Mastering the art of chain conjugation

I’ve noticed a particularly difficult part of learning Japanese is getting used to multiple layers of conjugation, which is all too common in Japanese. It’s not just enough to get really good at quickly doing all the different types of conjugations, you have to be able to do several simultaneously and instantly recognize the same during conversations.

A confusing example would be something like: 「それ、よくなくない?」 meaning “Isn’t that not good?” If you want to be facetious, you can keep going such as, 「よくなくなくない」、「よくなくなくなくない」、 and so on.

I don’t know of any good tools or books that address this skill so I suggested to my students to just practice some common (and perhaps not so common) combination with various nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

For example, a very common scenario would be various conjugations for the 「たい」 and potential forms. Common expressions include things like “I can’t go”, “I didn’t want to say this”, “I couldn’t do anything”, etc. There’s a whole host of other combination you can play with for practice.

Try the following chain conjugations with random verb and adjective phrases. They are ordered roughly by difficulty. The goal is to to be able to do it instinctively and almost instantaneously with little to no cognitive processes.

I can’t [Verb]

  1. I didn’t want to [Verb].
  2. He/she/it doesn’t seem very [Adjective].
  3. I couldn’t [Verb] for him/her.
  4. You may not have to [Verb].
  5. You didn’t even try to [Verb].
  6. It looks like he/she didn’t [Verb].
  7. If you don’t want to [Verb], you don’t have to [Verb].
  8. I was told that I must try to [Verb].
  9. I didn’t want to be made to [Verb].
  10. I think it’s better that you don’t [Verb] too much.
  11. Even if you didn’t want to [Verb], there’s a nicer way to refuse, isn’t there?
  12. If you suppose the he/she always does too much [Verb], there’s no way he/she didn’t do [Verb] today.

Are there any chain conjugation you found particularly useful or challenging?

Scroll down for some sample answers. Make sure you give it a try yourself before you look, though!

  1. したくなかった。
  2. あまり優しくなさそう。
  3. 買ってあげられなかった
  4. 行かなくてもいいかもしれない。
  5. 書こうともしなかった。
  6. 来なかったみたいだ。
  7. 見たくなければ、見なくてもいいよ。
  8. やらなくてはならないと言われた。
  9. 飲まさせられたくなかったんだよ。
  10. 食べ過ぎない方がいいと思う。
  11. 行きたくなかったとしても、もっと親切な断り方があるでしょう?
  12. いつも飲み過ぎるとしたら、今日は飲まなかったわけがない。


9 thoughts on “Mastering the art of chain conjugation

  1. Good suggestion. I am now struggling with shiekiukemi form. It’s really a tongue twister! hehee

  2. Not so much change conjugations, but I find long strung out adjectival/relative clauses to be a pain sometimes.

    Example: I couldn’t find Bob’s cute, brown hamster that at my homework.
    Should this be
    or some other variation?

    • I don’t know if such long phrases are practical in regular conversational Japanese however. I would think it would be broken up in pieces, in narrative form, normally.

      • Maybe not conversation, but they appear all the time in writing. But looking back through your post I see you are focusing more on conversation than reading/writing.

  3. I can happily produce this kind of thing if I’m speaking/writing Japanese, and translate it from Japanese to English, but I find it very difficult to go English > Japanese like this.

    • That’s fine. I kind of cheated when coming up with the examples because I thought of the Japanese then translated into English.

  4. An interesting exercise! My replies for the ones that differed (comments welcome):

    8. I was told that I must try to [Verb].

    11. Even if you didn’t want to [Verb], there’s a nicer way to refuse, isn’t there?


  5. My answers that differed grammatically, even if just a bit:

    2) あまり嬉しそうにない / あまり嬉しそうに(は)見えない
    4) 食べなくてもいいかも (essentially the same but without しれない)
    5) 食べてもみなかった
    6) 食べなかったみたい (essentially the same but without だ)
    7) 食べたくなかったら食べなくてもいいよ (たら conditional instead of ば)
    8) 食べてみなきゃって言われた
    9) 食べさせられたくない (I neglected the past tense)
    10) あまり食べない方がいいと思う
    11) 食べたくないとしてももっといい断り方があるでしょう
    12) いつも食べてばかりいると思うと今日食べないわけがない

    Interesting test. I’m really glad that I got stuffs that are exactly or essentially same 🙂

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