The 3 Kings Of Japanese Verbs

Verbs give sentences momentum and power. You learn the major ones right from the beginning. Once you get conjugation down they are fairly straightforward. But there are 3 legendary verbs, that are used everywhere, in every form, that have so many variations and shifting abilities that they can be hard to grasp. They are so important yet so elusive.

The 3 Kings Of Japanese Verbs 1

Who are they?

3. 出す (だす)
2. つける
1. かける

What do they mean?

They have dozens of meanings, and within those meanings, very nuanced uses, so giving you a specific definition isn’t that helpful. But since I’m sure you want one, how about we go with a general “bring out,” “hang,” and “attach to.” You can look at their long definition list by clicking on the above 3 links.

To make things worse, they all have intransitive pairs 出る, つく, and かかる. These intransitive pairs often are used with grammar in a way you are not used to.

Their transforming power

The 3 Kings Of Japanese Verbs 2

While they have enough variation on their own, where they also dig into the language is their combination with other verbs. For example you can transform the simple verb 言う (いう – say) into:


New and exciting meanings await!

Showing your level

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You can often tell someone’s Japanese level based on how well they use these. Beginner/Intermediate levels tend to avoid them for simpler language. You don’t need nuance as long as your meaning gets across in a grammatically correct format, right? But that nuance is what makes language flow naturally.

How to deal with them

The answer isn’t special. You attack them like you do anything else. Learn each and every use (for example each word could probably give you 25+ Anki cards). But it takes time to master them. It’s hard to Anki nuance sometimes. Yes, you have the definition. But “use” is something you know isn’t instantly granted. It takes conscious effort, heavy observation, and dedication to transform your output with them.

Conquer the kings, and conquer all

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Don’t expect an easy victory. It will be a drawn out battle, but they will make such a difference. Sure there are other important verbs like する, やる, いく, くる, etc., but none present the same challenge and feeling of reward as these 3 do.

Now go take them down.

Or add another king?

How have you battled with these 3 verbs? Any other verbs that you think are worthy of this title?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


The 3 Kings Of Japanese Verbs — 12 Comments

  1. I see all 3 of these used so often it blows my mind. I can’t wait until I have mastered them so I can look cool as well (I’m so jealous of those who can use these like a native).

  2. for the cards that have a principle definition and then corresponding sub definitions on each e.g. a i u e…. do you only include the sub definitions or should the original overarching definition be included as well on each of them.
    If you only leave the sub definitions on the card, do I need to make an individual card for the principle definition. Normally it doesn’t come with an example sentence which makes that even more annoying. Or if you learn the 5 nuances you don’t really need to learn the principle one separately?

    it’s words like these that make studying Japanese difficult. I always have difficulties discussing these things in English because I’ve never learnt ‘transitive/intransitive or any of those other English defitions for Japanese concepts really (except in the J-E phase a little bit). For me another one would be
    切る。。。 that word drives me wild. I guess it would be helpful to just go through and add a card for each definition. I think I have cards for all of these words, for at least one of their definitions. Not even close to all of them though, plus it’s a fast way to make cards :P

    • Interestingly. The supa daijirin (built in mac osx and iOS dictionary) lists each definition on 出す as an individual entry. Whereas tends to group them. Only for definition number 1 do they have a ‘parent definition’. I decided to include the parent definition on each card, as it’s easier to delete information later than add it.
      Comparing that with sanseido it’s pretty clear that dictionaries are all very different.

    • If an overarching definition also has a sample sentence, I used to include that as well (but if it doesn’t don’t worry).

      If you learn all the sub definitions without a sentence entry for the principal definition you’ll be fine. Searching for a principal definition sentence will often be fruitless as it will most likely fall under one of the sub definitions.

      切る is a good one also!

      And yes it’s words like these that make Japanese difficult, but also so rich and rewarding. I forgot what word it is but in English we have the same thing with 100s of uses for one word.

  3. A one-stop-shop for all your compound verb needs:

    Example sentences, definitions, language options, entries not in major dictionaries…

    • Another good one! And one that also feels like it blends together with the meanings of かける and つける.

  4. What’s interesting about these (and others that have been brought up in comments like 張る、切る、回る…) is that their logic is really similar to English “Phrasal Verbs”.

    For example, think about how 言う compares to 言い出す, and how “speak” compares to “speak up” or “speak out”.

    Much like English, their meaning tends to be idiomatic, so it can be really hard to wrap your head around them even with a dictionary definition. I think the best thing you can do is try to get a tenuous grasp on their meaning through direct study, then just go out into the world of immersion and soak in them until they start to feel natural =)

    • I agree. Going through these definitions is only a start. Real world experience is how you will really gain control of them.

      Phrasal verbs are where native Japanese have a lot of difficulty in learning English, so it is only fair that we must suffer too (笑)

  5. has anyone got a resource with a list of all these power verbs? I’ve encountered plenty naturally, but I’d like to knock them all out of the park at once if anyone knows of a comprehensive resource.

    Also, special thanks to Kreeb. That compound verb website is absolutely incredible. Heaps of things that aren’t on goo dictionary with simple example sentences and explanations, absolute life saver! Thank you. Have been able to branch so many words that I had to ignore previously.

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