The essence of sentence construction

During my lessons, when the person doesn’t know how to phrase certain things in Japanese, I try to break it down for them. In the process, I’ve found that there are some very key elements and concepts that form the core of basic sentence construction. While obviously, you can’t be breaking down sentences while you’re conversing, I still think it’s a great training exercise to start getting your sentences into shape so that you can eventually skip the whole process and go straight to clean and nicely formed sentences.

Let’s look at some sentences that at first may appear complex but is really just an application of the same basic principles when broken down.

1. What kind of food do you think he likes to eat?

2. Can you tell me the name of the Greek restaurant you went to last week?

3. Exercising a lot is fine but taking adequate rest is also important.

While it is usually a gross oversimplification that causes more confusions and misconceptions, the idea that Japanese is “backwards” is true in the fact that the core/focus of your sentence always comes at the end and it’s always a verb (either an actual verb or a state-of-being).

So if you want to break a sentence down, the first thing you should ask is:

What is the main verb?

1. What kind of food do you think he likes to eat?

2. Can you tell me the name of the Greek restaurant you went to last week?

3. Exercising a lot is fine but resting properly is also important.

In sentence 2, “tell” means more than just saying something but rather to teach someone something new. This is 「教える」 in Japanese. In sentence 3, you have two main verbs because it is a simple compound sentence with “but” being the conjunction. So our sentences should look like this:

1. 思う?
2. 教える?
3. いいが、大切。

Using 「と」 with relative clauses

One major part of sentence structuring is using 「と」 as a quotation particle to attach a verb to whole sentences.

More details:

This is especially useful for things that need to be phrased such as thoughts and things said or heard.

Let’s take a look at the first sentence in more depth.

1. What kind of food do you think he likes to eat?

In this sentence, the thought is phrased as a sentence so you can break out the quoted sentence as:

“What kind of food does he like”と思う?

So let’s break down the relative clause as a separate sentence. What’s the main verb?

What kind of food does he like?

We’ll need to add a declarative 「だ」 here for the 「と」 quotation particle since 「好き」 is a na-adjective so we have:


Now, we’ve finally gotten to the details of sentence. What likes is the question asking about? It’s “What kind of food” and it’s seeking to identify an unknown so it should use the 「が」 particle.

“What kind of food”好きだと思う?

Now, we just have to convert the object in question (food = 食べ物) and the question word (what kind = どんな).


Based on the context, you may or may not need to specify the topic. In most cases, you won’t but it’s easy enough to add.


Directly modifying a noun with a verb clause

Another major piece is the ability to attach a verb phrase directly to a noun, treating it just like an adjective. A textbook example would be a sentence such as, “The man wearing the yellow hat.”

More details:

We’re going to need this for the second sentence.

2. Can you tell me the name of the Greek restaurant you went to last week?

If you already know how to make requests (, you know all you have to do is add 「くれる」 or 「もらう」 to the te-form of the main verb)


The rest is simply specifying what you want to be told: the name of the Greek restaurant.


The tricky part is the “the Greek restaurant that you went to last week” part of the sentence. Essentially, you have a relative clause, which is its own verb phrase, directly modifying the Greek restaurant. So we can take it out and break down the main verb of that clause.

Went to last week.

So the whole clause becomes:


Now, all you have to do is directly modify the noun “Greek restaurant” with the whole clause, and you’re done!


Treating verb phrases as nouns

This leads to the final major piece, which is being able to treat verb phrases as nouns. This allows us to use adjectives and other useful parts of speech including other verbs with whole verb phrases. The basic textbook example being, “I like to do [X].”

3. Exercising a lot is fine but taking adequate rest is also important.

In the third sentence, we want to say exercising is good and resting is important. If we try to simply treat the verb “exercise” and “rest” as nouns, we run into some issues since you can’t attach particles directly to verbs (putting aside, special expressions such as 「するがいい」).


Now, in the previous example, we already learned that we can directly modify a noun with any verb phrase. So, all we need to add in the missing piece to link the adjective is any generic noun: 「こと」 and 「もの」! In this case, since exercising and resting aren’t physical objects but an event, we’ll want to use 「こと」.


Another option which always works is… the nominalizer (, of course!


We’re essentially done, we just have to sprinkle in the adverbs which can go almost anywhere as long as they go before the verb they apply to.


Finally, let’s add a bit of motherly advice-sounding nuance to it and give it a more conversation style, since it sounds like the speaker is trying to admonish the listener.


If you don’t want to sound girly, you’ll want to add 「だ」 when using 「よ」 with nouns/na-adjectives.



If applicable, politeness always goes last. All that remains is to take the last verb (or verbs in compound sentences) and conjugate to the proper polite form. I often mention that you will usually never know the politeness level of a sentence until you reach the end of the sentence. So you shouldn’t worry about it until you’re all done and finished with everything else.



Now, one important assumption in breaking down sentences in this fashion is that you know the appropriate phrasing and vocabulary. But that’s just something you’ll have to learn by reading and increasing your vocabulary. If you find that you know all the parts but have trouble piecing them together to form sentences, these tactics may help you out.

