Monday, January 2, 2017


Like (probably) every other language in the world, the Japanese language also has adjectives. But how do the Japanese adjectives work? How do you tell an adjective from another word? How is the sentence structure with adjectives involved? In this article, I'll explain a little about them.

What's an Adjective?

An adjective is something that qualifies, specifies, describes, details, etc. something else. Adjectives can be words or phrases. And the "something else" that they describe is a noun.

For example, say you have the word "car." That's a noun.

Now say there's a bunch of cars out there and you want to specify which car exactly you're talking about. You gotta describe it. With an adjective:
  • The blue car.
    • Blue:
      Adjective for the noun car.

But sometimes a single word isn't enough to describe the noun. You need more! You need a whole phrase:
  • The car with feet.
    • With:
      Preposition that introduces an adjective phrase.
    • Feet:
      Something that car has?!
      Wow. That's specific.

And sometimes we describe nouns by an action performed by the noun or upon the noun. In either case, the noun is subject of a clause, a subordinate adjective clause.
  • The car crashes into a tree.
    • Car:
      Subject. Agent.
    • To crash into:
    • A tree:
      Victim. Object/Patient.
  • The car that crashed into the tree.
    • That:
      Preposition that introduces a subordinate clause.
    • Crashed into the tree:
      Subordinate clause describing something.
      In this case: the car.
  • The car was bought by him.
    • Car:
      Subject. Patient.
    • Him:
  • That car that he bought.
    • That: preposition.
    • He bought: description.

Disregarding the specifics, adjectives generally boil down to two kinds: lone words and phrases or clauses. One is obviously simpler than the other.

The clauses are also sometimes called "relative clauses." And words like "that," "who," etc. are sometimes called "relative pronouns."

There's also more specific kinds worth nothing about:

Words like "my," "your," "his," "Jack's," etc. They're called "possessive adjectives," because they describe something is possessed by someone or something else.

Phrases like "very cold," "very blue," where you have a word modifying the adjective work.

Appositives like "Kamina, my brother, believes in me" where you have a description right after the noun, without a preposition. (you could say "Kamina, who is my brother, believes in me," but that's different.)

How Adjectives Work in Japanese?

The way adjectives work in Japanese is pretty different to how it works in English. They share a little tiny bit of similarity, and then it's all different.

Basic Adjectives

First off, ignoring technicalities, Japanese adjectives pretty much always come before the noun. Just like English:
  • aoi kuruma 青い
    Blue car.
  • kimyou na kuruma 奇妙な
    Bizarre car.
  • yume no kuruma 夢の
    Dream car.
  • kare no kuruma 彼の
    His car.


Intensifiers and other adverbs also come right before the adjective, just like in English:
  • oishii keeki 美味しいケーキ
    Tasty cake.
  • totemo oishii keeki とても美味しいケーキ
    Very tasty cake.
  • samui 寒い
  • sukoshi samui 少し寒い
    A bit cold.

Sometimes the translation doesn't match literally, but so long it's intense the meaning is conveyed.
  • sugoi 凄い
  • MECHAKUCHA SUGEEEEeeee!1!1111 メチャクチャすげぇぇぇーーーーっ!

The problem is, Japanese adjectives pretty, pretty, PRETTY much always come before the noun. Even when they don't in English.

Adjective Phrases and Clauses

Specifically, adjective phrases and relative clauses that would come after the noun in English come before the noun in Japanese:
  • ashi ga aru 足がある
    To have feet.
  • ashi no aru kuruma 足のある
    Car that has feet.
    Car with feet.
  • ki ni butsukaru 木にぶつかる
    To crash into a tree.
  • ki ni butsukatta kuruma 木にぶつかった
    Car that crashed into a tree.

Another pretty big difference is that Japanese literally doesn't have prepositions. That's right: no prepositions. None of "that," "who," "of," etc. Japanese has postpositions, these come after, not before, they're called "particles," by the way. But prepositions? That western backwards stuff? Nope!

This can be seen by the fact that there's really nothing connecting those relative clauses to the nouns.

If you have a clause, those things that end in a verb in Japanese, and you add a noun after the verb, it instantly turns into an adjective clause. Just like that:
  • shaberu 喋る
    To speak.
  • shaberu neko 喋る
    Cat [that] speaks.
    Speaking cat.
  • shinda 死んだ
    • Past tense of:
    • shinu 死ぬ
      To die.
  • shinda neko 死んだ
    Cat [that] died.
    Dead cat.

You might wanna read about how verbs work in Japanese if you haven't already to understand this better.

