Category Archives: Grammar

Taking the Plunge: Japanese Self-Immersion. Links to all structure points

This is the support-page for the Japanese self-immersion video “Taking the Plunge” (you can find it further down the page).

Here we give links to full structural explanations of all the points covered in the video.

 

● Decorated Japanese: です・ます form. How it works.

● A meat-carrying dog: 肉をくわえた犬 Logical clauses as adjectivals (adjectival structure of Japanese)

● In the state of crossing the bridge: わたっていました. て-form depicting continuous state

● I’m not an android, I’m The Android: 犬はそれを見て は as marker of known entity, が of unknown entity.

● This, that and the other: 犬はそれを見て それ as part of the こ、そ、あ、ど structure, and how it really works.

● I came, I saw, I thunk: 犬はそれを見て思いました compound sentences.

● “Yours is bigger than mine”: あいつの肉のほうが大きそうだ Comparative ほう、contrasting one “side” with another.

● あいつの肉のほうが大きそうだ  そうだ expressing subjective impression (as opposed to differently-structured そうだ expressing hearsay).

● Annoyed dog or annoying dog? The nature of Japanese adjectives of subjectivity.

● Giving up or giving down? てくれる and てあげる (cf 取ってよろう)

● It fell saying “splash: ポチャンと the と particle marking both statements and sound-effects.

● It done fell: 落ちてしまいました てしまう、ちゃう、ちゃった, how they really work.

● The fact is that… 自分の顔だったのです。 understanding the のだ, のです ending.

● If one is greedy… the と conditional conjunction.

Japanese Punctuation: A Quick and Easy Guide

Japanese punctuation is easy, but to understand it we need to know a few things.

Most Japanese punctuation was adopted from the West relatively late, so it is not so integral to Japanese as European punctuation is to European languages.

The main functions of periods (。)and commas (、) are directly based on the equivalent European functions and the main difference is that the rules are less clearly established.

Periods are simple enough, since the concept of a sentence is quite straightforward in Japanese – A + B with any modifiers, and any compound of As and Bs that makes a complete logical unit.

Commas are pretty much thrown in whenever someone feels like it (kind of like Internet English). There aren’t definite rules for their use as in (real) English or German. I have heard of Japanese schoolchildren being criticized for overuse of commas* but this is simply a stylistic question and there is no general agreement on comma style. Essentially, if you want to show a natural pause you can use a comma. Concepts like comma-ing off a subordinate clause are not present in Japanese.

The various parentheses are used pretty much as anyone wants to use them too. Some publications or sites will establish their own rules, but there are few general ones.

「 」 are very straightforward. They work like English quotation marks. The only difference I can think of is that in some cases the closing  」can replace a period. Again this is a matter of style. Some publishers do this in their books and some don’t.

『 』 are mostly used for quotes within quotes – rather like single and double quotation marks in English, only the other way around (but English punctuation can be less consistent in this than Japanese punctuation).

〒 is used to mark a postal code in postal addresses and sometimes used as a symbol for (physical) mail in general.

々 is called the 同の字点 (どうのじてん) “same-character mark”. It simply indicates that a kanji is repeated. So words like 木木 (きぎ =trees) or 細細 (こまごま =detailed) are more often written 木々 and 細々.

I have never seen anything like the string of hash to represent foul language. This is probably because foul language is not a thing in Japan the way it is in European languages. That is, there are very few “taboo words” and they are not used in anything like the same manner they are used in European languages. There are of course many ways of being vulgar in Japanese, but the concentration around (and fascination with) a few particular words does not exist.

Some Western otaku types are so attached to Western dirty-word culture that they try to make out that it exists in some form in Japanese but it really doesn’t.

A postscript is called 追伸 (ついしん) and is sometimes used.

Hyphenation is not used in Japanese punctuation because that function really belongs to a word-spaced language – Western languages have separate words (good night) and joined words (goodnight) and sometimes want something between the two (good-night). But this question clearly doesn’t arise in Japanese where the entire concept “word” (as I sometimes try to convey) is actually very different from the western concept – much more fluid and lego-like. (This is why it would not be a good idea to introduce word-spacing into Japanese).

Overall, Japanese punctuation is easier than European punctuation because it is a recent add-on with few rules.

The question-mark is a case in point. Some people wonder when Japanese people insert a ? and the answer is pretty much “when they want to”. It is actually an extremely useful innovation because what it really does is mark intonation.

If we use the か marker in formal speech we don’t need it, but if we want to show that a normal-level sentence uses a rising pitch indicating a question we can pop one in. If it is clear from context we might not bother.

