Japanese grammar: An overview of the “te” form (and an important use nobody taught you)

By | July 10, 2019

The “te” form of verbs, sometimes (confusingly) referred to as the “gerund” form, is a cornerstone of Japanese grammar. Not only are there only a few verb forms in the language, but the “te” form has a variety of uses. In this post I’ll go over the main ones, including one you may not be familiar with.

(Note: in linguistics, a “gerund” often refers to a form of a verb that acts as a noun, but the “te” form in Japanese is not a noun, so it is debatable whether it should be even called a “gerund”. Adding “no” after the dictionary form of a verb [ex: “kiku no”] would be a noun and hence a true gerund.)

As I would like to focus on grammar in this post, I will not be listing all the rules for conjugating the “te” form, which differs based on the verb ending. However you can see a good table here for reference. Just keep in mind that while the “te” form usually ends in “te” (hence the name “te form”) for some verb types it actually ends in “de” (ex: 飲んで / nonde).

Expressing a Temporal Sequence

One of the most commonly explained (and easiest to understand) uses of the “te” form is to represent actions which occur in temporal, or time order, sequence. For example, 

  • 彼は靴を履いて帰った  (kare wa kutsu wo haite kaetta)
  • He put on his shoes and went home.

It’s important to note that there doesn’t technically have to be any time between the actions, and they could be simultaneous. In the above sentence, it’s pretty clear he is not putting on his shoes as he is traveling home, but the word “kara” can be added to clarify one action completes before the next begins.

  • 彼は靴を履いてから帰った。 (kare wa kutsu wo haite kara kaetta)
  • He put on his shoes and then went home.

Expressing a Command or Request

When used by itself at the end of the sentence, the “te” form can represent a light command or request.

  • こっち来て (kocchi kite)
  • Come here.

You can add the particle “ne” after the “te” for a friendly nuance, or “yo” for more emphasis.

  • こっち来てね (kocchi kite ne)
  • Come here. [friendlier]

You can also add words like “kudasai” (polite) or “choudai” (still polite, but less formal) to change the tone of the request:

  • こちら来てください (kochira kite kudasai)
  • Come here please.

You may have noticed I changed “kocchi” to “kochira”, because the former is an informal abbreviation for the latter, which fits better with the polite tone of “kudasai”.

The word “hoshii” (欲しい), while grammatically a bit different from words like “kudasai” and “choudai”, can be used after the “te” form to express wanting someone to perform some action.

  • やめて欲しいよ (yamete hoshii yo)
  • I want you to stop (that).

Expressing performing an action for the sake of someone

The “te” forms are also part of the infamous patterns involving words like “kureru”, “ageru”, “morau”, “itadaku”, and “kudasaru”. These words all mean either “to give” or “to receive” on their own (with varying politeness levels), but can be used after the “te” form of a verb to show someone “giving” an action to someone, or “receiving” it from them––meaning that an action is done for the sake of someone else. (Note: I used the term “infamous” because these expressions are very common in Japanese, but can be tricky to master.)

Here are two examples of this:

  • 妻にお弁当を作ってもらった (tsuma ni obentou wo tsukutte moratta)
  • My wife made a bento box for me.
  • 友達に本を買ってあげた (tomodachi ni hon wo katte ageta)
  • I bought a book for a friend.

This type of pattern can also be (sort of) understood as a sequence of temporal events. For example in the last sentence above, “I bought a book and gave it to a friend” means almost the same thing. In cases where there is no physical item involved, there is a discrepancy here, however.

You can see this article of mine which goes into more detail about a few of these verbs and their usage.

Expressing an Ongoing Action or State

By using “iru” (or some form of it) after the “te” form, making the “te iru” form, an ongoing action can be expressed:

  • 犬はテレビを見ています (inu wa terebi wo mite imasu)
  • The dog is watching TV.

Also, an ongoing state can also be expressed:

  • 木が落ちています (ki ga ochite imasu)
  • The tree has fallen.   (= the tree has fallen and is stil in that state)

The “te aru” form is similar, but has limited usage (see this article for details).

