The Structure of a Japanese Sentence

This lesson introduces the basics of Japanese sentence structure, one of the basic components of the overall grammar. All the background grammatical knowledge and terminology you'll need is covered in the process.

Recommended Background:

A Guide to Japanese Pronunciation (so that you at least have an idea of how to pronounce the examples)

What is "Grammar"?

Very loosely, grammar is the set of rules that govern how language is structured. To better understand this, let's break grammar down into its components.

Syntax, or sentence structure, deals with how words of different types are put together to make a grammatical sentence. Japanese syntax is fairly different from English syntax, but the basic principles are extremely straightforward, so this is where we'll be starting.

Next is morphology, or word structure, which describes how morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in a given language, are put together to create words. This is the part of Japanese grammar that is very different from English, as Japanese relies much more heavily on verb conjugation than English does.

Linguists also include phonology, or sound structure (including intonation), under the term "grammar", but for our purposes we'll use the common understanding of the term: word structure plus sentence structure.

In learning a second language, you're inevitably going to learn a bit about language in general; that is, you're going to be learning linguistics. The difference is that in our case, we're not as concerned with the theory behind it all as we are with the practical side of things – just enough information to understand the differences between Japanese and English.

We'll start by examining the differences between simple sentences in English and Japanese.

Basic Word Order

One way of categorizing languages is based on the word order of a simple sentence. Japanese is known as an SOV (subject-object-verb) language: the subject comes first, the verb comes last, and if the verb takes an object, it comes in the middle. English, in comparison, is a SVO language.

ex. "The dog chased the cat."

In such a simple sentence, it's easy to see which words make up the subject, object, and verb.

The dog chased the cat.
Subject Verb Object

Intuitively, we know that "the dog" is the one doing the chasing, and "the cat" is the one being chased. We also know the second "the" is more closely related to "cat" than "chased", so it gets included with the object.

Although these kinds of terms are very difficult to define (a major failing of traditional grammar), the subject is often the entity who "does" or "experiences" the verb and the object tends to be the entity that has the verb "done" to it.

In reality, the thematic role (the role of the noun with respect to the event represented by the verb) of both subject and object is somewhat arbitrary, and depends on the verb in question. Keep this in the back of your mind, because it's not uncommon for the object of an English verb to be the subject of the equivalent Japanese verb. As you'll see below, "subject" and "object" aren't themselves thematic roles, but sentence positions, in other words, slots with a particular placement.

Word Categories

It's basically impossible to give satisfactory descriptive definitions to word categories like noun, verb, and adjective (linguists define them instead by the positions they can take in a sentence) but to make sure you have at least an intuitive understanding of what these categories are, let's look at some examples.

Category "Definition" Examples
Noun A "person, place, thing, or idea" Hayao Miyazaki, desert, sledgehammer, linguistics
Adjective "Describes" a noun blue, happy, ridiculous
Verb An "action" or "state of being" eat, contemplate, live, fear
Determiner ??? a/an, the, this, that, some, every

Determiners are undoubtedly the group you've never heard of. This category includes the articles "a/an" and "the", as well as similar words that can appear in front of a noun phrase, which can contain any number of adjectives or other modifiers in addition to the noun. What makes determiners special is there can (usually) only be one per noun phrase, and (in English at least) they're often required.

You've probably heard of other word categories as well: pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc., but what we have here is fine for now.

Subjects, Objects, and Adjuncts

Many verbs can take more than one object, and some don't take any at all. When there is just one object, it is usually a direct object (usually the thing that "is verbed"), and when there are two, the other is an indirect object (the usually the destination of the direct object). Both are included in the object part of the SVO/SOV scheme.

Bill gave his old computer to me.
Subject Verb Direct Object Indirect Object
    <———-Objects———->

Note: English also allows indirect objects to come without a preposition, as in "Bill gave me his old computer".

Together, subjects and both kinds of objects are known as arguments, and are tied together by the fact that they receive their interpretations from the particular verb they appear with. Most optional pieces, such as expressions for the time and location of the event, are also thrown in on the same side of the verb as the object. We call these extra pieces of information adjuncts.

Bill gave his old computer to me last year.
Subject Verb Direct Object Indirect Object Adjunct

This is true in Japanese as well.

先生は 授業の後で 生徒に 成績を 出した。
The teacher after class to the students grades passed out.
Subject Adjunct Indirect Object Direct Object Verb

I know you can't read the Japanese yet, but you should still be able to understand what this sentence means by converting the partial translation to English word order.

Aside: Dropping Subjects and Objects

Japanese is interesting in that basically anything other than the verb can be omitted if understood from context.

いただきます。 Itadakimasu. (I'll) receive [= eat] (the delicious slice of cake you just gave me).

This is by no means a unique feature among the world's languages (the Romance languages are well known for dropping subjects), but it can be discomforting to English speakers, who expect pronouns in such places. You'll soon get a feel for what words tend to be dropped.

Variability in Word Order

Although each language has a basic word order, they differ in how strictly they adhere to that pattern.

English has a relatively fixed word order. Movement from the default position is used in questions and sometimes as a means of emphasis, but never in simple declarative sentences. For example, the verb "chased" takes a subject and one object, the subject is the chaser, and the object is the chasee. Thus "The dog chased the cat" and "The cat chased the dog" can under no circumstances have the same meaning.

Japanese is much more flexible. Anything to the left of the verb can be rearranged without changing the basic meaning of the sentence, though as you'll learn, there is still a preferred order. The object can even be moved in front of the subject without risk of mixing them up. How is this possible?

