“Overflowing with leftover goodness…”

I love to write about parts of Japanese that are almost always left out of the standard Japanese language curriculum. This usually applies to vocabulary that can be considered “inappropriate” for the classroom. I also like to talk about topics where the explanation is usually glossed over or oversimplified because the concepts are too difficult to explain in English. I say “bah humbug!” to all that, which is why you can come here after class to get the full, unadulterated version.

So when I thought back to Japanese 101 and the time the teacher told us to only use the negative with 「あまり」 I thought, “Hey, wait a minute!” I now know that you can use 「あまり」 with the positive, the only difference is that you get the opposite meaning of the negative version. Makes perfect sense, right? Of course things aren’t actually that simple, so read on if you want to get the full scoop on 「あまり」.

Sorry, we’re all out of whatever it is you’re looking for

「あまり」 is a pseudo adverb/adjective version of the verb 「あまる」(余る), which means for something to be left over. So, when you use 「あまり」 with the negative, you are essentially saying there is nothing left over. For example, 「あまりよくない」 literally means there is no “goodness” left over. Ok, so that doesn’t make much sense. A more natural definition would be the one we all learned in Japanese 101, “not very” or “not that much”. However, it is useful to know where 「あまり」 originally came from to see how the meaning changes if we don’t use the negative tense.

Those leftovers are excessive, man!

If the negative tense means there’s no leftovers, the opposite would obviously mean that there are leftovers. In other words, something is so excessive that there are leftovers you can’t deal with. As opposed to 「あまりよくない」、 「あまりにいい」 means that something is so good that the goodness is just overflowing with leftovers. For example, 「あまりにいい天気」 means “weather that is excessively good”. This is slightly different from 「天気がよすぎる」 meaning that the weather is too good, which has a negative connotation. 「あまりにいい天気」 just means that the weather is really, really good. It’s so good that the goodness is just overflowing and the leftover goodness is just strewn about all over the floor.

1) 天気があまりよくないので、散歩するのをやめた。
– The weather wasn’t very good so I quit going for a walk.

2) あまりにいい天気だったので、1時間も散歩をしました。
– The weather was so good that I took a walk for a whole hour.

You may have noticed the positive version uses the 「に」 target particle as in 「あまりいい」. This is normal because you need to use the target particle in order to make adjectives into adverbs such as 「上手に」 or 「簡単に」. The irregularity instead comes from the lack of any particles for the negative case. I first described 「あまり」 as a pseudo adverb/adjective because you don’t need to use any particles when using it with the negative tense. It is very similar to 「同じ」, which also doesn’t require any particles to use as an adverb/adjective. Words like 「あまり」 and 「同じ」 are difficult to categorize for this reason. However, with 「あまり」, when you are using it for the non-negative tense, the normal rules apply and you do need attach the 「に」 particle in order to use it as an adverb.

A) 日本語はあまり難しいよ。
– Japanese is so difficult, you know. (grammatic error)

B) 日本語はあまり難しい。
– Japanese is so difficult.

A) ほら、難しいでしょ!
– See, it is hard!

More fun with 「あまり」

Since we’re having so much fun, I thought I’d mention a couple other things related to 「あまり」. First, because the Japanese are always trying to come up with easier way to say things, we have the casual equivalents: 「あんまり」 and 「あんま」. I would say 「あんまり」 is used even more than 「あまり」 in conversational Japanese while 「あんま」 sounds a bit masculine due to it’s short length.

1) 時間があんまりないんだよね。
-Hmm… there’s not much time.

2) 時間があんまないんだよな。
-Hmm… there’s not much time.

As for using this slang for the non-negative case, while googling for 「あんまりに」 did yield a sizable number of results, 「あんまに」 didn’t turn up much so I suggest using 「あんま」 only for the negative tense.

Finally, 「余」, the kanji for 「あまり」 is also used in a some very useful words like 「余裕」 and 「余計」. 「余計」, in particular, is a word you’ll see all the time once you learn it. It’s very useful for when somebody says or does too much. Essentially, you can use it to tell people that it’s none of their business.

1) 余計なお世話だよ!
– None of your business! (lit: You’re unnecessarily taking care of me!)

2) 余計なことを言うんじゃいよ。
– Don’t say things that are none of your business. (lit: You don’t say unnecessary things, you know.)


As we have seen, there is a lot more to the word 「あまり」 than what is normally taught to beginning Japanese students. I suspect this is the case because 「あまり」 is most often used with the negative tense and covering any more would confuse the poor students. Apparently, Japanese students are very easily confused and should not be exposed to the scary parts of the language so that they can stay in their safe and comfortable cocoon of polite, “proper” Japanese (whatever that means) .

9 thoughts on ““Overflowing with leftover goodness…”

  1. I have been wondering about this since about day one of Japanese class. Thanks.

    But is there a typo in this sentence?:
    Also, I would refrain from using 「あんま」 for the non-negative case although googling for 「あんまりに」 did yield a sizable number of results.

  2. I meant to say that people probably don’t say あんまに but あんまりに seems to be used at least according to google.

  3. I think what the teachers are feeling is along the lines of, “If I teach them anything less than formal, and they start using slang in inappropriate situations, they’re going to blame me for the resulting embarrassment.” It’s also the case that Japanese learned in the classroom is based on a limited time frame, and you can’t go off on too many tangents, so it’s easier to sweep it under the rug.

    Ideally, what should happen is students are encouraged to understand everything, but use only the proper forms. If, for example, a student asks if you can use あまり with a positive, the teacher should simply say, “Yes, but I don’t have time to explain that during class time, but if you refer to this resource (website, book, whatever), or visit me during my office hours, your question will be answered.” Of course, university professors aren’t really there to teach you so much as they are there to have an adequate resource that enables them to continue their own research outside of required teaching time.

  4. I totally understand the limits of the classroom and I would probably do a lot of things the same way if I were a teacher. However, what I feel that teachers aren’t willing to admit is the fact that the classroom is not enough. I wish teachers would require more independent, real-life activities such as working with native speakers (tutors, language partners, etc), cross-cultural studies/activities, study/discussion sessions on any material including stuff outside of class, allow students to study works chosen by themselves with teacher approval, etc, etc. I’m willing to bet 99% of the time, these activities are not even encouraged, much less required.

    In fact, Japanese teachers probably feel that the classroom is too much as it is. So you have this ugly cycle where students don’t learn because they don’t get enough exposure and because they don’t learn, teachers feel the material is too much for them, thereby reducing their exposure. I think that’s the root cause of this constant babying I see in Japanese. Dumbing down the material, repeatedly doing reviews, increasing drills, and adding quizzes and tests is not the answer.

    Teachers should teach the proper basics in the classroom as they have been doing but also find ways to make the students go out and use it outside of class as best as they can. Then, you can just grade them on participation as an incentive. I think it would make classes a lot more enjoyable and educational.

  5. Hey, I’m studying Japanese at Keio University now and in my class (intermediate level), they taught us あまりにも, like 清作の答えはあまりにもすばらしいので、先生は驚いた。

    It’s interesting though because they taught us あまりにも but never mentioned あまりに to us and in your blog, you never mentioned あまりにも but talk about あまりに…

  6. Hey Robbie, I didn’t mention も because it is just used to emphasis あまりに very similar to the も used to exaggerate time or amount. Though あまりにも is a common combination, I left out the も because it serves a different function and was not related to the point of the post, which is how あまり is used in the positive case.

  7. I thought this was very interesting. I was wondering, can the phrase for “You’re unnecessarily taking care of me” be used politely? Also, could you put in furigana for any new kanji introduced in your lessons? Thank you!

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