One curious piece of Japanese punctuation that may be puzzling (it puzzled me for a while) is that in books you will sometimes see little marks (rather like Japanese commas or occasionally dots) beside each letter of a word or a group of words in vertical text.

These are either for emphasis or picking out a special use of a word. In practice they work pretty much exactly like italicization in English and were probably based on that and originally introduced for translating Western books. The fact that you can’t type them easily and they seem restricted mainly to books reinforces that idea.

In fact, several things were brought into Japanese during the Meiji Era specifically to facilitate the translation of European novels into Japanese. One example of this is the gendered third-person pronouns 彼 (かれ) and 彼女 (かのじょ), which, believe it or not, did not exist before they were introduced for that purpose.

 

Note on Japanese punctuation in education

(Purely geeky and about Japanese punctuation in  children’s education. Feel free to ignore)

* I think the criticism of comma-use in schools is not based on an ideal of “correct comma use” the way it is in European languages. I think it centers on the question of using commas as a “crutch” to clarify one’s meaning rather than making oneself clear by the use of precise Japanese.

The underlying thought here, I think, is that since commas are not a part of Japanese structure with a clearly defined usage, while they may be used as stylistic embellishments to indicate pauses etc., the obvious dictum is:

If it isn’t clear without the commas, then it isn’t good Japanese.

But that isn’t something we need to worry about – this is primarily about the way Japanese children learn Japanese.

This article first appeared on my private Patreon feed

思われる Japanese omowareru – what it really means

A question today concerns 思われる, the receptive form of 思う. It is a good question because I think this is something that can be confusing, partly because of the way the receptive is explained as passive (which works – as a loose translation – part of the time but not all of it and completely messes up the structure) and partly because Japanese just puts things a little differently from English:

Maybe it’s silly, but I have a hard time differentiating between the receptive form of 思う and the verb 思われる. They seem similar to me. In which cases would you use the former, and in which cases would you use the latter?

Here is my reply:

This really isn’t silly at all because it can seem confusing at first and doesn’t get well explained.

Since 思う means “think”, 思われる means “receive being thought”, which works out in English as “seem” or “appear”. Funnily, English sometimes puts it the other way up: “give the impression”, whereas Japanese puts it “receive the perception”.

At times its meaning is very close to 思う for obvious reasons. “It seems (to me) to be a lemon” is much the same in practice as “(I) think it’s a lemon”. And as in English, the 思われる “it seems (to me)…” version is less direct/assertive than the 思う “(I) think…” version.

However, at other times 思われる does not imply “me” as the originator of the received thought at all and just means “It is thought to be”:

バクテリアの種類と思われる
“It is thought to be a species of bacteria.”

Here the English passive is the most natural translation and is fine provided we don’t let it affect our perception of the particles.

What we must remember is that receptive (so-called “passive”) constructions are made up of two verbs that always have two separate subjects. Which is why it is so damaging to our understanding to see them as a single “conjugated verb”.

The と links the idea or perception (that it is a species of bacteria) to 思う, which has the implicit subject of “people in general” (French “on”). The subject of れる is whatever “it” is that is thought to be a species of bacteria.

Some dictionaries list 思われる meaning “seems” as a separate word from the receptive form of 思う but I think it is clear that it is always actually receptive 思う.

The dictionaries are not actually “wrong” in this. Whether we call something “a different word” or not is simply a matter of cross-language explanation strategy and the strategy of a dictionary is somewhat different from the strategy of teaching/learning structure.

A dictionary’s proper aim is to give people, in a reasonably concise way, a picture of what a word might mean (in English) in a particular circumstance. The implied user is someone reading a piece of text and wanting to know how it would read in English.

The strategy of structure-study is to see what is actually going on in the Japanese, and the implied user is someone who wants to become proficient at understanding the language – not just at putting it into the nearest available English.

In general, the question of “same word” and “different word” in cases like this is a non-question. It implies that Japanese cuts up into units called words that could theoretically be spaced off from each other as in European languages.

This is not in fact the case, and if you read Japanese school grammars (for Japanese children) you will see that Japanese employs a number of terms for the most granular units of the language, but “word” or any close equivalent is not one of them.

This is not an eccentric manner of description but reflects the reality that Japanese lexical units are much more amoeba-like than European words.

We should also note that the confusion between the “two” uses arises because person having the thought that is being received is different in the two cases. This person, if explicitly mentioned would be marked by に as the “giver” of the received action always is.

So

バクテリアの種類と思われる

= ∅が∅に バクテリアの種類と思われる

The が-marked ∅ is of course the thing thought to be a species of bacteria,  and the に-marked ∅ is “people in general” – the usage is exactly equivalent to French on pense (one thinks = people think or in the more usual passive English “it is thought”).