Usually, I recommend trying not to think in English at all but for beginners, there’s really no choice since that’s the only language they’re familiar with. I hope the ability to break down and convert sentences, while slow and impractical for conversation, will at least serve as a nice stepping stone so that you can get used to thinking straight in Japanese.

Good luck!

Some sample sentences for the reader’s exercise:

1. He always says he’ll be on time but he’s always at least 10 minutes late!
2. Could you ask that man wearing the yellow coat to please not smoke?
3. Studying every day is boring but I think my grades will get better as a result.

22 thoughts on “The essence of sentence construction

  1. My attempt..

    彼はいつも(on time)といっているのに、いつも少なくとも十分遅刻している!

    I’m not confident at all on any of these sentences, but it was a pretty fun trying to figure them out 🙂
    By the way, would 重要 work in place of 大切, or would it be awkward?

  2. Good job! しまう is usually for unintended consequences so you can simply remove that from the last sentence.

    On time is usually expressed as 間に合う or 時間通り or in this case, you might say 約束の時間を守る

    重要 would work but it is slightly awkward. The J-J dictionary says:


    On the other hand, 大事 works great, since it’s pertaining to your body.

  3. Hello I’m studying the japanese language to translate lyrics… but I’m still in the beginning. Can you please help me translating this one to english please? I really love this song but have only a vague idea of what it is about, and I wanted to really appreciate the poetry of it… Thanks in advance!

    作詩:土岐麻子 作曲:川口大輔




    Hello my superstar, ah!
    Break down my superstitions



    Hello my superstar, ah!
    Break down my superstitions


    Hello my superstar, ah!
    Break down my superstitions

    Hello my superstar,ah!
    Break down my superstitions



  4. My attempt is slightly different from Mike
    But I like that Mike uses のに, ように so they sound more natural

    Kim, may I request more exercise ;D

  5. You can also use a quotation:

    Here’s another exercise sentence:
    I suggest coming up with your own examples either by writing a diary or by taking notes during conversation practice.


  6. I’ll give it a shot, Tae!


  7. That’s pretty good but 自分にあった is a bit strange. You can just easily 自分の例文.

    Here’s my version

  8. Err… I can’t believe noone could take some 10 mins of their time to give me a little help. =S
    I guess you people thought I was a bot or something or you just don’t like people posting offtopic-help-requests here. Sorry for that then! Cya.

  9. Well, as I said, I’m still in the very beggining of learning japanese. So I can get only a few words or parts, but not full meanings. Ofcourse asking for a translation of a whole song would be too much I guess, but if you could just help me with the chorus (the “Hello my superstar, ah!” part), I’d be very glad.

  10. @John Mitchell

    Not to be rude, John, but perhaps you might think about heading to Tae Kim’s forum instead. Translating lyrics would be a bit off-topic for this post, but it would be okay on the forum.

  11. “What kind of food do you think he likes to eat?”

    The English sentence has the word “you” while the Japanese does not. Is it possible to put this pronoun in the Japanese version (altho it would be unusual in Japanese) or it simply **must** be omitted?

    What if I wanted to say “What kind of food does **she** thinks **he** likes to eat?”?

  12. きみを見つけたら

    たら here is the condition as in “If I find you”

    There is really no reason to use “you”. You can refer to people either by their name or use 彼/彼女 if you insist on using a pronoun.

  13. But how would I express something like
    “What kind of food does **she** thinks **he** likes to eat?” or “What kind of food does Yamada-san thinks Tanaka-san likes to eat?”

    Theses sentences might be be a little weird, but the important part is that “think” and “like” have different subjects and I want to mention them both. How can construct this sentence?

    My attempt would be:

    山田さんは、田中さんは どんな食べ物が 好きだと 思いますか?

    But this looks a little confusing with 2 topics in a row.

  14. You can say 山田さん、田中さんは どんな食べ物が 好きだと 思いますか?

    You don’t HAVE to always use a particle.

    You would rarely have two topics that you want to talk about in such a short sentence.

    Another option would be:
    山田さんは、田中さんが どんな食べ物が 好きだと 思いますか?

    It all depends on what you want to the topic to be.

  15. This may be a little late, but could I use の to modify the man?
    Sentence: その黄色コートの男にすわないって頼んでくれる?

    I was going to use “聞いてくれる” but “頼んでくれる” seems to be more appropriate.

  16. So it’ll be すわないでって。Without the で, did it sound like I wanted the man to smoke?

    Thanks. Oh yeah, I’m a fan of your lessons. It’s been a big help. Thank you for your help again. 😀

  17. Hi Kim先生-
    First, thank for your guide, your blog, and for this post. All have tremdously helpful in my Japanese studies.
    In any case, I’m not sure if you will see this (as the post is older) but:

    3. いいが、大切。

    I am slightly confused because you said earlier to concentrate on the verb. Neither of these words look like verbs to me. Then at the end you add だ/です。To me, those seem like the verb of the sentence. What am I missing?


    • Adjectives and nouns can have implied state-of-being.
      In other words, いい? means “is it good/ok?”. You don’t need to specify “to be”.

      • Hmmm okay. That does make sense (though it goes against my desire to see everything on paper that goes on in the sentence). Thanks a lot!

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