Japanese non-past (present/future) tense, “will”, and intention

By | July 31, 2017

One of the nice things about the Japanese language is that it has relatively few grammatical tenses, at least compared to languages like English which can get quite messy. Knowing a handful of tenses can get you pretty far, although you do have to memorize the conjugation for each category of verbs.

In this post I want to talk about the tense which I learned as the “non-past” tense, also called the “present/future” tense. In the plain (i.e. non-desu/masu) form, it is also called the “dictionary” form, because it is the tense you look up words in a dictionary with. Here is a few commonly used verbs in the “non-past” tense, just to make sure we are all on the same page:

  • 食べる (taberu): eat
  • 飲む (nomu): drink
  • 開ける (akeru): open

As you might guess, the “non-past” tense represents things that are not in the past, which generally means they are in the present or future. (By the way, ongoing things, which are often expressed with “-ing” in English, in Japanese use a combination of the -te form and some form of the verb iru, for example “食べている” (tabete iru)).

You can start to see that while less tenses seems convenient, the tradeoff is there is more ambiguity about exactly what a verb means.

Lets look at simple example:

  • 僕はリンゴを食べる  (boku ha ringo wo taberu)

Can you tell if this is talking about the present or future? Actually, out of context this sentence can refer to either.

If it was in the middle of a story which was written partially or fully in the present tense, this could be interpreted in the present tense, as in “I eat the apple”.

However, if 「僕はリンゴを食べる」 was said in response to the question 「明日、何する?」 (What are you doing tomorrow?”), the phrase would refer to the future, as in “I will eat an apple”.

Notice the word “will” here is used. It is interesting to note this word does exist in Japanese. In English, “will” can simply represent something will happen in the future (ex: “It will rain tomorrow”) or it can represent a person’s intention (“I will never do that”).

However, it should be understood that the “non-past” form does not always translate to a sentence containing “will”. For example,

  • 僕は頭痛がする  (boku ha zutsuu ga suru)

In many contexts this sentence can translated as “I have a headache”, although if it was used in the context of drinking too much alcohol, it could be interpreted as, “(if I drink too much), I will get a headache”.

Let’s look at another example and see how intention factors in.

If someone gave you present and then asked you if you opened it yet, would this be a good way to respond?

  • 僕はプレゼントを開けない。(boku ha prezento wo akenai)

(Note: 開けない is the negative non-past form of 開ける)

In fact, this would be a horrible way to answer since it is likely to be interpreted as meaning, “I will not open the present.”

To clarify, you can use the “-te iru” form I referred to above, which represents a state of “not opening the present”. You can also add the word まだ (mada, ‘not yet’) to be more clear.

  • 僕はプレゼントをまだ開けていない。 (boku ha prezento wo mada akete inai)
  • I haven’t opened the present yet.

This discussion about ‘non-past’ verbs also applies to i-adjectives (ex: 寒い, “samui”) since those have an embedded verb (in the sense of “it is cold”).

For example:

  • 明日は寒いよ。(Ashita ha samui yo)
  • Tomorrow it will be cold.

(Note: here the “yo” particle gives the connotation that new information is being presented to the listener. While the sentence is grammatically correct without it, it feels a little dry to me.)

Here because 明日 (“tomorrow”) is specified, it is clear we are talking about the future, hence “will” is used in the translation.

Another way to state the same thing in a slightly less ambiguous way is using the word なる (naru, “to become”) after the ku form of the verb:

  • 明日は寒くなるよ。(Ashita ha samuku naru yo)
  • Tomorrow it will be cold.

There sense of “will” is even stronger here since the sentence is talking about “becoming” colder, which implies it is not cold now. Note that this instance of “will” does not refer to someone’s intention, but instead something expected or known to occur in the future.

Finally, there are some words or expressions that help clarify the meaning of the non-past verb tense. Let me give you one example of this.

  • いつか分かるよ。 (itsuka wakaru yo)

To put this in context, just imagine sometime is telling you that you will understand something eventually. As 「分かる」 is in the non-past form it can refer to the present or future. Even though「いつか」(someday) does help to clarify we are talking the future (and this sentence in fact can be used as-is), you could use the form ” 〜ようになる” (~you ni naru) which is used to express something “coming to be” in the future.

  • いつか分かるようになるよ。 (itsuka wakaru you ni naru yo)
  • Someday you’ll understand.

Here is another example which works off the non-past potential verb tense (ex: 食べられる, “to be able to eat”), which is basically equivalent to “〜ことができる” (ex: 食べることが出来る).

  • 毎日勉強したら、小説を読める (mainichi benkyou shitara, shousetsu wo yomeru)

While someone could guess what you are trying to say here, there is some vagueness because the verb ”読める” (to be able to read) could refer to the present or the future.

To clarify this sentence is talking about the future, “~you ni naru” can be used again to express being able to do something in the future (which you can’t now).

Using that pattern gives us:

  • 毎日勉強したら、小説を読めるようになる
  • If (I/you) study every day, (I/you) will be able to read novels.

Thanks for reading!

(Note: The volitional verb form is another way to express will in Japanese.)

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