Prepositional Phrases

English adjectives introduced by prepositions like "with," "in," "on," etc. are said in other ways, since those prepositions don't exist in Japanese.

The equivalent of a simple English preposition is usually a whole clause in Japanese:
  • kuruma no naka ni iru nekoの中にいる
    The cat [that] is inside of the car.
  • beddo no ue ni aru dakimakura ベッドの上にある抱きまくら
    The hug pillow [that] is atop of the bed.

Past Adjectives

Japanese also has a fundamental difference from English about the past tense. In English, we need to shuffle words around into a relative clause to say something was in a certain way in the past. In Japanese, we literally conjugate inflect the adjective and keep it exactly where it was before:
  • hayai kuruma 速い車
    Fast car.
  • hayakatta kurumaかった
    Car [that] was fast.
  • kimyou na bouken 奇妙な冒険
    Bizarre adventure.
  • kimyou datta bouken 奇妙だった冒険
    Adventure [that] was bizarre.
  • futsuu no koukousei 普通の高校生
    Normal student.
  • futsuu datta koukousei 普通だった高校生
    Student [that] was normal.

Although this can look like it's a bit weird of first, try to imagine the word "crash," and "crashed." Now think of "bizarre," and "bizarred." Well, bizarred isn't a word. But in Japanese in the example above it's like you said a "bizarred adventure." An adventure that was bizarre.

Negative Adjectives

In Japanese, the same thing happens with negative adjectives: we just inflect the adjectives instead of doing something more complicated with it. You can imagine the Japanese language is pretty lazy when it comes to this stuff. Or maybe Latin languages just over-complicate too much.
  • hayakunai kurumaくない
    Car [that] is not fast.
    Non-fast car.
  • kimyou denai bouken 奇妙でない冒険
    Adventure [that] is not bizarre.
    Non-bizarre adventure.
  • futsuu denai koukousei 普通でない高校生
    High-school student [that] is not normal.
    Non-normal high-school student.
    Abnormal high-school student.

Since all negative inflections in Japanese are done by adding the -nai ~ない auxiliary adjective suffix, they all can be inflected further by inflecting the -nai.

For example, you can make a negative past by inflecting the -nai into its past form -nakatta:
  • hayakunakatta kurumaくなかった
    The cat [that] was not fast.

And colloquialisms are also shared:
  • hayee kuruma 速ぇ車
    Fast car.
  • hayakunee kuruma 速くねぇ
    Non-fast car.
    Fastn't car.

Kinds of Japanese Adjectives

Now you might have noticed already that there's something fishy going on. This article is talking about adjectives. Words of the adjective kind. But some of those words in Japanese get an inflection, others get a na な particle, others have a no の particle What's up with that? Why they vary?

Well. It just happens that the Japanese language doesn't have one, but two different types of adjectives!
  1. The i-adjectives.
    Adjectives that end in -i ~い.
    True adjectives: strong, independent adjectives who don't need no particle.
  2. The na-adjectives.
    Adjectives that take the na な particle.
    This particle is actually the da だ copula's lesser known cousin.
  3. The no-adjectives.
    Not really adjectives, mostly nouns turned into adjectives by the genitive case marking particle no の.
    This no の particle is sometimes the da だ copula's estranged and thrice removed aunt.

These two three different types of adjectives clearly work differently and are used for different things. I won't go in detail here, because you can click the links above and go read about each kind in detail in their own article.

What I'll do is keep talking about properties all these adjectives have in common in Japanese. Like the fact they all come before nouns.

The three kinds of Japanese adjectives: i adjectives, na adjectives, and no adjectives.

Varying Kinds of Same Adjective

Sometimes, a single adjective can be found as different kinds of adjectives.

For example, various words for colors have both i-adjective and no-adjective variants:
  • shiroi baraバラ
    shiro no baraバラ
    White rose.

In the case of colors, generally the i-adjective is used, it's more mundane, I guess. The no-adjective version is often preferred for titles (of movies, etc.) and names.

A couple of words have historically diverged into i-adjective and na-adjective variants:
  • chiisai 小さい
    chiisana 小さな
  • ookii 大きい
    ookina 大きな

In this case, probably sometime along Japanese's history, there was the ooki and chiisa morphemes, then someone was saying ooki naru ki 大きなる木, "tree [that] be big," which is where you get na-adjectives from, while someone else was just adding the ~i ~い morpheme to it.

Anyways, both variants of these two words really mean the same thing. The main difference is that chiisana and ookina are only used before nouns. They can't be used in the predicative.

