This time I’d like to focus on the volitional form in Japanese which an important pattern often used in both written and spoken speech.
Many times I have seen this form introduced to beginner students of Japanese as meaning “Let’s …”, and while this is one of the common usages there are several more. I first learned this myself as simply “Let’s”, but when I came to sentences where this didn’t apply I was confused at first. So I’d like to lay out all the main uses of this form to avoid any problems.
In case you’re not too familiar with the english word volitional, I’ll quote one of the definitions for it from Dictionary.com:
Volitional – the act of willing, choosing, or resolving; exercise of willing.
The other definitions also relate in some way or another to the idea of a person’s will. It may be easier to think of this as related to someone’s intention, or a decision someone has made.
I’ll go over the verb conjugation rules briefly for those who are new to this grammatical form:
- Polite form:
- ーます ＝＞ ーましょう [たべます ＝＞ たべましょう]
- Casual form:
- Verb ending with a single う: …う ＝＞ …おう [かう＝＞かおう]
- Verb ending with a character that contains a ‘う’ sound (く／す／つ／ぬ／ふ／む／ゆ／る）: replace the う sound with the お version of that same sound , and add う [あるく＝＞あるこう] [かつ＝＞かとう]
- する ＝＞ しよう
- くる ＝＞ こよう
You can see more examples of conjugation here.
Use 1: When making a suggestion to one or more people which includes oneself (“Let’s” / “Shall we”)
This is the common case I mentioned above that is often taught first because it translates well to English and is easy to use in daily life.
The volitional form can be used either as a direct suggestion, or more as a question. First let’s look at a direct suggestion.
- Let’s eat.
You can add a “ね” after this form to impart a sense of friendliness, or a “よ” to give an stronger sense of urgency or emphasis.
- Let’s eat already.
If you use the same phrasing (without the “ね” or “よ”) you can change your tone to that of a question in order to be less pushy and imply the listener has more of a choice in the matter.
- Shall we eat?
You an also add a “か” to the end of this phrase, without a major change in meaning (it’s sounds slightly more formal to me though). Sometimes the う at the end can be shortened to a small tsu (っ） as in “食べよっか”, which has a casual feeling.
Use 2: When making a suggestion to one or more people which doesn’t include oneself.
You can use the volitional form even if the speaker is not included in the action. For example I recently heard the similar line in a drama, said by a bartender to a customer who had just entered the restaurant:
- Why don’t you sit down.
Depending on the situation, you could possibly use the “Let’s” form, because in English this can be used in cases where the speaker is not included (Ex: “Ok, let’s calm down now”)
Use 3: Talking about your intention/will without including others
In this case you are talking about your intention or will to do something that doesn’t involve others. It can either be an informal declaration to others nearby, or you could just be talking to yourself.
- (I think) I’ll take a walk now.
The English translation doesn’t really capture the entire connotation of the Japanese text here, but adding “I think” help’s get a bit closer.
It’s important to differentiate this usage from the normal non-past form (する), because that form has more certainty. For example:
- I will take a walk now.
Rather than emphasizing one’s decision or will to do an action, this dryly announces you are going to perform a certain action. It has a certain objective feel to it.
Use 4: Trying to decide between several options.
In this usage, rather than making a specific suggestion or declaration, you are instead expressing that you’re debating between several options.
This form can be used when you are thinking out loud, as in the following example. The “かな” used at the end signifies something is being actively thought about, and often the な sound is drawn out (written as “な〜”)to emphasize this.
- Which movie should I watch…
The “にする” expression, which means to decide something, is often used together with the volitional form:
- I wonder which flavor I should pick. (or “Which flavor should I pick…”)
Use 5: Offering to do a favor for someone
This usage is similar to the first one (making a suggestion to someone), except that you’re offering to help another person or do a favor for them.
- Shall I help ?
This example could also be also translated as “Let me help you” or “I’ll help”.
It’s very common to use the 〜てあげる form along with the volitional form for a more direct implication of helping someone.
- Shall I help ?
Use 6: Volitional + と思う to express thinking about something
This form is used when you want to talk about the fact you have a certain will or intention, without actually making an offer to someone directly. The 思う verb can be in various different tenses or even in the middle of a sentence.
- I’ve been thinking of going to the library.
Here is an example of someone talking about a past volition (intention).
- I was thinking of buying that magazine, but since it’s expensive I changed my mind.
Use 7: Volitional + と + decision verb
This form is used to express deciding about something either in the future or past.
