Peculiar properties of 「多い」 and 「少ない」

An interesting post I read recently about 「多い」 and 「少ない」 got me thinking (probably a bit too much). The post is also all in Japanese, so it’s good reading practice as well.

As Minako Okamoto points out, you can’t directly modify a noun with 「多い」 and 「少ない」 in the manner below.


I believe this is due to the idiosyncrasy of having adjectives that indicate multiple objects in a language that has no singular/plural distinction. (I have another post that explores this theme in depth that has been in my draft folder forever.) In addition, other words that indicates multiple objects such as 「少数」 and 「多数」 are almost always used as nouns despite the fact that they are descriptive and would normally be thought of as adjectives. (I have no idea whether they are officially classified as just nouns or as both nouns and na-adjectives.)

The easy way

There are many ways to get around this problem of not being able to directly modify the noun with adjectives indicating amounts. For instance, you can make the adjective a predicate or use adverbs such as 「たくさん」 and 「少し」 instead as Minako demonstrates.


The not-as-easy way

While this works fine for elementary Japanese, more complicated sentences might call for a direct noun modification. This is especially the case when the main focus of the sentence is something else and the fact that it’s numerous or few in number is extraneous information. In order to do this, all you have to do is modify as a noun using 「の」 instead of the traditional adjective-noun modification. For i-adjectives, you have to convert it to an adverb first by replacing 「い」 with 「く」.

(I completely made this example up so I have no idea if this is true and I would guess probably not.)

Oddly enough, I have never seen the opposite 「少なくの」. I guess every language has its quirks. You can however, use 「少数の」 instead.


KISS (Keep it simple, stupid!)

Some people might look down on what I called “elementary” earlier but in languages, simpler is always better. So in most cases and especially in conversational Japanese, you should just stick to the simpler method of using words like 「たくさん」 and 「少し」 without mucking around with what is more of a formal written style using 「多くの」, etc.

I should also note that there is a big difference between a direct noun modification and a subordinate clause modification as the two examples below show.

1) 東京に多いレストランがある。
2) レストランが多い東京が好きだ。

Unlike the first sentence where 「多い」 is directly modifying 「レストラン」, the second sentence is perfectly fine because 「多い」 is the predicate in the clause 「レストランが多い」 and is not directly modifying the noun 「東京」 by itself.

So in most cases, if you stick to the basics, there should be no problem at all. In fact, I have personally never noticed this peculiar problem until I consciously thought about it. In conclusion, remember that “brevity is the soul of wit”!

Can anybody think of any other adjectives that have similar issues?

9 thoughts on “Peculiar properties of 「多い」 and 「少ない」

  1. I’ve long-since grown accustomed to the usage of 多い and 少ない in Japanese, to the point where it “feels” right when I hear it, though I’ve never thought about them not being able to directly modify nouns outside of a clause.
    O おいしいステーキ。
    X 多いステーキ。

    But taking this into another language – Korean really threw me off the first time I started studying it. Adjectives are conjugated as verbs! It makes sense to me now why that would be the case, as it makes it unnecessary to tack on “to be” in every sentence.
    O 무거워요.
    X 무겁이에요.

    Still further, using “to do” to modify “necessary”, as in 필요해요, is still a strange concept. In Japanese, of course, it’s similar to English in that we use “to be”. It is heavy = 重いです。 (Although that brings up one more difference, where the Japanese “to be” isn’t a verb!)

  2. Hmm I’ve seen 多くのA and Aが多い, but never actually knew that you can’t have 多いA. Thanks for the post.

    This brings to mind 遠くの. But it differs in that 遠い can directly modify nouns (right?).

  3. Alex, I believe 필요하다 is a word by itself. I have never seen 필요 used by itself. It is interesting that adjectives are kind of like verbs though.

    agro1986, while 遠い can be used to directly modify nouns, I feel like it might be something that might not work very well in some cases.

    For instance, I think 遠い友達 sounds a bit awkward and would be better as 遠い所に住んでいる友達. But then again, I wouldn’t say 遠くの友達 either. I think くの sounds a bit more literary and is used for style. This is all definitely in the grey realm of style and not necessarily wrong or right.

    Hmm… Interesting.

  4. Alex,

    “重い。” in direct-style speech is a complete, grammatically correct sentence meaning “it is heavy”. So the verb “to be” is in fact included in the adjective, as with your Korean example (though I don’t know Korean).

  5. Tae-san,
    Your examples are all correct.
    多く、少なく、近く、遠く; they are considered as nouns, so if you add の, you can modify nouns with them as you point out.

    遠い/近い can modify nouns direclty such as 遠い国、遠い空、遠い昔、遠い親戚, etc. There are two definitions here. 1)far/ near in space or time. 2)far/ near in relationship.

    Can you see the difference between them?
    遠い親戚:血縁関係が薄い (not close in blood relation)
    遠くの親戚/遠くにいる親戚:距離的に離れている (great distance in space)

    From this example、when we use 遠くの/近くの, it is clearer that we choose definition 1.

    next example;

    Some people would say 近い店.It is still okay. I think this is because we all understand B speaks of a distance from where he is now.

    Hum… muzukashii desu ne.

  6. What about the following sentence:
    今年は変化の多い年でした –There was a lot of change this year.
    (this is taken from the Japanese core 2000 sentence set)

    Here the 多い seems to be used as a predicate in subordinate clause, but is used with の in a way I couldn’t find mentioned anywhere.

    Why 変化の多い and not 変化が多い or 多くの変化?

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