That is, normally if you remove the na of a na-adjective you get a stand-alone word, but you can't do that with chiisana and ookina because chiisa and ooki aren't words. Only chiisana, chiisai, ookina, and ookii are words.

Besides that, it's up to usage. Sometimes ookii is used more than ookina and vice-versa.

Predicative Adjectives

So far we've talked about attributive adjectives: adjectives that attribute nouns by coming before them. Predicative adjectives, while not as interesting, are important to mention too. They're adjectives that are part of a subject's predicate.

In Japanese, we mark the subject of a phrase by adding the ga が particle after it. And anything that's not the subject is the predicate. So:
  • neko ga kawaii 猫が可愛い
    Cats [are] cute.
  • ore ga futsuu 俺が普通
    I [am] normal.

In the predicative form, no の and na な adjectives don't have their no and na's. Ironic, I know. So futsuu no becomes just futsuu. Likewise, kimyou na would become just kimyou.

Adding Da だ Copula

Now you may have noticed we got these implicit words "[are]" and "[am]" up there. That's because those are the English copula. And the Japanese copula is da だ, or desu です, and that copula isn't part of the phrases above.

This is normal. In Japanese the copula is frequently omitted. So much that deliberately adding the casual copula may sound assertive.
  • ore ga futsuu da 俺が普通
    I am normal.
    (ノ°Д°)ノ︵ ┻━┻

The above is alright, because futsuu is a no-adjective. With an i-adjective, though, it's grammatically incorrect to add the da だ directly after them. Because of reasons.

Mainly because it's wrong to add da だ after something that's not a noun. The no-adjectives are nouns. The na-adjectives are nouns glued to the na attributive copula. The i-adjectives are not nouns, they are "true" adjectives. So that won't do.

That means you need to turn the i-adjective into a noun by adding a no の particle to it, or the contraction of that particle contraction, n ん.
  • neko ga kawaii no da 猫が可愛い
    neko ga kawaii-n-da 猫が可愛い
    Cats are cute.
    (WHO DARES DISAGREE?!??!!? HUH??!?!?)

To make matters more complicated, or less complicated. The above rule doesn't apply to desu です. Because that's a polite copula. So someone thought it should be an exception or something. Anyways. You can put desu right after i-adjectives.
  • neko ga kawaii desu 猫が可愛いです
    Cats are cute. (politely.)

And you can put no の and n ん between them too if you want. It sounds assertive, too, probably because it sounds similar to no-da and n-da.
  • neko ga kawaii no desu 猫が可愛いのです
    neko ga kawaii-n-desu 猫が可愛いんです
    Cats are cute. (I firmly and politely assert my ideology.)

Adding Wa は Particle

Another thing to note about predicative adjectives is that Japanese generally prefers to use topics rather than subjects. In practice, this means the wa は topic-marking particle tends to be used instead of the ga が subject-marking particle.
  • neko wa kawaii可愛い
    Cats [are] cute.

Obviously, wa and ga are the same thing, except when they are not. Which is a lot of times.

The most obvious case is when you have both wa and ga in the same sentence. For example:
  • mimi ga nagai 耳が長い
    mimi wa nagai 耳は長い
    Ears [are] long.
    • The translation is identical here.
  • erufu wa mimi ga nagai エルフは耳が長い
    As for elves, ears [are] long.
    Elves [have] long ears.
    • Here, we talk about the topic, Elves, and comment about how the ears are long.
    • If we switched particles, we'd get this:
  • mimi wa erufu ga nagai 耳はエルフが長い
    As for ears, elves are long.
    • This doesn't make sense.
    • Did you mean...
  • mimi wa erufu no hou ga nagai 耳はエルフの方が長い
    As for ears, the side of the elves [is] longer.
    (we use hou 方 when we're comparing the elves' side with the humans' side, etc. It essentially means this:)
    As for ears, the elves' [are] longer.

And you could also say:
  • erufu no mimi wa nagai エルフの耳は長い
    As for the ears of elves: long.
    Elves' ears are long.

Another intriguing case is with the na-adjectives suki 好き and kirai 嫌い. If I may add: kirai 嫌い is not an i-adjective. It comes from the verb kirau 嫌う. And suki from suku 好く. They're na-adjectives.

Anyway, whenever you say something is suki or kirai, the English translation becomes a verb, "to like" or "to dislike," but the Japanese is merely describing a thing.
  • nezumi ga kirai ネズミが嫌い
    Rats [are] disliked.
    I HATE RATS@!#!#@#@3213

These adjectives are often used with the ga particle because the implicit topic here is "I." See:
  • watashi wa nezumi ga kirai 私はネズミが嫌い
    As for me, rats [are] disliked.
    I hate rats.
  • neko wa nezumi ga kirai 猫はネズミが嫌い
    As for cats, rats [are] disliked.
    Cats hate rats.

