Connecting ideas in Japanese: a high-level guide

By | May 14, 2014

When learning a foreign language, one first studies basic sentence order and practices building simple sentences with subject/verb. Once there is some comfortability with that, the next step is learning how to connect ideas either within or between sentences. This allows expression of more complex ideas and one step closer to fluency. Those who speak in single, unconnected simple subject/verb sentences will seem childish, or at the very least different, like the character Fukaeri in Murakami’s 1Q84.

There are tens if not hundreds of ways to connect sentences, but I’d like to group them into categories to make learning of them simple. Once you learn how each category works you can quickly add more words to your repertoire that fall in that category.

  • Connecting using verb forms
  • Conditionals using verb forms
  • Connecting with verb-following words
  • Connecting with sentence-beginning words

Let’s look at each of these in turn. I’ll keep the descriptions and examples simple to not overload you with too many details. Some of these forms I may go into greater detail in a future post. I will focus mostly on non-polite tense, but these grammar patterns can be equally applied to polite language. For example “だけど” => “ですけど”

Connecting using verb forms

This category involves connecting ideas by using a verb form other than the dictionary form (食べる). There are two verb forms which can be used for this, the te-form (i.e. 食べて) and the pre-masu form (i.e. 食べ). Both of these express the concept of doing a chain of actions in order, though they may be done at nearly the same time.


  • 学校から帰って食べて寝た。
  • I came home from school, ate, and went to sleep.
  • 負けたって言われてがっかりした。
  • I was told that I lost and I was disappointed.    (More natural but less literal: “I was disappointed to hear I lost”)

Though the te-form can be used to express a chain of events, it also can be used when describing things statically, such that the order of the verbs is not relevant. In this next example, the verbs do not specify an action, but rather the existence of an object.

  • 部屋にはベッドがあって、冷蔵庫があって、テーブルもあった。
  • In the room there was a bed, a refrigerator, and a table.

Because of this ambiguity, if you want to emphasize something happened “and then”, you can add から after the te-form. That way there is no doubt that the events happened at different times.

  • 学校から帰って食べてから寝た。
  • I came home from work, ate, and then went to sleep.

This form, and the one discussed next, are very useful for describing chains of events, but long sentences with many te-form verbs (without any other connecting words like そして or conditional words) can become awkward.

Pre-masu form:

The pre-masu form (made from the masu form of the verb minus the masu, i.e. 食べます=>食べ) is used much in the same way, though it is generally more polite and more often used in written Japanese.

  • たくさん食べ、元気になりました。
  • I ate a lot and felt better.
  • ペット屋さんで猫を買い、すぐ帰りました。
  • I bought a cat at the pet store and went right home.

Here you can see すぐ used after the pre-masu form indicate right after that verb something happened, and this can be used equally after the te-form.

There are other cases where the pre-masu form have similar meaning and usage to the te-form, for example this sentence.

  • 教えていただきありがとうございます。
  • Thank you very much for helping me.

In this sentence you could replace いただき with いただいて with roughly the same meaning.

Conditions using verb forms

In Japanese there are three basic verb forms used to express a conditional “if action then” or the result of some action “when action then”. They are the eba-form (ex. すれば), the ra-form(ex.したら), and the ‘verb + to’ form (ex. すると). The last is technically not a verb form since it uses the dictionary verb form, but it functions in much the same way.

  • 箱を開けたら空っぽだった。
  • 箱を開ければ空っぽだった。
  • 箱を開ける空っぽだった。
  • When I opened the box it was empty.

There are some difference in nuance with these forms, but I won’t go into them now except to say the eba-form has a more sense of ‘potential’ or ‘if’ (i.e. something that could happen) where as the other forms have more a ‘when I did…’ feel, meaning something that actually happened.

These forms can also also be used in the present continuous tense (i.e. してると). Roughly you can think of them “if I was ….ing, then…” or “when I was …ing, then …”.

  • テレビをみてたら急に消えた。
  • テレビをみていれば急に消えた。
  • テレビをみてる急に消えた。
  • When I was watching TV, suddenly it shut off.

Connecting with verb-following words

This category consists of words which are added immediately after a verb and can be used to connect phrases together.

Let’s look at an example sentence for “けど”, which is a pretty common word that can be used to mean “but”, “however”, or “although”.

  • 今から買い物に行くけど、一緒に行く?
  • I’m going to shopping now, so you want to come? [Lit: “… but do you want to come?”]

Here I added ‘so’ to make it sound natural in English, but that word isn’t explicitly in the Japanese sentence.

Here is an even simpler example:

  • このラーメン熱いけどおいしい!
  • This ramen (soup) is hot but tasty!

In the above examples, the verb-following word けど was used after する which is in the present tense. In the next example we’ll see how けど can also be used after a past-tense verb.

  • 今日、試験を受けたけど答えられない質問ばっかりだった。
  • Today I took a test, but it was only questions I couldn’t answer.

Here is a list of similar words:

  • けど 「sometimes prefaced by なの or なん」
  • けれど  「sometimes prefaced by なの or なん」
  • けれども  「sometimes prefaced by なの or なん」
  • が  (has a more formal tone and used more by older men)

Whereas the above words are used to connect words in a neutral way, のに is used to contrast two phrases and can often be translated as “even though”.

  • お金があるのにどうして買わないの?
  • Even though you have money, why don’t you buy it?
  • 勉強しなかったのに受かったの?
  • You passed (the test) even though you didn’t study?

Another verb-following word is し, which I discussed in this post.

Connecting with sentence-beginning words

These words function similar to the previous category, except they start at the beginning of a sentence. Since they aren’t at a the end of verb their form may change slightly.

  • だけど僕は諦めない!
  • But I won’t give up!
  • しかし僕はやってみる。
  • But I’ll try it (anyway).

Here are few words which can all be put at the beginning of a sentence and all can be used to mean “but”, “however”, or “although”.

  • でも
  • だけど
  • だけれど
  • だけれども
  • が/だが
  • しかし (more formal)

These phrases can be used in the beginning of sentences to contrast in the same way のに was used above.

  • なのに
  • それにしても/にしても

Let’s compare sentences of a verb following-word and a sentence-beginning word.

  • 僕は疲れた。だけど海に行こうと思ってるよ。
  • 僕は疲れたけど海に行こうと思ってるよ。
  • I’m tired but I’m thinking of going to the beach.

To me the second seconds (verb-ending connecting word) example is more natural and has better flow. But the first (sentence-beginning connecting word) has more of a dramatic feel because of the pause between sentences. It also makes the second phrase more of an afterthought.

Here is another list of words used at the beginning of the sentence to help connect sentences together.

  • そして [then, and then]
  • それから [then, and then]
  • それに   [in addition, moreover]
  • しかも [in addition, moreover]

Here is an example of それから which sounds dramatic like something from literature.

  • 雨がやんだ。そして男が現れた。
  • It stopped raining. Then a man appeared.

This group of words can also be used after the te-form.

  • 僕は仕事を終えてそして帰ってきた。
  • I finished work, and then came home.

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