Debunking the Japanese sentence order myth

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’d like to repeat myself here to hopefully help the debunking of the age-old Japanese sentence order myth.

Many of you have probably heard this before but to review, here’s how the myth goes.

An English sentence must consist of at least a subject, verb, and object in that order. However, in Japanese, the order must be subject, object, then verb.

Myth
English sentence order = [Subject] [Verb] [Object]
Japanese sentence order = [Subject] [Object] [Verb]

I can debunk this myth is 2 seconds. Let’s see, is this sentence correct?

1)林檎食べた。
-Apple I ate.

Why, yes it is. And look, the object appears to come before the subject. Boy, that was easy.

There are several misleading things about this myth besides the fact that it’s just plain incorrect. First of all, as I’ve partially explained in a previous post, Japanese doesn’t require or even have anything equivalent to the English subject. In addition, you only need a verb to make a complete thought in Japanese.

1)食べた
-Ate.

What gets tricky is that the state-of-being verb (the English verb “to be”) can be implicitly implied by a noun or adjective. That’s because Japanese doesn’t have an actual verb for the state-of-being.

1)それ残念
-That [is] unfortunate.

Why Japanese doesn’t have or need sentence order
In Japanese, we have things called particles that come after almost every word in the sentence to identify exactly what role that word is playing. That means that no matter where the word is in the sentence, we’ll know whether it’s an object, topic, identifier, target, context, etc.. The only reason sentence order is so strict in English is because without clear rules of ordering, we won’t have any idea which word is supposed to play which role.

In English, sentence order changes the meaning of the sentence.
1) Dog saw Tree.
2)Tree saw Dog.

In Japanese, because of particles, no matter how you move things around, the dog is still the topic and the tree is still the object.
1) Dog[topic particle] tree[object particle] saw. = Dog saw tree.
2) Tree[object particle] dog[topic particle] saw. = Dog saw tree.

The subordinate clause
In order to really understand Japanese sentence structure, you need to break things down into subordinate clauses. A subordinate clause is the smallest type of sentence that expresses a complete thought. As mentioned previously, in order to express a complete thought, you must have a verb or a noun/adjective that is a state-of-being. Now, the only thing you have to remember is that everything that applies to that verb must come before it. And that each subordinate clause can have only one such verb.

The verb (or state-of-being) must come at the very end of the subordinate clause

1)見た。 – The dog saw tree.
2)見た。 – The dog saw tree.

1)学生です。 – I am student.
2)学生です。 – The student is me.

That’s it!
Surprisingly, that’s really the only thing you have to worry about in terms of Japanese sentence ordering. It’s one of the great benefits of particles actually because sentence order no longer defines a word’s function.

All of the following sentences are correct.
1)いつも図書館勉強する
2)いつも図書館勉強する
3)図書館いつも勉強する

It is also important to realize that the farther away you get from the main verb, the more extraneous the information becomes. In sentence 1, the sentence is mostly centered on the fact that the studying is done at the library while in sentence 3, the focus is on the fact that he always studies.

In order to make more complicated sentences, you can take separate subordinate clauses and combine them with either with conjunctions or by direct noun modifications. But as long as the sentence structure in each separate subordinate clause is correct, there should be no problems with sentence ordering no matter how complicated and long the sentence is.

19 thoughts on “Debunking the Japanese sentence order myth

  1. This is so unbelievably useful. I now understand so much more about ordering. I was brought up on that myth!

  2. Your explanations are very up to the point! No book or person could have explained it so well. I was taught the same myth too and now, with your tips, sentence structure seems crystal clear. Thanks a lot!!

  3. Thanks a bunch!! I thought that the myth was true, but now making sentences seem so much easier.

  4. While it’s sad that a lot of people get rigidly taught that Japanese is SVO (which is pretty wrong), the SOV/SVO labels are just a linguistic generalisation, based on the typical sentence pattern.

    The majority of english sentences are SVO, but there are plenty of sentence that aren’t (“It’s a villa, not a house, that I build” is OSV, “‘I want you to go home’, said mom” is OVS). However, they don’t outnumber the more typical SVO pattern, so English is labeled SVO.