When “I” is the implicit に-marked thinker, the visible structure is of course identical and we have to understand which it is from context.

Just as:

わたしはウナギだ

can in fact mean “I am an eel” but in the usual context, doesn’t.

In both cases the difference between the two meanings lies solely in the identity of the に-marked zero particle.

And if the concept of the zero particle isn’t crystal clear, please watch this video immediately, because it is the very foundation-stone of Japanese.

This article first appeared on my private Patreon feed

3 facts make “Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs” easy

Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs can seem like a massive learning job.

“Transitivity pairs” seem to have no rhyme or reason to their apparently random forms.

Fortunately, if we take them as they really are and understand the simple facts behind them, both the concepts and the words themselves become amazingly easy.

Let the android guide you once again.

NOTES:

Self-move verbs vs the passive voice: Why there is no confusion

1) It is well known that students can get confused between some self-move verbs and the Japanese receptive.

This is now completely avoidable because it hinges on the belief that the Japanese receptive is a “passive voice” and I think we have clearly established, that it isn’t. It is further complicated by the idea that self-move verbs are exactly the same thing as English intransitive verbs, which again I think we have disposed of in the video on this page.

2) However, the point that Electric Dragonfly-sama raised is that there is still an area of apparent near-identity between some self-move verbs and the actual passive voice (as found in English but not Japanese). Is this really the case? And if not, what is going on?

3) The answer here lies in the fact that Japanese self-move verbs run a gamut between those that are very “active” and those that are completely “static” (I am using “static” bearing in mind its etymological sense – i.e. expressing a state or condition rather than an action).

The self-move verbs on the active end of the scale closely resemble regular English intransitive verbs and denote actions like running, walking, entering, leaving, sleeping, crying etc.

The verbs on the static end of the scale do not represent actions in the sense that English understands actions at all. They represent states or conditions, but express them as ongoing actions performed by whatever exists in the given state.

These words (I haven’t done an exhaustive survey here, but from experience and a cursory survey) have a strong tendency to actually end in “aru” (あ-stem +る) and thus, perhaps historically but certainly “feelingly” to contain the idea of “existing” – which, of course is also a verb in English.

Examples of such words are:

包まる (くるまる) exist in state of being-wrapped)

重なる (かさなる) exist in state of being-piled-up)

English has no direct way of expressing these verbs and has to use phrasal workaround definitions that include the word “be”, such as “be wrapped” or “be piled up”. This is natural since, I would argue, the Japanese words contain an implied existence-verb-element because of the ある-like nature of self-move words that I explained in the video).

However, because English does not possess this kind of exist-in-a-state verb, the definitions are somewhat ambiguous and sound like instances of the English passive – because the same expressions could be used to make a passive construction, even though that is not the present intention of the definer.

So we might say (using the past tense of “be” = “was”):

“The present was wrapped (e.g. by Sakura)” – a passive construction indicating an action with a stated or implied actor.

But we also say:

“The present was wrapped (e.g. in tissue paper)” – not implying any actor or even action, but simply indicating the state in which the present existed (was).

English has very limited means for distinguishing between these two with economical grammar (and speakers do not necessarily draw a clear distinction in their minds), but Japanese has a whole class of verbs – which we can call “static self-move verbs”, or we could even cheekily coin the term “self-stand verbs” as a sub-class of self-move verbs.

These are not in any sense (grammatically) passive. It is the ways we are forced to translate them into English (which does not possess such verbs) that makes them appear so.

We may also note that the English workaround definitions have to put the verb into the past tense (even if the verb of existence is in the present, e.g. “be wrapped“), implying that an action happened and its result is now governing the subject.

Japanese actually does this quite often:

疲れた (つかれた)
Loose translation “I’m tired”
Literally “(I) became (and therefore am) tired”

お腹が空いた (おなかがすいた)
Loose translation “I’m hungry”
Literally: “(my) tummy became (and therefore is) empty”

These are temporary states that must have come about by the process indicated. However, this is not what our “self-stand verbs” are doing. They express states with no necessary implications as to how they arose.

Interestingly, I would see this as being of a piece with Japanese not allowing us to speak directly of another person’s subjective states. While some people complain that Japanese is vague, I would say that it is very precise in saying only what it actually knows to be true.

English, on the other hand, is often grammatically over-specific, which is not the opposite of “vague” or the same thing as being precise. I would say that English often has jumping to conclusions built into the grammar. We are encouraged and often near-forced to specify things that we do not know to be true.

One of the differences between Japanese and English is that Japanese tries to keep specificity (the feelings of another, the gender of an unknown person, the way in which a state arose etc.) out of statements where we are not in a position – or don’t particularly want – to specify.

