LearnJapanese Tae Kim's Guide to Learning Japanese





Relative Clauses and Sentence Order

Posted by Tae Kim

Treating verbs and state-of-being like adjectives

Have you noticed how, many forms of verbs and the state-of-being conjugate in a similar manner to i-adjectives? Well, that is because, in a sense, they are adjectives. For example, consider the sentence: "The person who did not eat went to bank." The "did not eat" describes the person and in Japanese, you can directly modify the noun 'person' with the clause 'did not eat' just like a regular adjective. This very simple realization will allow us to modify a noun with any arbitrary verb phrase!

Using state-of-being clauses as adjectives

Vocabulary

  1. 国際 【こく・さい】 - international
  2. 教育 【きょう・いく】 - education
  3. センター - center
  4. 登場 【とう・じょう】 - entry (on stage)
  5. 人物 【じん・ぶつ】 - character
  6. 立入 【たち・いり】 - entering
  7. 禁止 【きん・し】 - prohibition, ban
  8. 学生 【がく・せい】 - student
  9. 人 【ひと】 - person
  10. 学校 【がっ・こう】 - school
  11. 行く 【い・く】 (u-verb) - to go
  12. 子供 【こ・ども】 - child
  13. 立派 【りっ・ぱ】 (na-adj) - fine, elegant
  14. 大人 【おとな】 - adult
  15. なる (u-verb) - to become
  16. 友達 【とも・だち】 - friend
  17. いい (i-adj) - good
  18. 先週 【せん・しゅう】 - last week
  19. 医者 【い・しゃ】 - doctor
  20. 仕事 【し・ごと】 - job
  21. 辞める 【や・める】 (ru-verb) - to quit

The negative, past, and negative past conjugations of verbs can be used just like adjectives to directly modify nouns. However, we cannot do this with the plain non-past state-of-being using 「だ」. (I told you this was a pain in the butt.) The language has particles for this purpose, which will be covered in the next section.

You cannot use 「だ」 to directly modify a noun with a noun
like you can with 「だった」、「じゃない」、and 「じゃなかった」.

You can, however, have a string of nouns placed together when they're not meant to modify each other. For example, in a phrase such as "International Education Center" you can see that it is just a string of nouns without any grammatical modifications between them. It's not an "Education Center that is International" or a "Center for International Education", etc., it's just "International Education Center". In Japanese, you can express this as simply 「国際教育センタ」 (or 「センター」). You will see this chaining of nouns in many combinations. Sometimes a certain combination is so commonly used that it has almost become a separate word and is even listed as a separate entry in some dictionaries. Some examples include: 「登場人物」、「立入禁止」、or 「通勤手当」. If you have difficulties in figuring out where to separate the words, you can paste them into the WWWJDICs Translate Words in Japanese Text function and it'll parse the words for you (most of the time).

Examples

Here are some examples of direct noun modifications with a conjugated noun clause. The noun clause has been highlighted.

  1. 学生じゃないは、学校行かない
    Person who is not student do not go to school.
  2. 子供だったアリスが立派大人なった
    The Alice that was a child became a fine adult.
  3. 友達じゃなかったアリスは、いい友達なった
    Alice who was not a friend, became a good friend.
  4. 先週医者だったボブは、仕事辞めた
    Bob who was a doctor last week quit his job.

Using relative verb clauses as adjectives

Vocabulary

  1. 先週 【せん・しゅう】 - last week
  2. 映画 【えい・が】 - movie
  3. 見る 【み・る】 (ru-verb) - to see
  4. 人 【ひと】 - person
  5. 誰 【だれ】 - who
  6. いつも - always
  7. 勉強 【べん・きょう】 - study
  8. する (exception) - to do
  9. 赤い 【あか・い】 (i-adj) - red
  10. ズボン - pants
  11. 買う 【か・う】 (u-verb) - to buy
  12. 友達 【とも・だち】 - friend
  13. 晩ご飯 【ばん・ご・はん】 - dinner
  14. 食べる 【た・べる】 (ru-verb) - to eat
  15. 銀行 【ぎん・こう】 - bank

Verbs clauses can also be used just like adjectives to modify nouns. The following examples show us how this will allow us to make quite detailed and complicated sentences. The verb clause is highlighted.

Examples

  1. 先週映画見た
    Who is person who watched movie last week?
  2. ボブは、いつも勉強するだ。
    Bob is a person who always studies.
  3. 赤いズボン買う友達はボブだ。
    Friend who buy red pants is Bob.
  4. 晩ご飯食べなかったは、映画見た銀行行った
    Person who did not eat dinner went to the bank she saw at movie.

Japanese Sentence Order

Vocabulary

  1. 私 【わたし】 - me; myself; I
  2. 公園 【こう・えん】 - (public) park
  3. お弁当 【お・べん・とう】 - box lunch
  4. 食べる 【た・べる】 (ru-verb) - to eat
  5. 学生 【がく・せい】 - student
  6. 行く 【い・く】 (u-verb) - to go

Now that we've learned the concept of relative clauses and how they are used as building blocks to make sentences, I can go over how Japanese sentence ordering works. There's this myth that keeps floating around about Japanese sentence order that continues to plague many hapless beginners to Japanese. Here's how it goes.

The most basic sentence structure in English can be described as consisting of the following elements in this specific order: [Subject] [Verb] [Object]. A sentence is not grammatically correct if any of those elements are missing or out of order.

Japanese students will tell you that Japanese, on the other hand, while frothing at the mouth, is completely backwards!! Even some Japanese teacher might tell you that the basic Japanese sentence order is [Subject] [Object] [Verb]. This is a classic example of trying to fit Japanese into an English-based type of thinking. Of course, we all know (right?) that the real order of the fundamental Japanese sentence is: [Verb]. Anything else that comes before the verb doesn't have to come in any particular order and nothing more than the verb is required to make a complete sentence. In addition, the verb must always come at the end. That's the whole point of even having particles so that they can identify what grammatical function a word serves no matter where it is in the sentence. In fact, nothing will stop us from making a sentence with [Object] [Subject] [Verb] or just [Object] [Verb]. The following sentences are all complete and correct because the verb is at the end of the sentence.

Grammatically complete and correctly ordered sentences

  1. 公園お弁当食べた
  2. 公園お弁当食べた
  3. お弁当公園食べた
  4. 弁当食べた
  5. 食べた

So don't sweat over whether your sentence is in the correct order. Just remember the following rules.

Japanese sentence order
  • A complete sentence requires a main verb that must come at the end. This also includes the implied state-of-being.
    Examples
    1. 食べた
    2. 学生(だ)
  • Complete sentences (relative clauses) can be used to modify nouns to make sentences with nested relative clauses except in the case of 「だ」.
    Example
    お弁当食べた学生公園行った
    Student who ate lunch went to the park.