    Similarly, Japanese is characterised by mostly SOV sentences. But again, sentences don’t have to be. Japanese uses explicit particles for denoting grammar, so you can shift them around a lot without losing meaning. It is worth remembering though, that while Japanese is of course not always SOV it does always end on a verb. This in contrast to English, in which sentences can end on any of the three ‘key’ concepts of subject, object or verb.

    The SOV/SVO concept is not so much a “myth” as a linguistic categorisation for language classes, so it does definitely have a basis – it’s just not something you should ever rigidly hold on to when teaching… (tell your teachers to stop if they do O_o;)

  5. Ah, then perhaps a tiny rephrase for the blockquoted “myth” might be helpful.

    While you’re right about the word order not really being of consequence for a Japanese sentence, my issue was more with the quoted claim that English is SVO while Japanese isn’t SOV. The SVO/SOV categorisation is based on the formal language model, not the colloquial model – in Japanese formal language, most sentences that still contain a subject (prior to becoming context) will be in SOV structure. Colloquial language pretty much always differs from the formal model in that you can omit loads of things while still being being able to say what you wanted to.

    I agree that clause order in sentences, both formal and colloquial, is pretty unimportant given that there are explicit grammar particles (though shifting clauses can subtly change the intention of the sentence, but that’s not really different from any other language in that respect) and that it’s important for people to learn that there is a much higher degree of freedom in where you put your clauses, but saying that Japanese sentence order is not SOV but at the same time saying that English sentence order is SVO, is being kind of partial – either they both fit their SVO/SOV label because it’s based on the formal language, or they both don’t fit their label because every day colloquial English just as much ignores the SVO order as every day colloquial Japanese ignores the SOV order =)

  6. Actually, the real myth is that there is sentence order at all. People are fooled into thinking that the words must come in a certain order which causes all sorts of unnecessary confusion.

    Plus, most sentences are NOT SOV. In real life, people hardly ever provide both subject AND object in the same sentence. For instance, let’s take a look at a typical dialogue.

    A) りかちゃんはどこ?
    B) 知らない。キチンにいるんじゃない?
    A) キチンで何をしているんだろう?
    B) 知らない。行って見たら?

    None of these sentences fit the SOV structure.(Unless you count the implicit state of being in the first sentence)

  7. I see the point you are trying to make. I’m not too sure how effective the SVO sentence structure is for teaching English but many sentences do follow that structure. For instance, most of the sentences of this very comment follow that basic strcture.

    However, in Japanese, teaching SOV causes nothing but trouble. I see it all the time, people saying 私は for every sentence about themselves. Or the confusion when teacher say using the polite word for “you” (あなた) is impolite. Students don’t realize that most sentences in coversations don’t even have a subject. So perhaps I should rephrase “myth” to “a horrible teaching method that should never be used but nevertheless is taught at countless number of places”.

  8. heh… All too true.

    I’d rephrase it to just
    “Myth: English sentences are SVO and Japanese sentences are SOV”. Maybe followed by “and smack your teacher if they keep claiming this” maybe >_>

  9. Actually for me… “Myth” is such a wierd way of describing the SOV sentence structure… I don’t think it’s a “myth” per se, i just think its a very siplified version of a very basic japanese sentence structuure… when I learned english when i was a kid in the philippines… teachers taught me the SVO eng sent structure. But once you master it, you can go to different complications of the language like the transitive/intransitive verbs and such. For example… “Im eating at the restaurant” this sentence is understood… i don’t say… “oh! i broke the SVO myth cause i didnt put an object!”… in japanese you can/may say “boku… restoran de tabeteru.” conversational japanese is harder to explain so language ppl created the SOV sentence structure for the sake of teaching beginners… i don’t think it’s a myth at all…

  10. The myth is that the basic Japanese sentence is SOV when it really is V. The main difference from learning English SVO is that once you “master” SOV in Japanese, you don’t move on the more complicated sentences. Instead, you have to go back, forget the whole SVO mess and correct your way of thinking. Otherwise, you stick the subject into every sentence like I mentioned above. I’ve seen it all the time in beginners and it’s unnatural. If you worry about sentence ordering in Japanese, you’ve fallen for the myth. There is only ONE sentence order: the verb (or state-of-being) comes last. Everything else is nesting and linking of subordinate clauses.