So, static self-move verbs have no exact equivalent in English. The distinction is a subtle one but is worth taking note of because not realizing this can lead to a confusion between static self-move verbs and the English passive.

(This note first appeared on my Patreon feed)

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“Japanese Conjugation” Myth Busted! Never Conjugate Again! Potential form unlocked too in one fell swoop!

What do “Japanese conjugation” and “flat earth” have in common?

They are both names for something that should have been consigned to the dustbin of human ignorance long, long ago.

“Flat earth” has. “Japanese conjugation” unfortunately hasn’t.

Until now.

Click the “play” button and see history in the making.

And make Japanese a lot easier at the same time!

 

Notes:

It took me quite a while to work out the best order to tackle things. I think the potential is the right choice for introducing the entire “Japanese conjugation” concept because it doesn’t involve any new “complications”.

The “complications” of the whole “Japanese conjugation” system only exist if you have absorbed confusing ideas in the first place – but most of us have, since they are the only ones you can find.

The only real “complication” of the potential is identical to the “complication” explained in the last lesson – concerning 好き and adjectives of emotion.

That is, the unbelievably destructive insistence that the grammatical subject must be the human agent of transitive potential verbs (and therefore that the が particle has no fixed value and can randomly perform the function of the を particle).

Since this is in fact identical to the previous (gratuitously created by Western prejudices) “problem”, I think it makes sense to tackle this one in the following lesson. It is easier to understand while the general principle is fresh in our minds and it reinforces the previous knowledge.

Also, by seeing what a wide range of language is affected by this problem,  it sets us up to understand the somewhat different problem of the receptive (so-called “passive”) – which is based on exactly the same prejudice but has to shoehorn the same Western model into a different Japanese box.

There is a delicate balancing act as to how much to refer to the misconceptions.

Ideally we would be simply explaining from scratch and ignoring problems that wouldn’t be problems at all if you never even knew about them.

There’s nothing confusing about the Japanese that isn’t clarified the instant you realize that

こわい can mean “scared” or “scary” depending on whether it is pointing at “me” or the thing that scares me.

The same principle is at work in all the “problem” cases we have discussed in this lesson and the last one. It is one little difference between languages that should take five minutes or less to clear up.

(わたしが) うらやましい
I’m envious

おねえちゃんが うらやましい
my sister is envy-inducing
(natural English: I’m envious of my sister)

and you can also say:

おねえちゃんの ドレスが うらやましい
my sister’s dress is envy-inducing
(natural English: I’m envious of my sister’s dress)

Note that the last two examples show that even English allows a certain adaptability of (what in English is) the object in some cases.

This absolutely isn’t difficult. It takes a very brief adaptation to the fact that these words work slightly differently (more adaptably) in Japanese.

What makes it a problem is that, rather than simply explaining this, Western “Japanese grammar” has invented a whole elaborate system that has nothing to do with how the Japanese works and everything to do with how it might have worked if it had been a Western language.

So – how much to refer back to the mare’s-nest that is Eihongo grammar is always a slight conundrum. The ideal, I think, is:

Enough to make it clear to people who have learned a bit (or a lot) of Eihongo grammar that we are referring to the same grammar areas and signalling that it is re-think time.

But…

Little enough not to distract those who are learning from scratch, or to give the old misdescriptions an undue prominence that will end up with us falling in the briar patch.

Because we all know what happens when you fall in the briar patch.

I hope I am achieving that balance.

How Textbooks DESTROY Your Japanese: Dolly’s longest and most controversial video

Today’s video is my longest so far, clocking in at nearly 20 minutes. Possibly also my most controversial, though honestly I don’t see how anyone can seriously try to refute what I am saying.

I think a long video was in order because I am tackling one of the really key issues in Japanese structure and one of the core misconceptions that spreads its tentacles over many areas of Japanese…

…and makes what is in fact clear and simple into an absurd tangle in the minds of most students.

I am dealing here with a core problem of Western “Japanese grammar” and showing how simple and understandable real Japanese grammar is.

It affects many areas of Japanese, but by way of example, I decided to focus on  desire/emotion expressions because they throw up this problem very extensively.

And this kills two birds with one stone by allowing me to introduce these structures at the same time (and clarify them for those who already know them).

 

A piece of semi-trivia here is that I deliberately chose the crepes example because it is the one used by Tae Kim-sensei in his “proof” that there is no grammatical subject in Japanese. I have the utmost respect for Tai Kim-sensei. And as I have said before, he makes this assertion not because he is illogical but because he is much more logical than the usual explicator of conventional Eihongo Japanese.

