways of categorizing Japanese verbs. Note that some of these categories apply to a verb in all cases (such as transitive and intransitive), and some only apply to particular cases (such as volitional).

Stative Verbs vs Active Verbs

Stative verbs indicate existance and indicate continuity.(要る,できる) A verb whose base form is stative generally does not combine with the auxiliary -iru, although there are exceptions.

Active verbs refer to a single event. (such as 打つ or 知る) They usually will combine with the auxiliary -iru for a variety of meanings depending on more specific classifications.

Continual verbs vs Punctual Verbs

In general, the auxiliary -iru can add three different meanings:

  • Continuity : The action is still in-progress
  • Punctuality : The action is repeated on a regular basis (the base verb form ALSO can have this interpretation)
  • Resultative State : The action has been completed, and the state has been maintained.

Continual verbs can be extended with the auxiliary -iru to indicate continuity. (食べる) This description leaves the Punctual or Resultative interpretations as valid.

When extended with -iru, Punctual verbs indicate either repeated actions or a resultative state after an action (知る, 打つ), the term "Punctual verb" seems to exclude the continuative interpretation.

Non-volitional Verbs vs Volitional Verbs

Sometimes this is called "[-self-controllable]", as opposed to "[+self-controllable]". Volitional verbs are those that a subject can choose to embark on, rather than passive states or actions that are involuntary. Some constructs restrict whether volitional verbs can be used in them or not. This has nothing to do with the verbal conjugation that is often called the "volitional" (~ましょう).

Whether a verb is volitional or not can depend on context. Examples such as 投げる, 行く, and 知る are often volitional. While わかる, 見える, and most passive conjugations are generally non-volitional.

Movement Verbs

Verbs that indicate movement. This classification mostly exists to clarify which verbs use the を particle in a slightly different way. Examples include 行く、走る、散歩する.

Transitive 他動詞{たどうし} vs Intransitive 自動詞{じどうし} Verbs

Does the verb have a direct object? or not? Note that a handful of verbs may be intransitive and transitive with the same word.


Conjugation Group

This is a simple thing, but they're called by so many different names that it's nice to have a cross-reference guide.

  • Group I = 五段{ごだん} = "u-verbs" = consonant stem = "v5x" (where x indicates the category)
  • Group II = 一段{いちだん} = "ru-verbs" = vowel stem = "v1"
  • Group III = 変格{へんかく} = "irregular" (くる and する)

Note that there are some special cases (like ござる) which different classification systems put in different categories.


  • 辞書形{じしょけい} - -u - "Dictionary form" or 基本形{きほんけい} "Plain form"
    • 終止形{しゅうしけい} - "Terminal form" (plain form used at the end of a sentence)
    • 連体形{れんたいけい} - "Attributive form" or "adnominal form" (plain form used before a noun as a modifier)
  • 連用形{れんようけい} - -i - Vmasu - "Continuative form" - (Conjunctive, stem of the ~masu form)
    • 中止形{ちゅうしけい} - Continuative form used as a conjunction
  • 未然形{みぜんけい} - -a/o - Vneg - "Irrealis form" - (Negative stem)
  • 仮定形{かていけい} - -e - "Hypothetical form" (called 已然形{いぜんけい} "Realis form" in literary Japanese)
  • 命令形{めいれいけい} - -e - "Imperative form" or "Command form"

To avoid repeating information that is generally available on the web, for more details of Japanese verbal conjugation, consult wikipedia, particular Aaron Buchanan's excellent verb chart


English Terms for describing correctness


"grammatically correct" vs "semantically correct"

Grammatically correct means that a given sentence follows the rules for putting together a sentence, clause, phrase, or even word (such as a conjugation). A sentence can be grammatically correct but not make sense.

Chomsky's famous example of a grammatically correct but semantically incorrect sentence is "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously". All of the parts of speech are in the correct places and conjugated correctly (you can diagram this sentence quite easily), but it has no reasonable meaning.

Semantically correct means that the phrase has an intelligible meaning.

Grammatically incorrect but semantically correct phrases are much easier to come by. Just think of any phrase that everyone understands, but grammarians decry as "not real English". Something as simple as the "me no like" of a small child effectively communicates meaning, but without following the rules of the language.

Informal vs Colloquial vs Slang vs Vulgar

This is Cerberus's answer from English Language and Usage


  • This is the broadest, most neutral word. It just means that speech or writing is on the lower side of the formal–middle–informal spectrum. In informal situations, when your conduct is relaxed in all respects and etiquette matters less, you will use informal language accordingly.
  • Apart from that, it is neither negative nor positive; that's why it is the best term if you don't want to sound disapproving (and if colloquial is not an option).
  • There are various degrees of (in)formality: it is usually not a yes–no distinction.


Oxford English Dictionary: 2. spec. Of words, phrases, etc.: Belonging to common speech; characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language. (The usual sense.)

