Debunking the Japanese sentence order myth

Originally Published: 2005/2/16

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 strict 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 relative clause

In order to really understand Japanese sentence structure, you need to break things down into relative clauses. A relative 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 relative clause can have only one such verb.

The verb (or state-of-being) must come at the very end of the relative 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 relative clauses and combine them with either with conjunctions or by direct noun modifications. But as long as the sentence structure in each separate relative clause is correct, there should be no problems with sentence ordering no matter how complicated and long the sentence is.

Addendum

(added 2017/10/19)

I’m sure linguistic experts will claim I’m totally wrong and SOV is a classification, word order preference, or whatever you want to call it and doesn’t technically require an “S” or “O”. My original point in the article (though admittedly I was younger and more dramatic) is that this classification doesn’t help SLA and in fact creates a lot of confusion and common mistakes for beginners learning Japanese as a second language.

It’s a BIG stretch to say there’s some equivalence to English as an SVO language. In English, saying “Ball boy hits” is grammatically incorrect. On the other hand, in Japanese, not only are both “Ball boy hits” and “Boy ball hits” grammatically correct, they have the same meaning if the particles remain unchanged regardless of order. There’s a fundamental difference in the two languages that is not accurately portrayed by this misleading classification.

Furthermore, I believe the whole viewpoint of SOV vs SVO linguistically is very western-centric and not a good way to describe Japanese. If you want to prove me wrong with a mathematical proof in the style of formal language theory, that’s one thing but this is far more subjective and to say one is “wrong” because it doesn’t adhere to an established curriculum is short-sighted. I highly doubt linguistics created in a vacuum purely for Japanese would have taken the same approach here.

Is there a subject in Japanese grammar?

Originally published: 2007/9/3

One of my biggest pet peeves in the field of Japanese as a second language is the 「が」 particle being called the “subject particle”. This misleading terminology comes from my second biggest pet peeve, which is educators trying to artificially tie Japanese into English language concepts. I think one of the problems is that Japanese teachers, especially native speakers, really don’t understand their own language from a conceptual point-of-view and more importantly how it logically differs from English.

I can illustrate how stupid it is to call 「が」 the subject particle in the following simple dialogue.

Aさん: 原宿に行こうよ。
Bさん: なんで?
Aさん: クレープが食べたいから。

Looking at the last sentence, if 「クレープが」 is indeed marking crepe as the subject, we can only assume that Aさん wants to go to Harajuku because the crepe wants to eat. But that doesn’t make any sense! In reality, 「クレープ」 here is supposed to be the object of the sentence, the subject being Aさん, who wants to eat crepe.

The most simple conclusion, if you insist on thinking in English, is that the 「が」 particle can either represent the subject or the object of the sentence. But why would you use the same particle to represent something completely so different as the subject and the object? And to make things even worse, consider the following dialogue.

Aさん:何か食べようよ。
Bさん:クレープはどう?
Aさん:クレープはあまり食べたくないな。

If you throw in the fact that the 「は」 can also be the subject OR the object, it’s no wonder that Japanese particles seem so confusing! It’s natural that students can never figure out the difference between 「は」 and 「が」 because it seems that either can be used to indicate the same things in English. This is where Japanese teachers should really beat into their heads that the concepts they’re looking for such as the subject does not exist in Japanese.

The subject traditionally indicates who or what is doing the verb in the sentence but 「は」 only indicates the topic. For example, 「今日は忙しい」 doesn’t mean that “Today is busy”, it means “As for today, [I, he, she, we, they] is/are busy.” Only when we translate into English are we forced to create the subject by context. In this case, the translation might be “I’m busy today.”

The 「が」 particle also does not indicate the subject, it only identifies the unknown. For example, 「クレープが食べたいから。」 is identifying that it’s because crepe is the thing that he/she/we/they wants to eat. In English, the subject would be “it” as in, “It’s because I want to eat crepe”. But because Japanese doesn’t even have a subject, there is no need for such a construction.

This is why I’ve been calling the 「が」 particle the “identifier particle” for the longest time, and you should too because that’s what it does. There is no such thing as a subject in Japanese so it makes no sense to have a “subject” particle. (Please feel free to do the double quote sign while saying “subject” in “subject particle”.)

For further reading, I highly suggest this blog post: 「日本語に主語はあるのか?」.

What’s the difference between 「は」 and 「が」?