- I decided to participate in the competition.
You can replace the verb 決める (to decide) with other similar verbs such as “決心する”.
A related expression is “Verb (dictionary form) + ことに + decision verb” which has roughly the same meaning.
- I decided to participate in the competition.
Use 8: Volitional + とする to express trying something
This form is used when you make an effort to do something. In some ways it is similar to the “〜てみる” form, except it seems to be used more often when something didn’t work out or if you are still trying it. Conversely I haven’t seen it used frequently for the present tense (i.e. “しようとする”).
- I tried to run a mile.
You can use this form when talking about someone else’s attempt at something.
- What are you trying to do?
It may help to think of this form as meaning “Make an effort to do ~”, whereas ”〜てみる” means “Try and see what happens”, with an emphasis on an uncertain outcome.
Use 9: Volitional + が + …
There are several ways to use this form, but here I’ll just talk about the most common one I’ve seen using “自由” (freedom).
- You’re free to do whatever you like.
In this case the part of the sentence before the が is treated like a noun phrase that is described by the part after the が。
You can stack two different actions to express freedom to choose either one, as in this example:
- You’re free to quit or continue as you like.
In both of these cases you’ll see the volitional form is focusing on the subjects ability to choose something.
Use 10: Volitional + が + verb (dictionary form) + まい + が
This form is used when you want to express “whether you to do X or don’t do X…”.
- I don’t care whether you believe or not.
I have mostly seen this form used in written, formal Japanese. (信じまい can also be written as 信じるまい)
I won’t give a detailed discussion of the “まい” form in this post, but adding ”まい” to a verb in the dictionary form roughly means the negative of that. For example, “ある + まい” = “ない” .
If you are interested in taking my latest mini-quiz on basic Japanese particles, please try it out here: testmoz.com/449328
1) The volitional form can also used together with the ~ている form to represent an intention or will to continually do something, as in this example:
- Let’s keep watching the ball.
Just as 〜ている is often shortened to 〜てる, ~ていよう is often shortened as 〜てよう。
- Let’s keep watching the ball.
2) If you want to express a will to not do something, you can use the “negative verb form + で + いよう” pattern.
- Let’s not do anything today.
3) I have seen the words だろう and でしょうalso categorized as volitional, and though they may have the same linguistic origin I suggest treating them as completely separate to avoid confusion. I have written a post about these words here.
…on this site…i’m in heaven…ahhhh
Might I ask, how do you manage to find the time to study so intensely as it seems you have done? And where do you manage to find the information for things like this? You sound very experienced which is fascinating… I wish I could study all day every day. I hope you keep putting up brilliant posts and great explanations like this. Thank you!
Thanks for the compliments, they are very motivating.
As to how I have been studying, I’ve written a few posts about that, especially in the first quarter or so of my 200+ posts.
But in general I would say I only study 2-3 hours a day at max, however I have done it consistently for over 15 years, with only a few breaks longer than a month. In Japanese this is called 地道。
Read as many of my other posts as you like, but if you have any specific questions feel free to ask anytime.
Hi, I wanted to ask what if I want to tranzlate this sentence to japanese …
゛after that time, Idecided that I don’t want to see him again by any means.＾
I think it is wrong to addたいbut i dont know how to express the sentence above lit. ?can you answer me please
I wrote a short article about your question here:
Greetings from Malaysia! I just want to thank you for the great article. This is definitely an underrated site.
Thanks for the kind words! If you ever need any help with Japanese grammar please let me know.
I’m not sure if you still reply to these since the last post was half a year ago here. But I had a question
What happens when you have a volitional verb and か without the な at the end as in 『何を書こうか』と考えています。
Without the ”な” the meaning is essentially the same, but sounds a little more formal to me than “かな”
が as in あなたが何をしようが is not a case particle for a noun phrase, it’s a conjunction (“but”).
Thanks for the post. You mean similar to “何をしても”?
And 信じるまい should be 信じまい. (Sorry for dividing posts)
I checked this with a Japanese person and 信じるまい is correct. However, you are right that 信じまい is more common.
I checked this with a Japanese person and 信じるまい is correct. However, you are right that 信じまい is more common. But I modified the post to reflect this.
Oops, 信じるまい is correct when you think carefully. I just intuitively wrote it. Sorry.
Could you help me out with this.
From all the classifications you provided which one describes this phrase?
It’s a part in a song and, while I get the idea I’m not able to fully comprehend the use of the volitional form in いよう.