    Please read the comments above for more clarification.

  11. It is true that the categorization of a language as SOV (or SVO, or OVS, or whatever) is at best a gross generalization, and may not even function well in the description of the language, let alone teaching it. However, it is deceptive to say that Japanese has no word order other than that it is verb-final (and head-final, in general). For instance,

    犬が木を見た
    木が犬を見た

    are not the same sentence – that is, they are used in different situations with different background assumptions (about who in the conversation is important, who is being talked about, and so on).

    Also, in so-called subordinate clauses (aka noun-modifying clauses), word order is often more fixed. It sounds odd to me to have something like

    俺のコンピュータをその人が修理した日

    This sounds better: その人が俺のコンピュータを修理した日. At least, in an ‘out of the blue’ context, the first sentence sounds unnatural. You don’t have to say that Japanese is -always- SOV, which it’s not, just that SOV is the unmarked, non-special word order. It can be mutated according to conversational needs. Separate principles will let you omit the subject or object if you want to, but if you did want to say them, you’d have to know where to put them.

  12. 犬が木を見た
    木が犬を見た

    The two sentences are totally different because you switched the particles not just the ordering of the words. Remember, the particles define the function of the word so they are the most important.

  13. My mistake: the sentences should have been

    犬が木を見た
    木を犬が見た

    Everything I said in the above post applies to these two sentences – they are different for the reasons I stated. You cannot just change the word order whenever you feel like it – different orders have different functions in a conversation.

    And everything else in my comments still stants wrt Japanese word order.

  14. Actually, you didn’t state any reasons why they are different, you just said that they are. I’m interested in hearing your reasons on how and why they are different.

  15. The starting assumption is that if the form is different, the function is different. In English, the active and passive versions of a sentence “mean” the same thing, but one does not just chose one of them randomly. In particular, the need to keep the topic of a conversation or discourse constant can drive the use of a passive. It is a way to control what the subject of a sentence is.

    I would similarly guess that which argument is placed first in Japanese is dependent on this sort of consideration, which is called “information structure” in linguistics. I’m not saying I know exactly what factors Japanese people take into consideration when they chose to have 犬が first or 木を first. However, the choice cannot be random, and thus the sentences are different. This means that in Japanese, sentence order -does- matter.

    Some people would contend that there is an “unmarked,” or “least special” way to use a transitive verb in Japanese (assuming that you leave in all of the nouns). That order would be SOV. In English, it is SVO. As to whether this is true or not, I’m not sure, but it’s disingenuous to say that any linguist claims that -the- Japanese sentence order is SOV. Evidence for this may come from subordinate clauses, which may more frequently prefer the SOV order, because information structure does not make demands on subordinate clauses – thus the unmarked order can emerge. It certainly happens in English:

    I gave that toy to my cousin.
    To my cousin, I gave that toy.
    The person who I gave that toy to
    *The person who that toy, I gave to.

    Putting the object in front is fine in the main sentence (forming an OSVO sentence), but not okay within a relative clause. The Japanese example I gave above is similar.

  16. The final verb (including implied state-of-being) is the main focus of every Japanese sentence. Therefore, as I mentioned in my post, the further you get from the verb, the more extraneous the information becomes.

    Particles have natural levels of focus. For instance, が is very strong especially for questions because that’s what you’re trying to identify. Emphasis can also be changed by tone of course. But ordering also plays a subtle role.

    For example
    ここにあったケーキを誰が食べた?
    誰がここにあったケーキを食べた?

    While the main focus is on 誰が (the heart of the question), the emphasis on 誰が is slightly weakened in the second sentence due to the time lag to the main verb.

    That is the only consistent difference in sentence ordering that I can think of. I suppose there’s also elements of style to consider. For instance, in most cases it’s probably better to introduce a new topic at the beginning of the sentence. But I think that’s more in the realm of common sense, style, and composition rather than language learning.

  17. Perhaps Japanese clause structure should be labelled as X*V where X can be anything: subject, topic, object, adverbial phrase, indirect object (sorry using rough european language equivalents for want of better terms)

  18. Oops that somehow got posted before I finished it…

    I meant to finish by saying that * after something means zero or more repetitions.

Comments are closed.