Yet many of the supposedly “complex rules” of Japanese work just like English.
A lot of things that are presented by the textbooks as if they were strange and complex rules in fact work very similarly to English and are much more easily understood once one realizes that.
Of course Japanese is not related to English, but since both are essentially dialects of Universal Grammar, there are many fundamental similarities.
Let’s look today at a point that sometimes puzzles people – because it is explained so unintuitively in the standard textbooks: Japanese absolute and relative time expressions.
To に or not to に
We are told (correctly) that Japanese generally uses the particle に when speaking of an event taking place at an absolute time (say, 3pm or Friday the 22nd) but omits it when speaking of an event taking place at a time relative to the present (say, this morning or last week or tomorrow).
The way it is expressed in standard descriptions it sounds as if we have a rather abstract rule to memorize, but in fact all we have to remember is that it works the same way as English. In English we use a preposition for absolute time expressions but not relative ones.
Let’s look at some examples:
nigatsu itsuka ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes on the fifth of February
Sanji ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes at three o’clock
Kesa jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes this morning
Ashita jagaimo wo taberu
I will eat potatoes tomorrow
You see, English leaves out the preposition (in, on or at) for all relative time expressions, just as Japanese leaves out に for all relative time expressions. It is just the same, except that Japanese is simpler because it always uses に, while English uses in, on or at depending on the particular time expression.
Now that really is an abstract rule that you just have to learn. If you speak Japanese and want to use English time expressions correctly it is a little complicated.
But if you speak English and want to use Japanese time expressions correctly, all you have to do is just what you do in English. Where you use a preposition in English use に in Japanese. Where you leave the preposition out in English, leave the に out in Japanese.
It is as simple as that. I wonder why it is often made to seem more complicated.