Originally published: 2005/2/5

Since this is my first post, I figured I would start from the very basics. While the word “basic” has a connotation of meaning “easy” (eg Visual Basic), this is not the case for Japanese. The most basic ideas in Japanese are the hardest to grasp because the fundamental differences between English and Japanese leaves out any way to actually express the idea in English. Unless you speak a similar language like Korean *eh hem*, you’re going to have to wrestle with a concept that doesn’t even exist in your native language. One such example is the idea of particles and especially the particles 「は」 and 「が」.

What’s the difference between 「は」 and 「が」?

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard the question, “What is the difference between the 「は」 and 「が」 particle?” This question has successfully managed to baffle countless generations of people learning Japanese. This has been followed by countless number of equally confusing (and sometimes wrong) explanations involving a great deal of mumbo-jumbo such as contrast, emphasis, subordinate clauses, and voodoo magic. However, with my genius, I was able to provide a complete explanation in one small sentence.

「は」 and 「が」 have different meanings.

I think the more appropriate question would be, “What isn’t different about 「は」 and 「が」?” You may be thinking, “But in English, they both identify the subject of the sentence.” Ahh, English. Isn’t English that language that can’t even express the very concept of 「は」 and 「が」? Well, no wonder it looks the same in that language. That’s like a red-green color-blind person holding a red and green sheet of paper and saying, “Hey, isn’t this the same color?”

Japanese: A language of context

Since 「は」 and 「が」 mean totally different things, the only thing we need to do in order to identify their differences is to fully understand what they actually mean and why they exist. The first thing we need to realize is that a Japanese sentence is not required to have a subject. You can just say, “Hit ball” and you’re good to go. So how do you know what the heck everybody is talking about?

Well, there are several ways and they all involve making assumptions from context. For example, if I suddenly asked you, “Ate lunch?” you assume I’m asking if you ate lunch because I’m surely not talking about anyone else. Therefore, you answer, “Ate lunch.” Then I assume you are talking about yourself since I just asked you the question and so I now know that you ate lunch. However, if we happened to be talking about Alice when I asked you the question, you will likely assume that I’m asking if Alice ate lunch because that’s who we were talking about.

Ok, so what does 「は」 mean?

If we take a language like Japanese where the subject is so heavily based on context, we need to be able to identify a couple things. While making assumptions from context will work for simple question and answer sessions, anything more complicated will soon become a mess as everybody starts to lose track of who or what they’re talking about. Therefore, we need to be able to tell the listener when we want to change the current topic to say, “Hey, I’m going to talk about this now. So don’t assume I’m still talking about the old thing.” This is especially important when you strike up a new conversation and you need to tell the listener what you’re talking about. This is what the 「は」 particle does; it introduces a different topic from the current one. For that reason, it is also referred to as the ‘topic particle’.

Lets take the previous example where I wanted to ask you if you ate. The conversation might look like the following:

Me) 食べた? – Did you eat?
You) 食べた。 – I ate.

Now, what if I wanted to ask you if Alice ate? Then I need to use the 「は」 particle to indicate that I’m talking about Alice. Otherwise, you would just assume I’m talking about you.

Me) アリス食べた? – Did Alice eat?
You) 食べた。 – She ate.

Notice how once I establish Alice as the new topic, we can continue to assume that we are talking about her until someone changes the topic.

So what does 「が」 mean then?

Ok, so we can introduce a new topic using the 「は」 particle. But what if we don’t know what the topic is? What if I wanted to ask, “Who ate the chicken?” What I need is some kind of identifier because I don’t know who ate the chicken. If I used the 「は」 particle, the question would become, “Did who eat the chicken?” and that doesn’t make any sense because “who” is not an actual person.

This is where the 「が」 particle comes into play. It is also referred to as the subject particle but I hate that name since it means something completely different in English grammar. Instead, I move to call it the identifier particle because it identifies something unknown.

The conversation about the chicken-eater culprit might go something like this:

Me) チキン食べた? – Who ate the chicken?
You) アリス食べた。 – Alice [is the one who] ate it.

Notice that the 「が」 particle is used twice because you need to identify who ate the chicken in the answer. You can’t say 「アリス食べた。」 because we’re not talking about Alice. We’re trying to identify the unknown person that ate the chicken.

Conclusion

Now, that I’ve clearly explained what 「は」 and 「が」 means, I hope this will finally clear up that question that has been haunting your mind. Remember, if you are talking about something new, use 「は」. If you are trying to identify something unknown, use 「が」. Simple, huh?