On the other hand, wa は can also be used to say something is liked or hated, but it becomes vastly more ambiguous.
  • neko wa suki 猫は好き
    As for cats, liked.
    1. I, or someone else, doesn't like a bunch of animals, but cats, specifically, those are liked, yes.
    2. A bunch of animals don't like something, but cats, specifically, yes, that something is liked to them.

The exact meaning of the phrase ends up depending a lot on the context.

Adjectives from Nouns

In Japanese, adjectives can be created from nouns by adding the no particle. These are the so-called no-adjectives.

The most famous case is turning nouns into possessives:
  • kare
  • kare no
  • kare no kuruma
    His car.
  • Zeruda ゼルダ
    Zelda. (katakanization.)
  • Zeruda no ゼルダ
  • Zeruda no Densetsu ゼルダ伝説
    The Legend of Zelda.

But nouns may also be turned into adjectives that aren't possessives:
  • densetsu 伝説
  • densetsu no 伝説
    Of the legend.
  • Densetsu no Yamada Tae 伝説の山田たえ
    The Legendary Yamada Tae.

  • otouto no sasuke ga... 弟のサスケが…
    Sasuke, the little brother, [is]...

And a lot of other stuff. Just see the article on no-adjectives for more examples.

Adverbs from Adjectives

In English, we sometimes turn adjectives into adverbs, so that they don't modify nouns anymore and instead modify verbs. In Japanese we can do that too, of course.

With i-adjectives that's done by inflecting the adjective into -ku ~く. With na and no adjectives it's done by replacing the attributive copula with the adverbial copula ni に.
  • hayaku hashiru走る
    To run fast.
    • Fast modifies "to run."
  • kawaiku mieru 可愛見える
    To look cute.
    • Cute modifies "to look."
  • futsuu ni ikiru 普通生きる
    To live normally.
    • Normally modifies "to live."
  • shoujiki na kotae 正直答え
    Honest answer.
  • shoujiki ni kotaeru 正直答える
    To answer honestly.


The te-forms of Japanese adjectives allow them to connect to each other. Which is really a complicated way of saying you can say two adjectives in sequence instead of just one.

The te-form inflection of i-adjectives is -kute ~くて. For no and na-adjectives, the attributive copula is replaced by the te-form of the da だ copula, which is de で.
  • chiisakute kawaii nezumi 小さくて可愛いネズミ
    A small and cute mouse.
  • kawaikute chiisai nezumi 可愛くて小さいネズミ
    A cute and small mouse.
  • heibon de futsuu no koukousei 平凡普通の高校生
    An ordinary and normal high-school student.
  • futsuu de heibon no koukousei 普通で平凡の高校生
    A normal and ordinary high-school student.
  • kimyou de ayashii bouken 奇妙怪しい冒険
    A bizarre and suspicious adventure.
  • ayashikute kimyou na bouken 怪しくて奇妙な冒険
    A suspicious and bizarre adventure.

Note above that when two adjectives are connected by te-form, only the first adjective gets to be in te-form, the second one is unchanged.

In particular, na and no adjectives don't get their na and no's when they're in the predicative form, only when they're attributive for some noun.
  • ore ga futsuu de heibon 俺が普通で平凡
    ore ga futsuu de heibon da 俺が普通で平凡だ
    I'm normal and ordinary.
    • Since heibon is predicative for ore, we don't say heibon no.
  • ore ga {futsuu de heibon no koukousei} 俺が普通で平凡の高校生
    I'm a {normal and ordinary high-school student.}
    • Since heibon is attributive for koukousei, we say heibon no.

Lastly, the order of adjectives in the te-form matters sometimes. Usually, it's implied the first adjective causes the second. So two adjectives tend to be said in the same order if there's a strong causal relationship between them:
  • chiisakute kawaii 小さくて可愛い
    Small and cute.
    • Because it's small, it's cute.
    • This makes sense, because, by first observing something is small, you then conclude it's cute.
  • kawaikute chiisai 可愛くて小さい
    Cute and small.
    • Because it's cute, it's small.
    • This doesn't make as much sense. Because things don't become small after they become cute. It's the other way around!

Of course. The implication isn't always there. Sometimes "small and cute" or "cute and small" don't really have any difference. It's just two things in parallel and one doesn't cause or depend on the other.

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