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Simple Sentences in Japanese - Subject, Object & Verb Grammar

Wednesday, August 2, 2017
The simplest sentences you can make in any language are those that have one subject, one verb and one object, which is why I think learning to understand and form those sentences is one of the first steps to learn Japanese. If you can't say "the cat eats the rat" or understand it when something like that is said, you won't be able to understand anything more complex than that, so in this article I'll explain how such simple sentences work in Japanese.

Before anything else, for those who really suck at grammar because they never thought they'd ever need to use it in their lives (and could have been right too), in the phrase "the cat eats the rat" we can divide the words like this:
  • The subject, "cat"
    Which executes* the action.
  • The verb, "to eat"
    Which is the action.
  • The object, "rat"
    Which is affected by the action.

(*technically, the one who executes actions is the "agent," not the subject, but in usually in simple phrases the subject is the agent too)

In English grammar, we rely on the position of the words to tell which word is what. The subject always comes before the verb and the object always comes after the verb. Thus we have the classic subject-verb-object (SVO) pattern.

(unless you're Yoda, then you say stuff like "eat cat, you will" which is verb-object-comma-subject-auxiliary or something)

Subject & Object Markers

In Japanese, we do not rely on the position of the words to tell which word is what. Instead, we rely on particles, specifically, the particles ga が and wo を. These two particles are case-making particles, which means they mark words. One is the subject marker and the other is the object marker. We use them like this:
  • neko ga taberu 猫が食べる
    The cat eats.
  • nezumi wo taberu ネズミを食べる
    Eat the rat.
  • neko ga nezumi wo taberu 猫がネズミを食べる
    The cat eats the rat.

Above we can see how the Japanese grammar is different from the English grammar.

The word that come before a case-marking particle is marked by said particle. Just by changing the particle in a Japanese phrase we can greatly alter the translation in English. This is because changing the particle (ga が to wo を) is enough to change something from subject to object, but changing something from subject to object in English requires shuffling the words around. For example:
  • yuusha ga kougeki suru 勇者が攻撃する
    The hero attacks.
    (the hero is before)
  • yuusha wo kougeki suru 勇者を攻撃する
    Attack the hero.
    (the hero is after)

Do note that if you're reading a manga, you'll almost never find both subject and object particles (ga が and wo を) in a same single clause. That is, it's very difficult to encounter a phrase like "subject verb's object," because most phrases are written in other ways with other particles.

Subject and object particles ga and wo as seen together in a single sentence in manga speech. Example taken from the manga "attack on titan," Shingeki no Kyojin 進撃の巨人

Normally, the subject and object particles are only used simultaneously in a phrase when talking about a third party. It's more frequent in light novels, etc. when the narrator speaks of the actions of the characters, but it rarely happen in dialogue, which manga is full of.

Further, there are other particles in Japanese which can indicate which word is the subject and which word is the object, and they are used instead of ga が and wo を depending on what kind of phrase it is.

So the examples in this article are not really common. But the way most Japanese phrases work is very different from how English grammar works, so I think it's better to start with these uncommon phrases that can still make some sense to an English speaker before delving deeper into the weird world of Japanese.

Subject-Object-Verb Pattern

In Japanese, we do not rely on the position of the words to tell which word is what, except we sort of do. In Japanese grammar, the verb is always at the end of the clause. Always. When the it's not at the of the entire phrase, it's at the end of a subordinate clause, so it's at the end of a clause anyway.

Further, in Japanese the normal way of speaking is putting the subject before the object, just like how we do it in English. So unless it's a passive sentence (I'll write about them later), in both languages we say the subject before the object. See examples:
  • keisatsu ga han'nin wo tsukamaeru 警察が犯人を捕まえる
    The police captures the criminal.
  • gakusei ga gakkou wo sotsugyou suru 学生が学校を卒業する
    The students graduate school.
  • yuusha ga maou wo taosu 勇者が魔王を倒す
    The hero defeats the demon king.
  • mangaka ga manga wo egaku 漫画家が漫画を描く
    The mangaka draws manga.

So if the verb must be the last thing, and the subject must come before the object, we have the pattern subject-object-verb (SOV) in Japanese, which is slightly different from the English subject-verb-object SVO.

Pattern Breakers

Both these patterns, both SVO and SOV, in both English and Japanese, only work in normal sentences. That is, in 99.99% of the cases. Although this is sort of obvious if you think about it, it's important to note the patterns will be broken by someone who wants to speak in another pattern. For example:
  • nezumi wo neko ga taberu ネズミを猫が食べる
    The rat the cat eats.

Above we have broken English SVO pattern. The O-bject (rat) was said before the S-ubject (cat). Likewise, we got nezumi before neko.

Even though we switched places of the words in both languages, note how in Japanese we have switched the particles too. If we left the particles the way they were before and only switched the words, we would get "the rat eats the cat" instead. See:
  • neko ga nezumi wo taberu 猫がネズミを食べる (original)
    The cat eats the rat.
  • nezumi ga neko wo taberu ネズミが猫を食べる (particles unmoved)
    The rat eats the cat.
  • nezumi wo neko ga taberu ネズミを猫が食べる (particles move together)
    The rat the cat eats.

The important thing here is that in order to understand a phrase in Japanese, it's better to look at the particles attached to the words, and not at their position in the sentence.

Using The Verb in Sentences

So now we know how to form basic sentences, but what kind of idiot speaks phrases like "the cat eats the rat"? That's not just a boring phrase, it's completely also unnatural. The only places you can find sentences in non-past tense in Japanese are in subordinate clauses and software and websites (like the phrase "buy this" for example, an imperative that's not even imperative, because it's the user who imperates, he's not being imperated on)

So how do we make more interesting phrases in Japanese? Why, using the verbs and their immense inflection stacking super-powers, of course!

Yes. I do mean super-powers. It's no exaggeration.

In Japanese, we can very literally leave practically the entire sentence the exact the same way, remove only the very last syllable, changing the inflection, and create countless variations of that sentence. Here's proof:

Japanese subject, object and verb grammar sentence examples showing how different conjugations of one verb alter the meaning of a phrase.

As we can see, a lot of a sentence's meaning rely on the verb of the sentence, which is always at the end of the sentence, so we could say a sentence can turn 180 degrees until its very, very end. We can notice that sometimes in phrase that go like:
  • tabe.............NAI!!! 食べ・・・・・・・・・ない!!!
    [I] will NOT eat!!!

In most manga, anime, etc. a phrase like the above screws with the translator pacing because in Japanese you don't know for sure if the character will say "will eat," taberu 食べる, or "won't eat" tabenai 食べない, until the very end of the phrase, but in English we get to hear whether it's an affirmative or negative sentence much earlier. There's only two ways to fix this:
  • I will... NOT eat!
  • I will eat... NOT!

In the first way, the verb "eat" goes after the pause. Originally, in Japanese, we could tell the verb was "to eat" before the pause, so that's a little different. In the second way, it is the same way as in Japanese, but it sounds really weird in English. So there's no winning here.

It just goes to show how simple sentences are different in English and Japanese.

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