Expressing How an Action Takes Place (Adverbial)

Now that I’ve gone over some of the commonly explained usages of the “te” form, I want to talk about a final one, where the verb in the “te” form acts somewhat like an adverb. This usage is actually quite common, though I have rarely (if ever) seen it discussed in textbooks.

A quick reminder: an adverb is something that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. Here I’ll be focusing on the first case, modifying a verb. You can think or an adverb as describing how an action takes place.

  • 急いで食べたい (isoide tabetai)
  • I want to eat quickly.

Here, if we take the “te” form verb “isoide” as part of a temporal sequence, the sentence doesn’t really make sense: “I want to hurry and then eat”. The “isoide” part is really describing how the eating is occurring, just like an adverb would. If instead we use the adverb “quickly”, as was done above, it meaning makes more sense.

Note that if we omit the “then”, the sentence does sound more natural (though not perfect): “I want to hurry and eat”. This works here, but in other cases the translation would sound awkward in English.

Now for another example:

  • 順を追って説明してください (jun wo otte setsumei shite kudasai)
  • Please explain (things) in order.

Here, “jun wo otte” means “follow (the) order”, but the listener is not being asked to follow the order and then explain. The implication is that the explanation is done by following the order (of some series of events). You can also think of this in terms of explaining things at the same time as following the order, but I find the adverbial interpretation easier to understand.

I should point out that the above example sentence actually uses two instances of the “te”, with the latter (shite) expressing a command or request, which I talked about earlier in this article.

Another example, this time using the “te” form of “ganbaru”:

  • 頑張って日本語の雑誌を読む (ganbatte nihongo no zasshi wo yomu)
  • I will try hard to read a Japanese magazine.

As with the other examples, here it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of two temporally separate events: trying and then reading a Japanese magazine. The “trying hard” is how the action of “reading” will be performed.

You may be familiar with the “te miru” form which is also used to “try” something (literally: “try and see”). But the difference is that in the “te miru” form, the subject of the action is not sure what the outcome will be, whereas in the case of “ganbatte” there is more of a focus on putting forth effort. To try and capture that nuance, I added the word “hard” in my translation above.

When translating, it is easy to get into trouble with the “te” form. There can be times where you are able to intuitively understand a passage, but trying to translate using a stream of temporal actions may sound awkward. Thinking adverbially can help you refactor things to make the meaning more clear, even if you don’t actually use adverbs in the result.

Let’s look at a final example related to this:

  • 「なんだよ」とリックさんはびっくりして言った  (“nan da yo” to rikku san wa bikkuri shite itta)

This is an interesting case because it should be possible for the subject to say something after being surprised. But, if you had to guess, it seems more natural for there to be little, if any delay at all, between the “being surprised” and saying something. By the way, if we render this as a temporal sequence of actions in English, the result feels (arguably) a little unnatural:

  • Rick was surprised and said, “What the heck.”

Alternately, if we think of the two actions happening at the same time, we might end up with something like this, which is even less natural:

  • Rick was surprised as he said, “What the heck.”

However, if we think of the “bikkuri shite” part as being an adverb, in other words how the action was done, new translation ideas can come to mind. Here is one:

  • Rick said in surprise, “What the heck?”

Just keep in mind that depending on the context, there might be better options, for example:

  • “What the heck?” said Rick, surprised.

Other Uses

There are other ways the “te” form can be used, but I think a great majority of them can be understood in the context of the above categories. For example, the “te oku” form means “to do… and place”), but has the nuance of doing something “for later”.

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4 thoughts on “Japanese grammar: An overview of the “te” form (and an important use nobody taught you)

  1. James Miles

    Great entry. RICH in practical and useful detail. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Japanese particle combination: だけで (dake de) – Self Taught Japanese

  3. Pingback: The patterns “shite dou?” / “shitara dou?” and vagueness with verb tenses in Japanese – Self Taught Japanese

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