The Polite Form ます (masu) in Japanese

Author Anna Baffa Volpe for article 'The Polite Form ます (masu) in Japanese'

Anna Baffa Volpe

9 min reading time

Updated on 7 September 2022

When approaching verbs in your Japanese language studies the "Masu" form (ます (けい)) is often taught even before the "Dictionary form" (()(しょ)(けい) or (げん)(けい)).

I believe that the order in which the parts of speech are studied is not fundamental.

Since language is first of all a communication tool, I think it is useful to make a selection of the elements, parts and forms from which to start, in relation to your needs and purposes.

That being said, the 2 basic forms to learn at the beginning of your journey in the language are:

  • Base form: used in a colloquial context
  • Masu form: used in polite speech

In this post we focus on the masu form 👩🏻‍🏫


What the ます(けい) is and when to use it

The masu form is a verb conjugation ending with the suffix "masu" (ます), such as:

  • ()みます read or I will read
  • () きます I go or I will go

This form is used when the situation requires polite speech, towards people outside our world.

Our "inner world" in Japanese is called (うち) "uchi", which includes our family, our friends and all the people close to us and with whom we are familiar.

In the "inner" world (うち) (uchi) we use a non-formal, colloquial language that consists in what is called the "dictionary form"

The external world, "outside" our close circle, is expressed with the concept of (そと) "soto" in Japanese, which means precisely outside, external.

(そと) "soto" refers to the people with whom we have do not have close ties, strangers, or that in a more strictly hierarchical context can be our superiors in the workplace or teachers and lecturers.

At a basic level in the study of the language, the "masu" form is the right compromise for situations of interaction with people we do not know

Keigo language (けい)()

In a purely hierarchical context, in front of people to whom we must show a certain respect up to a sort of reverence, the register changes completely and we move towards the language (けい)() keigo, in its various forms.

At a basic level, as I anticipated, the knowledge of the form in "masu" puts us in a position to formulate the first simple sentences, in a polite and adequate way.

How the polite form in "masu" works

Before going into the form, let's remember a characteristic of the Japanese language: agglutination.

The verb is composed of a fixed base, called stem. We could compare it to a "verbal root" to which pieces are added, suffixes that form the modes and tenses of the verb.

We will have suffixes for the negative, for the past tense, for the passive form and so on.

It all starts from the basics and the Japanese verb confirms this vision!

First of all, we are going to learn the 3 fundamental verb groups.

Ichidan verbs (いち)(だん) with a single base

These are the verbs whose dictionary form ends in "eru" and "iru". Their convenience is that they have a single stem form which is used for conjugations in all ways and times.

The basis for these verbs is obtained simply by omitting the final syllable "ru" る:

  • ()べる "eat" dictionary form, stem ()
  • ()きる "wake up" dictionary form, stem ()
  • ()める "decide" dictionary form, stem ()
Some verbs are exceptions and do not follow the rule, such as the verb "to return" (かえ)る, which is part of the series of 5-base verbs that we find below

Now we can add all the suffixes we want to the stem form. Below we deal with all those relating to the suffix "masu":

  • masu (ます) forms the present and affirmative future
  • masen (ません) forms the present and future negative
  • mashita (ました) forms the affirmative past tense
  • masen deshita (ませんでした) forms the negative past tense
  • mashō (ましょう) forms the exhortative tense
()べます。

I eat.

()べません。

I don't eat.

()べました。

I ate.

()べませんでした。

I did not eat.

()べましょう。

Let's eat!

The Japanese verb is not conjugated according to the person, so each form can have me, you, us, them as subject, depending on the situation and context

Verbs ()(だん) with 5 bases

This category of verbs makes up the majority of Japanese verbs. Let's not be frightened by the number 5 of the bases, they are obtained in a very simple way.

These verbs are also called verbs in う, they all end with the Hiragana symbols belonging to the column う:

  • ()write final syllable く
  • ()read final syllable む
  • (およ)swim final syllable ぐ

The 5 bases are obtained by replacing the final syllable following the 5 syllables of the hiragana: あいうえお, かきくけこ, さしすせそ and so on.

  • ()か base in "a" or B1
  • ()き base in "i" or B2
  • ()く base in dictionary "u" or B3
  • ()け base in "e" or B4
  • ()こ base in "o" or B5
The form in "masu" matches the base in "i" or B2
()きます。

I write.

()きません。

I don't write.

()きました。

I wrote.

()きませんでした。

I didn't write.

()きましょう。

Let's write!

Irregular verbs

There are also verbs that do not follow the usual rules. They are just 2 and form the third group:

  • する to do dictionary form; its only base is し
  • ()to come dictionary form, its unique base is () (き)

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Examples of verbal bases for "masu" form

Now let's try to formulate short sentences starting from the verb in its dictionary form, also called base in "u" or B3.

()る - To sleep

Regular verb ending in "eru", therefore of the category (いち)(だん).

()る: its stem form becomes ().

()ます。

I'm going to sleep.

10()
()ます。

I go to sleep at 10.

(なん)()
()ますか。

What time do you go to sleep?

ぐっすり
()ました。

I slept soundly.

する - Do

する single-based verb "to do" し.

The verb suru is widely used in the form "compounds of suru" which predict a noun + the verb suru:

  • (でん)()する make a phone call
  • (かい)(もの)する shopping
  • (そう)()する cleaning
  • (べん)(きょう)する study
(とも)(だち)
(でん)()しました。

I called a friend

昨日(きのう)
(かい)(もの)
しませんでした。

I didn't shop yesterday.

(とも)(だち)
一緒(いっしょ)
(べん)(きょう)します。

Study with a friend.

()()
(そう)()します。

I clean the room.

()く - Listen

Verb of the series ()(だん) with 5 bases; of the five bases we choose the base in "i" or B2 which is used with verbs in "masu".

()く dictionary form, its stem form becomes ().

ラジオを
()きます。

I listen to the radio.

(ひと)
(はなし)
()ません。

I don't listen to other people's speeches

ニュース
()ませんでしたか。

Didn't you hear the news?

In the previous sentence, we used the negative interrogative form.

A note about answers to questions in Japanese:

  • If we say yes! はい, we confirm what the person expressed in the question: "yes that's right, I didn't hear it": はい、()ませんでした。
  • If we answer no! いいえ, we reverse what we were asked: "no you're wrong, I heard it": いいえ、()ましたよ!

()る: - Exit

The verb ends in "eru" and therefore belongs to the first category, single-base verbs.

()る: base form of the dictionary, its stem form becomes ().

()(ごと)
()
(あさ)
()
(いえ)
()ます。

On work days, I leave the house at 8 am.


In this post we have seen the "masu" form, when to use it and how it works.

In the next posts we will see the other forms, to learn how they are formed and in which contexts it is best to use them.

See you soon 👋

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