Do you have a question relating to Japanese grammar or vocabulary?
Please ask at the JREF Nihongo Forum!
The Japanese language has a highly regular agglutinative verb morphology, with both productive and fixed elements. Typologically, its most prominent feature is topic creation: Japanese is neither topic-prominent nor subject-prominent; indeed, it is common for sentences to have distinct topics and subjects. Grammatically, Japanese is an SOV language, with verbs rigidly constrained to the sentence-final position. The word order is relatively free as long as the order of dependent-head is maintained among all constituents: the adjective or relative clause precedes the modified noun, the adverb precedes the modified verb, the genitive nominal precedes the possessed nominal, and so forth. Thus, Japanese is a left-branching language; in contrast, English is right-branching.
For simplicity, this article presents examples in plain informal and non-literary style. The reader must keep the general grammatical principles of politeness and respect in mind.
Japanese Grammar Contents
- Part 1: Textual classifications; nouns, pronouns, and other deictics
- Part 2: Conjugable words: verbs
- Part 3: Conjugable words: adjectives
- Part 4: Conjugable words: the copula だ da
- Part 5: Euphonic changes, colloquial contractions
- Part 6: Adverbs, sound symbolism, conjunctions and interjections
- Part 7: Particles
- Part 8: Auxiliary verbs
Text (文章 bunshō) is composed of sentences (文 bun), which are in turn composed of phrases (文節 bunsetsu), which are its smallest coherent components. Like Chinese and classical Korean, written Japanese does not typically demarcate words with spaces; its agglutinative nature further makes the concept of a word somewhat different from words in English. Word divisions are informed by semantic cues and knowledge of phrase structure. Phrases have a single meaning-bearing word, followed by a string of suffixes, auxiliary verbs and particles to modify its meaning and designate its grammatical role. In the following example, bunsetsu are indicated by vertical bars:
taiyou ga | higashi no | sora ni | noboru
The sun rises in the eastern sky.
Some scholars romanise Japanese sentences by inserting spaces only at phrase boundaries (i.e., “taiyougahigashino sorani noboru“), in effect treating an entire phrase as the equivalent of an English word. Traditionally, however, a more basic concept of word (単語 tango) forms the atoms of sentences. Words, unlike phrases, need not have intrinsic meaning, therefore admitting particles and auxiliary verbs. It must be noted that this classification of textual structure in modern Japanese is descriptive; some classical auxiliary verbs such as -te are grammaticalised as conjugations or verb endings in modern Japanese, not individual words.
watashi | wa | mainichi | gakkō | e | aruite | iku
Every day I walk to school.
The structure of this article will mirror the following classification of words. There are two broad categories —independent words (自立語 jiritsugo) having internal meaning, and ancillary words (付属語 fuzokugo) which are meaning modifiers. Independent words divide into a conjugable (活用語 katsuyōgo) class containing verbs (動詞 doushi), pure adjectives(形容詞 keiyōshi, also known as i-type adjective), and adjectival nouns (形容動詞 keiyōdōshi, also known as na-type adjective); and a non-conjugable (無活用語 mukatsuyōgo) class containing nouns (名詞 meishi), pronouns (代名詞 daimeishi), adverbs (副詞 fukushi), conjunctions(接続詞 setsuzokushi), and interjections (感動し kandōshi). Of ancillary words, there are only two classes: grammatical particles (助詞 joshi) and auxiliary verbs (助動詞 jodōshi).
Nouns, pronouns, and other deictics
Japanese nouns are non-inflecting, have no gender, and take no articles. Thus 猫 (neko) could be translated into English as “cat”, “a cat”, “the cat”, “cats”, “some cats”, or “the cats”, depending on context. A small number of nouns have plurals formed by reduplication (possibly accompanied by rendaku): thus 人 hito “person” and 人々 hitobito “people”, although these are typically collective rather than true plurals. Additionally, in respectful speech, the prefix o- is often used with native nouns, as is the prefix go- with Sino-Japanese nouns. Some common nouns have unpredictable respectful forms; a few examples are in the adjoining table.
The use of pronouns in Japanese is rare, limited to when the referent cannot be deduced from the context. For example, 日本に行きました (Nihon niikimashita) says just “went to Japan”. The subject is inferred from context: if the topic is the first person, then it means”I went to Japan”, for a third person, “he/she went to Japan”, etc. Speakers of Japanese tend to use names instead of pronouns in speech. For example:
Meaning plain respectful rice 飯 meshi ご飯 go-han money 金 kane お金 o-kane body 体 karada お体 o-karada 御体
word(s) 言葉 kotoba お言葉 o-kotoba
Kinoshita-san wa, se ga takai desu ne.
(addressing Mr Kinoshita) “You’re pretty tall, aren’t you?”
Japanese has many nouns that can be used as personal pronouns; see here for a long list. Some common ones are given in the following table.
