Defining things with 【いう】

The verb, “to say” is an useful word in probably just about any language. However, 「言う」(いう), the Japanese word meaning “to say”, is practically essential because in addition to the simple action of gabbing, it is also used to define or describe things. In this post, I will go over how to combine the 「と」 quotation particle with 「いう」 to define things.

I remember back during my tender years in Japanese 101, one of the first phrases I learned was 「”XXX”は、日本語で何と言いますか。」, which means “How do you say “XXX” in Japanese?” (I’m not talking about porn here, the “XXX” is a placeholder for any word.) Of course, at the time, it was written more like 「”XXX”は、にほんごで なんと いいますか。」 because exposing Japanese 101 students to kanji would instantly render them blind. Anyway, my point is that this is one of the first expressions we dutifully memorized and already it uses grammar that involves the 「と」 quotation and 「いう」.

While the 「という」 combination, of course, can be used to quote things people actually say, it can also be used to describe what something is referred to as.

– He said, “yes”.

– Do you know the site referred to as “livedoor”?

There is no good way to translate this usage directly into English so we have to settle for similar expressions such as “referred to as”, “called”, or “known as”. This method of defining things can be mighty handy when you want to ask about definitions of words in Japanese. For instance, here is conversation from 「日本語教科書の落とし穴」, a book I will be talking about in another post.

L: 田中先生、名字は何ですか。
T: 名字は田中ですよ。
L: ?・・・名字は何ですか?
T: ???

The problem here is that the student wants to know what 「名字」 means but ends up asking, “What is [your] last name?” What he really wanted to ask was, 「名字というのは何ですか。」, which means something along the lines of, “What is the thing referred to as 名字?” or more literally, “What is the thing that’s said 名字?”

Basically, this grammar is used anytime you want to talk about the thing itself.

– Is it true that Japanese people are weak to alcohol?

As you can see in this example, the thing that is being discussed is the actual phrase 「日本人はお酒に弱い」 itself and whether it’s true or not. Here’s another similar example.

– The thing of not eating breakfast is not very good.

In this fashion, the 「という」 is defining the very action of “not eating breakfast” and describing it.

You can also combine 「こう」、「そう」、and 「ああ」 with 「いう」 to define things in general. In this case, you do not need the 「と」 so you end up with 「こういう」、「そういう」 and 「ああいう」 to means “things like this”, “things like that”, and “things like that (far away)” respectively.

A: 眠くて、学校に行く気が全然なかった。
– I was sleepy and didn’t feel like going to school at all.

B: そういう時、よくあるよね。
– That kind of time occurs a lot, huh?

The reason why you hear 「って」 all the time

If you’ve spend any length of time speaking in casual Japanese, you may have noticed 「って」 being used all the time. That’s because 「って」 is an all-in-one, magical casual abbreviation for 「と」、「という」、「というのは」、and 「とは」. Because 「って」 is so short and flexible, you end up wanting to use it basically anytime you want to talk about the thing itself.

A: マイクが呼んでいるよ 。
– Mike is calling you.

B: マイクって、誰?
– Who is this “Mike”?

A: まだ仕事が決まってないんだ。
– The job has yet to be decided.

B: 就職活動って、大変だよね。
– The “finding job” thing is tough, huh?


As you can see from the examples, using 「という」 and its casual counterpart 「って」 to define things is a vital part of the Japanese language. Sometimes, it’s optional; for times when you want to emphasis that you are talking about the thing itself. Other times, like the 「名字は何ですか」 example, it might be required or else you end up saying completely different. In either case, 「という」 and 「って」 is very useful whenever you want to define and talk about the topic itself.

To see if you truly understand the distinction between using and not using this grammar, try out these neat questions from 「日本語教科書の落とし穴」 .




Feel free to post your answers in the comments. I’ll be waiting!

This is the first of three posts discussing 「言う」.

The second post is about “Using 「というか」 to rephrase things”“.
The third post is about “Various ways to say 「いう」“.

13 thoughts on “Defining things with 【いう】

  1. Interesting.
    would something like
    make any sense, too? If so, would it be any different from your example?

  2. Because you are not talking about any specific instance of not eating, it might not be the best way to say it. It’s very difficult to say, because all your sentences are technically correct. And of course, depending on the conversation, maybe you are talking about a specific instance of not eating. If you’re not super-picky, I’m inclined to say, “Sure, your examples are probably fine.”

  3. Finally, someone who explains this in a way I understand. 🙂

    Interestingly, geek that I am, this reminds me of closures in functional programming. You sort of defer the execution of the という part until it’s in the context of the rest of the sentence (rather than understanding it as part of that sentence as a whole). I’m sure that makes no sense to anyone but me, but I find it fascinating all the same!

  4. I kind of thought that という is used to reference the object inself instead of what it points to. Kind of like the reference operator & in C++.

  5. From what I see, both Tae Kim and Mark are correct; you’re thinking about different things. 「と いう」 is like the reference operator, or like Lisp’s quote primitive. But Mike find it interesting that the quoted token is set apart until you proccess the rest of the sentence. This is pervasive in all Japanese grammar, though, and not specific to 「と いう」. Japanese has been described in kuro5hin, very interestingly, as a stack-based language, like FORTH. I wish the author had explored the idea a bit more, as the parallels are uncanning.

  6. i really need help with ってのは(というのは) in jgram it says it means “defining something” but in the sentence


    i know your the man who tempted shiho! was teh translation i got. what is the function of ~ttenowa?

  7. Wow, ok…I must looking at an old post..but umm… far as I have seen って can be used almost any time you want. ビールっていいな。 or ビールって飲みたい~。 Am I just hearing it wrong? I’m sure its not textbook Japanese. But I was almost positive I hear ppl saying that all the time. Could just be the horribly incorrect dialect in Kumamoto. lol

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