To communicate effectively, you need both vocabulary and grammar; words without grammar are incoherent, while grammar without words lacks content. Grammatical structures provide the framework needed for stringing words together in meaningful ways.
Because words are simpler than grammatical constructs, it’s easier to surmise their meanings from the context in which they are used. It’s possible to pick up new vocabulary simply by listening and reading. But grammatical structures, being more complex, are much harder to learn by osmosis, especially for adult learners. They are usually best acquired with some help from teachers and textbooks. Here, I consider a few resources for improving your grammar.
It should be mentioned that grammar is less critical for speaking than for writing. Many grammatical structures are mainly or only used in written language, and grammar mistakes tend to be less glaring when heard than when read (just listen to how many ‘mistakes’ native speakers in your own language make when speaking casually).
Consult a dictionary or three
A good grammar dictionary is invaluable for learning new grammatical structures and clarifying the subtleties of ones you’re already familiar with. The three dictionaries published by The Japan Times are my favourites. They cover basic,1 intermediate,2 and advanced Japanese grammar,3 with entries listed in alphabetical order (the advanced volume has an index for all three volumes). Each entry has thorough explanations in English, which are illustrated by many example sentences, so you can get a good feel for how the structures are used. At about ¥4,000 per volume, these dictionaries are not cheap, but I’ve found them well worth the investment.
Cram from a textbook
The Japan Language Proficiency Tests (JLPTs) have a strong grammar component, and consequently, many books have been published to help students study for the grammar sections of the tests. Even if you’re not planning to take the JLPTs, these books can be helpful for revising and learning grammar.
My favourite series is Nihongo So-Matome.4 The grammar books in the series are organized so that readers can study four related grammar points six days a week for eight weeks. Each grammar point has a couple of sample sentences with English, Chinese, and Korean translations and a short summary of the rules for its usage. There’s a brief quiz at the end of each day and a longer one at the end of each week. These books are mainly geared for revisiting grammar points you have already encountered, and so these are best supplemented by more in-depth books when learning new structures. This series also includes books for vocabulary, kanji, reading comprehension, and listening comprehension.
The Shin Kanzen Master is another good series.5 Its grammar books are similar to those of Nihongo So-Matome, but they don’t have translations and their style is a bit more formal.
The books in both series retail for about ¥1,200 and can be borrowed for free from the Japan Foundation Libraries in Yotsuya (Tokyo), Kita Urawa (Saitama), and Tajiri (Osaka).6
Sign up for daily emails
Even if you don’t have the time to study grammar from books, you can subscribe to daily grammar emails from the Yookoso.com site. You can choose the most appropriate of the five JLPT levels for you (N1 is the highest; N5 is the lowest). If you sign up, you will get a daily email about a random grammatical structure. There’s usually a brief explanation followed by about a dozen example sentences with their English translations. At the end, there’s a section for related grammar followed by comments added by users. It takes about three or four minutes to read an email, so they’re perfect for reading while waiting for a train or standing in a line. Over the years, I’ve found spending a few minutes each day a very effective way to improve my grammar.
1. Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui, A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar (Tokyo: The Japan Times, 1989).
2. Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui, A Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar (Tokyo: The Japan Times, 1995).
3. Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui, A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar (Tokyo: The Japan Times, 2008).
4. Hitoko Sasaki and Noriko Matsumoto, 日本語総まとめ [Nihongo So-matome] (Tokyo: Ask Publishing, 2010).
5. Etsuko Tomomatsu, Sachi Fukushima, and Kaori Nakamura, 新完全マスター [Shin Kanzen Master] (3A Corporation, 2011).
6. “Outlines of the Japan Foundation Libraries,” Japan Foundation, accessed 3 Feb 2019 , https://www.jpf.go.jp/e/about/jfic/lib/link/index.html.
Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ: rjcnetwork.org