Particles

English relies heavily on its fixed word order to convey meaning – the slots for "subject" and "object" are basically unmoveable. Japanese, on the other hand, relies on particles to specify the function of each noun or noun phrase. Here are two that you should understand perfectly:

ga Subject marker
o Direct object marker

Note: In case you haven't learned Hiragana yet, this is the particle "o" that is written with the Hiragana "wo".

Particles are sometimes called postpositions (parallel to English prepositions) because they directly follow the word they are attached to. So while in English we would say "to Tokyo", in Japanese you would say "Toukyou ni".

With that, we have our first Japanese sentence that you can completely understand.

こどもが テレビを みた。
Kodomo ga terebi o mita.
Child SUB TV OBJ watched.

Note: some people attach particles to their nouns with a hyphen when using romanization. While they are suffixes in terms of pronunciation, I'm treating them as separate words since grammatically they're little different from prepositions.

Kodomo is followed by ga, so we know that "(the) child" is the subject, and terebi is followed by o, so "TV" is the object. The verb mita is the past tense form of miru "to watch" (you'll learn about verb conjugation later on). So, "The child watched TV." If we had reversed the subject and the object…

テレビを こどもが みた。
Terebi o kodomo ga mita.
TV OBJ child SUB watched.

This kind of inverted sentence is less common than default ordering, but it's completely grammatical.

Note: a more likely version of the above sentence is "Terebi wa kodomo ga mita". See The Topic Marker "Wa" for details.

Omissions

Did you notice any problems with the example above? Yep, Japanese doesn't have an equivalent for the English "a" or "the". Plurals aren't explicitly marked either; both must be inferred from context.

You may not believe it at the moment, but this is almost completely a non-issue. When there is a real need to specify such things, Japanese can do it, but otherwise they are left out. This brings up two concepts that we'll soon explore in greater depth:

  • Japanese nouns do not inflect for anything. This is in sharp contrast to the mess of gender, number, and case (grammatical function) found in many European and other languages (though gao, and similar particles can be considered case markers)
  • Japanese leaves a lot up to the listener. Anything that can be inferred is often left out, making "incomplete" sentences the norm.

Both of these facts actually make your job a lot easier. With fewer irrelevant details to worry about, you'll be able to focus on the parts that affect your being understood.

Noun Modifiers

So far, we haven't used any adjectives or possessives (my house, his family, Japan's tallest mountain) to modify our nouns. But this is an easy addition to our grammar as both follow one simple rule: modifier before modified.

あかい くるま akai kuruma (a/the) red car
わたしの くるま watashi no kuruma my car
にほんの くるま Nihon no kuruma (a) Japanese car/cars

The "no" here is a particle that turns the preceding noun into a modifier. You'll learn more about this modifying particle later on, but for now you can consider it to be the equivalent of the English possessive suffix -s/-es.

Note: Although Japanese text doesn't normally include spaces, they can be added to make the word boundaries more clear. In Kana/Kanji, particles are left connected to the nouns they are attached to, while in Romaji it's common to write the particles as independent words.

You can also have multiple modifiers for a single noun. Simply add each additional modifier to the front of the noun phrase.

わたしの あかい にほんの くるま
Watashi no akai Nihon no kuruma
My red Japanese car

Because English adjectives and possessives also follow the rule of "modifier before modified", this particular noun phrase has the same word order in both English and Japanese.

In English, however, prepositional phrases (at the store, under the sea, etc.) follow the nouns that they modify, just like they follow the verbs that they modify, so any pre-/postpositional phrases have to be shuffled around when translating between English and Japanese.

Summary

Are you starting to get the idea of how to put together a Japanese sentence? As we saw, the most fundamental components are essentially the same as English, with some systematic differences in word order.

  English Japanese
Sentence [Subject] [Verb] [Objects] [Adjuncts] [Subject] [Adjuncts] [Objects] [Verb]
Noun Phrase [Adjectives/Possess.] [Noun] [Prep. Phrases] [Adjectives/Possess./Prep. Phrases] [Noun]
Pre./Post. Phrase [Preposition] [Noun] [Noun] [Postposition]

We also saw that there are a few key differences between English and Japanese nouns:

  English Japanese
Grammatical function determined by: Strict word order Case particles
Inflection on nouns: Minimal None
Articles with nouns? Yes No
Nouns known from context are… Replaced by pronouns Dropped

Things get more interesting when we start talking about verb conjugation and other more complex issues – this is where the big differences between Japanese and English emerge.

At this point, you can skip ahead to verbs and conjugation, if you're interested.

Learning Grammar

Now that you know a bit about Japanese sentence structure, you're ready to start learning the details. The next couple of grammar lessons will focus on one particular particle and one very important verb, and subsequent lessons will help you use the two together in a multitude of variations on your first Japanese sentence pattern. From there, you'll learn about verbs and conjugation as well as the rest of the basic particles, allowing you to talk about a full range of everyday topics.

So we get a kind of three-tiered system, with the linguistic principles on the bottom, particles, verb conjugations, and the like in the middle, and individual sentence patterns on top. You need every level, but it makes the most sense to start from the bottom and work your way up, then extend the foundation to expand the upper levels. This takes more time up front than immediately constructing top level, but it's the only way to ensure that you can keep expanding without having to rebuild anything.

What Next?

The Topic Marker “Wa”


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