Because of the so many uses the Japanese have given to that form it is a bit tricky to get some of its usages.
While you may not see the verb いよう too often, it is the volitional form of “to be” for animate objects（居る).
Rather thank saying “Let’s together…”, because of the “君の隣に” part, I would say this is close to “Use 3”, which means he is describing his intention.
You can translate this roughly as something like “I’ll stay at your side once more in that special place”.
I’m sorry for replying so late.
It makes sense now.
By the way, usages number 3 and 6 sound almost identical, are they actually the same in meaning/intention?
Thanks for your help.
Sorry for the late response!
#3 is more like you are thinking/talking to yourself (I’ll go for a walk…), whereas #6 is more like you are telling someone else (I am thinking of going for a walk). The pattern in #3 can also mean a suggestion to someone, where as when you use と思う (like #6) it would not be interpreted as a suggestion.
However, can u please explain this one?
I want to know whats the different btween ましょうか and しましょうか??
しましょうか is just the volitional form of する plus the question particle か, and the sentence you gave can mean “Shall I protect you?”. 〜ましょうか would be added to the pre-masu form (ex: 食べ), whereas しましょうか is a verb on it’s own.
Please excuse this comment if it’s been discussed, but I can’t seem to grasp the spelling difference between
Can you help explain when I would use the “shiyo” vs “sho” spelling
Each type of verb ending has a different volitional form. する（including verbs like 勉強する）conjugate as しよう。However, the polite 〜ます ending (like します and たべます) conjugates as ~ましょう (ex: しましょう, たべましょう).
Does this help?
Thank you so much! That was very clear to understand
thanks, i was trying to figure this sentence out:
She’s desperately trying to retain her youth.
i guess 保とうと means trying to do (trying to retain), right?
Yes, that indicates her intention. I think the sentence you mentioned is sort of a short or abbreviated form. You might understand it better as 彼女は若さを必死で保とうとしてる.
Wow, I’ve never read such an in depth article on the Japanese volitional form. Great job!
I, like most people I imagine, learned that it can be used to mean “let’s do this” or even “shall we do this” like you mentioned, but it gets used a lot more than just those situations in dialog, which can lead to some confusion. Thanks!
Glad to be of help (:
As far as I know, the fifth form of a verb also means a rude, informal order or command. An imperative. But it’s written only with ‘o’ vowel, wiihout ‘u’.
So, does it mean, that ‘o + u’ combination is exclusively reserved for the volitional form and conjectures and never used for command?
I think the rough command form you are talking about is completely unrelated to the volitional form. Examples would be する＝＞しろ、食べる＝＞食べろ, 歩く＝＞歩け。
Do you have an article talking about that “rude form” (しろ)? We heard a lot of this one at fiction, especially the famous 確りしろ…
I haven’t written one yet, sorry. For now, you can use this: https://wtawa.people.amherst.edu/jvrules/index.php?form=imperative
By the way, I am not sure what 確りしろ means. Maybe you meant 確認（かくにん）しろ
Thanks for the link. It’s clear now that imperative part.
And as for the 確りしろ, it’s right. It’s しっかりしろ, translated as “Hang in there”, “Cheer up!”, “Keep going” and so on…
Very comprehensive, and comprehensible! Thank you.
Thanks for the comment. Glad it was helpful!
So, basically, よう is as if you were saying “I intend to do _______, I have the intention of doing ______, I have this in mind that I want to do, etc?
That is true, however it can also be used when suggesting “let’s” do something to another person, so it’s hard to pin down to a single meaning. Also, saying “I intend to ~” is often used in the form “~ようと思う” (ex: 買おうと思う）as opposed to just “~よう”
Man… what a blog you have! That’s why I love to google some Japanese expressions not easily found around there and almost always we stumble across such hidden gems like your page…
To me, as a self-taught Japanese (and languages, actually) learner, comes really in handy!
Thanks. Very useful this article.
Thanks! Glad it was helpful (:
I was stuck at the ‘let’s/shall we…?’ usage and couldn’t explain how a lot of sentences worked. .. thanks you so much for this!!!
Hi there, great site, thank you! I’m struggling to understand this part of “Use 7”; you refer to ように but you seem to have used ことに instead?
“A related expression is “Verb (dictionary form) + ように + decision verb” which has roughly the same meaning.
I decided to participate in the competition.”
Hello Roger, thanks for reading my site and for the comment!
You have found a typo, ように should be ことに in the sentence you quoted. I have fixed the article to reflect this.
Let me know if you have any other questions.