If you accept the premise of Eihongo grammar then it logically leads to conclusions that eat away the entire structure, ending up – quite logically – with denying the grammatical subject altogether.

So Tae Kim-sensei’s logic is impeccable, but unfortunately a false premise can only lead to a false conclusion. The textbooks continue to talk about the existence of a grammatical subject while saying things incompatible with it, because they fudge the logic.

If you are interested in this “controversy” I wrote an article about it here.

I have great respect for Tae Kim-sensei and more rather than less because he relentlessly thought out the logic of his position where everyone else shied off and fudged it.

I had hesitated over linking to Tae Kim-sensei’s article because it really can tie one’s logic-circuits in knots about how Japanese works.

However, I think it is worth doing. Please don’t read it until you are comfortable with the logic of this video. Because if you aren’t, it will make the  confusion worse than ever.

If you have absorbed the video, however, I think you will gasp and roll on the floor in paroxysms of amazement (well, perhaps not actually on the floor, but I wanted to show off that I can spell paroxysms).

Seriously, I think you will be astonished that a mind as fine as Tae Kim-sensei’s can produce quite such an all-fired mess of the whole structure of Japanese.

And I say this with no disrespect at all. It is precisely because his mind is so fine that he is worth referring to at all. This is what the inside-out illogical premises of Eihongo grammar will do to the very best.

So be glad you got the Magic Talisman from some odd-looking android!

Japanese Adjectives: the inside secrets that make the whole thing easy

My whole enterprise of unlocking Japanese started with Japanese adjectives!

My short explanation of the so-called i- and na- adjectives proved so popular that I turned it into a video. It tells you four facts that you need to know about Japanese adjectives – not one of which the standard textbooks and Japanese learning sites ever tell you.

It’s kind of amazing. These are the basic things you have to know in order to use Japanese adjectives properly and the standard teaching methods just leave you to half-intuit them. If you’re lucky you do, and if you’re not lucky – well hard luck.

So we cleared that up a few years ago. Made the video last year. Why a new Japanese adjectives video now?

Well the last one starts off from the “i-adjectives and na-adjectives” notion of the standard textbook explanations. And it finally makes them clear and understandable.

But what if we start from scratch? What if we explain how the whole adjectival concept is different in Japanese than in English? What if we show how not just “adjectives” (i-adjectives) and adjectival nouns (na-adjectives) but also verbs work as adjectives all the time in Japanese?

And how this is essential to the most basic structure of how Japanese works all the time.

Can we do all that in one short video? Yes we can.

Isn’t it terribly complicated? Not at all! It’s looking at them in the wrong way (the way the textbooks do) that makes it complicated.

Just sit back and let the whole thing become crystal clear!

You will find the worksheet to go along with this lesson right here. This will help you to consolidate the information and really understand it. It’s on my Patreon, but you don’t need to be a patron to access this worksheet.

The answer sheet is here but please don’t peep at it until you’ve completed the worksheet!

Using these tools you can cement your understanding of Japanese Adjectives.

Japanese Verb Groups and the Te-form, Ta-form

Japanese verb groups are very simple to understand, but I have found various people confused about them.

Calling them “u-verbs” and “ru-verbs” certainly doesn’t help! It’s one of the sillier things the textbooks have come up with. All verbs end in the u-sound but only a small number actually end in う. And more る (ru)-ending godan (so-called u-verbs) than there are る (ru)-ending ichidan (so called ru-verbs)!

Go-dan figure! So let’s take a simple, rational look at Japanese verb groups. You’ll be using them a lot, so it’s a good idea to get them right from the start.

And it’s not nearly as hard as the textbooks make it!

Japanese Verb Tenses: How past, present and future really work

Japanese verb tenses – the “past, present and future” can be confusing partly because standard explanations of  even the English tense system is rather obscure and misleading.

If you’re reading this, then that probably doesn’t matter for you in English (though it confuses a lot of learners). But it muddies the waters of Japanese and makes the Japanese tenses seem more obscure than they need to be.

So how do we go about setting it all straight?

Easy. Let an android doll do it for you.

This video will make everything clear!

The Secret of the WA Particle! What it REALLY does

The WA particle is the most basic part of Japanese and the most misunderstood.

And because it is so fundamental, misunderstanding the wa particle means misunderstanding a large proportion of Japanese sentence structure itself.

The textbooks don’t help here. In fact they are responsible for much of the problem.

In this video Cure Dolly uses her celebrated train metaphor for Japanese sentence structure to show exactly how the wa particle really works.

What part of the train it is may well surprise you!

But once you understand that you will be able to see exactly what the wa particle really is.