  • This is quite close to informal.
  • It is mostly used with speech rather than writing, though not necessarily so.
  • The word is also slightly stronger on average than informal (i.e. more informal).
  • It suggests a yes–no qualification: saying more colloquial is not so common.
  • It is usually neither positive nor negative, nor felt to be lower class.
  • However, the euphemism "colloquial at best" is often used to mean that it is bad style, referring to a colloquialism used in the wrong setting.


  • Slang can be a noun or an adjective; slangy means "resembling or constituting slang".
  • It is more often negative than positive—but it can still easily be positive.
  • In the formal–middle–informal spectrum, it is more informal than colloquial or informal.
  • The word slang itself is a bit informal, while the other words on this page are not.

    Oxford English Dictionary: 1. a. The special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character; language of a low and vulgar type. [notice vulgar used ambiguously]

    1. Originally, slang was language associated with low socio-economic class or character, and it is still used with that connotation, though by no means always.
    2. A secondary sense has developed, that of general "group talk" in a mildly disapproving or mocking way—even if this group isn't lower class. This sense is now arguably more common than the first. It is often used ironically, as in lawyer slang.
    3. A tertiary, entirely neutral sense, "any kind of non-standard group talk", is now commonly used in academia.


  • This means literally "of the people".The Oxford English Dictionary describes its development through the ages:

I. 3. Commonly or customarily used by the people of a country; ordinary, vernacular. In common use c 1525–1650; now arch.

II. 9. Belonging to the ordinary or common class in the community; not distinguished or marked off from this in any way; plebeian

II. 13. Having a common and offensively mean character; coarsely commonplace; lacking in refinement or good taste; uncultured, ill-bred.

  • It can now be used to describe language in two ways:
    1. The old-fashioned sense is as (II. 9.) above. It is still in use in dictionaries, but less frequent elsewhere.
    2. The modern sense is close to (II. 13.), "obscene" or "filthy" to a greater or lesser degree; the lower classes were supposed to be liable to such language, and this sub-sense of (1.) came to dominate the word. So this is obviously even less formal than slang in its lower-class sense. In dictionaries, vulgar could be (1.) or (2.).

Honorific speech in Japanese

Polite 丁寧語

Humble 謙譲語

Respectful 尊敬語

Include something about "Written Formal and Polite Formal"?

Include something about "Blunt vs Casual/Plain/Direct vs Polite/Distal"?

  • Ahem... you gonna kill me, after suggesting all terms should be in a single answer. But I think "Levels of politeness" would warrant a whole question/FAQ entry of its own. That being said, nothing wrong with a bit of redundancy and a short definition here that links to a much longer debate...
    – Dave
    Jun 30, 2011 at 23:27
  • Edited to give a little more structure.. Though I think I'm not the right person to guide the way to a reasonably structured glossary/primary reading material, as I'm not well versed in those grammatical terms, especially about politeness (over half of my questions are about honorifics). So I humbly ask for someone to provide a better fleshed-out draft than mine..
    – ento
    Jul 1, 2011 at 2:23
  • (1) Note that there are different ways to classify honorific speech (敬語) in Japanese. For example, 敬語の指針 (PDF) (Feb. 2007) proposes to classify honorific speech into five groups: 尊敬語, 謙譲語I, 謙譲語II, 丁寧語, and 美化語. (2) I guess that any attempt to define the terms such as “grammatically correct,” “formal,” “informal,” and “colloquial” is more or less controversial, and I doubt that community wiki works well for this kind of things. Jul 6, 2011 at 16:50
  • See also some discussions around the topic “What does it mean for a certain usage of language to be ‘correct’?” in these comments and these comments. Jul 8, 2011 at 17:04
  • @Tsuyoshi Thanks to your comments, I'm beginning to think, or rather, see, that most linguistic 'glossary' would work better as separate questions on the main site. While giving a single definition to a linguistic term may be impossible or undesirable, I'm hoping we could at least build up an overview of which school is claiming what. If any of them turn out to be worthy enough, it can be linked to from the FAQ as "recommended materials" (perhaps at the bottom of the page, so as not to scare away new users).
    – ento
    Jul 12, 2011 at 17:27
  • Maybe the easiest way to treat grammaticality is to mention the Chomsky hierarchy and give example sentences of Japanese where the regular and context-free languages are insufficiently expressive to derive the sentence. To be honest, I don't see any other way to say anything meaningful about grammaticality without reference formal language theory.
    – taylor
    Aug 27, 2012 at 17:45
  • Part D "English as a Formal Language" in <a href="amazon.ca/Mathematical-Methods-Linguistics-Barbara-Partee/dp/… Methods in Linguistics</a> is a good discussion on assessing and interpreting semantics and phrase structures in English. Perhaps mimicking this in a meta such as "Japanese as a formal language" would be the best way to introduce readers to the computational approach to grammaticality.
    – taylor
    Aug 27, 2012 at 17:57
  • @taylor: I'm not sure we want to go that far. As far as I can see, we just want to contrast the different ways something can be 'wrong', but not really define them beyond that contrast.
    – jkerian
    Aug 28, 2012 at 15:28

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