Although Japanese nouns do not inflect for number, there are “plural” forms to indicate semantic number: 私達(watashi-tachi) for “we”, あなたたち (anata-tachi) for “you (plural)”,僕等 (bokura) for “we (inform. male)”. Interestingly, one uncommon pseudo-pronoun, 我 (ware,”I”) has a much more common reduplicative plural 我々 (wareware, “we”). However, 達 (-tachi)and 等 (-ra) are by far the most common pluralizing suffixes — although 達 (-tachi) is not strictly a pluralizing suffix: for example, 太郎達 (Tarō-tachi) does not mean “some number of people named Tarō” but instead means “Tarō and his friends,” or “Tarō and those people who are with him”. The suffixes ス (-su) and ズ (-zu), derived from the English plural suffix -[e]s, are also occasionally used to indicate the plural, although this is not even remotely standard Japanese.
Person plain, informal polite respectful first 僕 (boku, male)
俺 (ore, male, very informal)
あたし (atashi, female)
私 (watashi) 私 (watakushi) second 君 (kimi, usu. used by males) 貴方 (anata), そちら (sochira) お宅 (o-taku) third 彼 (kare, male)
彼女 (kanojo, female)
あの人 (ano hito) -
Whereas in English there are many reflexive pronouns (himself, herself, itself, themselves, etc.), in Japanese there is a single reflexive pronoun 自分 (jibun). The uses of the reflexive pronoun in the two languages are very different. The following incorrect literal translations demonstrate the differences (*=impossible, ??=ambiguous):
If the sentence has more than one grammatical or semantic subject, then the target is the subject of the main action; thus in the following sentence 自分 (jibun) refers unambiguously to Mary (even though John is the grammatical subject) because the main action is “Mary’s reading”.
English Japanese Reason History repeats itself. *歴史は自分を繰り返す。
*Rekishi wa jibun wo kurikaesu.
the target of jibun must be animate John talked to Bill about himself. ジョンはビルに自分のことを話した。
Jon ga Biru ni jibun no koto wo hanashita.
John talked to Bill about himself (=John)
jibun refers unambiguously to the subject. *John expects that Mary will take good care of himself. ??ジョンはメリーが自分を大事にすることを期待している。
??Jon wa Merī ga jibun wo daiji ni suru koto wo kitaishite iru.
either "John expects that Mary will take good care of him", or "John expects that Mary will take good care of herself."
jibun can be in a different sentence or dependent clause, but its target is ambiguous
Jon ga Merī ni jibun no uchi de hon wo yomaseta.
John made Mary read the book(s) in her house.
In practice, the main action is not always discernible, in which case such sentences are ambiguous. The use of jibun in complex sentences follows non-trivial rules.
Demonstratives occur in the ko-, so-, anda- series. The ko- series refers to things closer to the speaker than the hearer, the so- series for things closer to the hearer, and the a-series for things distant to both the speaker and the hearer. With do-, demonstratives turn into the corresponding question form. Demonstratives are also used for people, for example
Kochira wa Hayashi-san desu.
This is Mr Hayashi.
Demonstratives limit, and therefore precede nouns; thus この本 (kono hon) for “this/my book”, andその本 (sono hon) for “that/your book”.
Demonstratives - - - ko- so- a- do- kore sore are dore this one that one that one over there which one kono sono ano dono (of) this (of) that (of) that over there (of) what? konna sonna anna donna like this like that like that over there how? what sort of? koko soko asoko * doko here there over there where? kochira sochira achira dochira this way that way that way over there which way? kō sō ā * dō in this manner in that manner in that (other) manner in what manner? koitsu soitsu aitsu doitsu this fellow that fellow that other fellow which fellow?
* irregular formation
When demonstratives are used to refer to things not visible to the speaker or the hearer, or to (abstract) concepts, they fulfil a related but different anaphoric role. The anaphoric so- series is used to refer to an experience that is not shared between the speaker and the listener, generally because one party has no information about it. For shared information the anaphoric a- series is used.
A: Senjitsu, Sapporo ni itte kimashita.
A: I visited Sapporo recently.
B: Asoko (*Soko) wa itsu itte mo ii tokoro desu ne.
B: Yeah, that’s a great place to visit whenever you go.
Soko instead of asoko would imply that B does not know Sapporo, which is inconsistent with the rest of the sentence.
Satō : Tanaka to iu hito ga kinō shinda tte…
Sato: I heard that a man called Tanaka died yesterday…
Mori: E’, hontō?
Satō : Dakara, sono (*ano) hito, Mori-san no mukashi no rinjin ja nakatta ‘kke?
Sato: It’s why I asked… wasn’t he an old neighbour of yours?
Again, ano is inappropriate here because Sato doesn’t (didn’t) know Tanaka personally.
The ko- series demonstratives don’t have clear anaphoric uses. They can be used in situations where the a-series sound too disconnected:
Ittai nan desu ka, kore (*are) wa?
What on earth is this?
Continue to Part 2