Saturday, March 23, 2019

Formal Nouns

In Japanese, "formal nouns," or keishiki-meishi 形式名詞, are words which are syntactically, formally, nouns, but that are used more like auxiliaries or particles.

For example: koto こと, mono もの, tokoro ところ and wake わけ are formal nouns.

The term formal noun has absolutely nothing to do with levels of formality in speech. It's only about whether a word is formally classified as a noun in the dictionary or not.


First, let's see some examples of what are considered formal nouns in Japanese.
  • no
    (abstract nominalizer used in various ways.)
    • {kirei na} no da
      [It] is pretty.
    • {kirei na} no wa hontou da
      The fact [that] {[it] is pretty} is true.
      It's true that it is pretty.
    • {kirei na} no wo katta
      Bought the one [that] {is pretty}.
    • {kirei na} no de moteru
      Because {[she] is pretty}, [she] is popular with guys.
    • {kirei na} no ni motenai
      Even thought {[she] is pretty}, [she] isn't popular with guys.
    • {kirei desu} no
      [It] is pretty.
  • n
    (contraction of no の.)
    • kirei na-n-da
      [It] is pretty.
    • kirei na-n-de moteru
      Because {[she] is pretty}, [she] is popular with guys.
  • koto こと (also spelled 事)
    (abstract nominalizer.)
    • {kirei na} koto wo iu
      To say a thing [that] {is pretty}.
      To say something pretty.
    • {sora wo tobu} koto ga dekiru
      Can do the thing [that is] {to fly the sky}.
      Can {fly}.
    • {mita} koto aru
      The thing [that] {saw} exists.
      To have {seen [it]} before.
    • {mita} koto nai
      The thing [that] {saw} is nonexistent.
      To have never {seen [it]} before.
    • {{katte na} koudou wo shinai} koto,
      {hoka no ko to kenka shinai} koto

      (Used when listing demands, rules, warnings.)
      {Don't act {on your own}}, {don't fight with other kids}.
    • taihen desu koto
      [It] is pretty.
  • mono もの (物)
    "Physical thing."
    • tabe-mono, ki-mono, kai-mono, nori-mono
      食べ物, 着物, 買い物, 乗り物
      Eat-thing, wear-thing, buy-thing, board-thing.
      Food, clothing, shopping goods, vehicles.
    • {tabeta} mono
      A thing [that] {[you] ate}.
      Something [that] {[you] ate}.
    • kirei da mono
      It's because [it] is pretty.
  • mon もん
    (contraction of mono もの.)
    • kirei da mon
      It's because [it] is pretty.
  • tokoro ところ (所)
    • {mita} tokoro
      The place [that] {saw}.
      From what {[I've] seen}.
    • {hon wo yonda} tokoro de, rikai dekinai
      By the place [that is] {to have read a book}, comprehend can not.
      Just {having read a book} isn't enough to be able to comprehend it.
      [One] can't comprehend [it] just by {having read a book}.
  • toko とこ
    (abbreviation of tokoro.)
    • {mita} toko
      From what {[I've] seen}.
  • toki とき (時)
    "Time." When (...).
    • {terebi wo miru} toki wa heya wo akarukushite hanarete mite ne
      The time [when] {watching TV}, make the room bright, distantiate, and watch, alright?
      When {[you're] watching TV}, make sure the room is well-lit and don't watch it from too close, alright?
  • tame ため (為)
    "Purpose." For (...).
    • {katsu} tame ni nandemo suru
      To do whatever for the purpose [that is] {to win}.
      To do whatever [it takes] in order {to win}.
  • tsumori つもり (積もり)
    "Intention." To intend to (...).
    • watashi wa {{katsu} tsumori da}
      As for me, {[it] is the intention [that is] {to win}}.
      I intend {to win}.
      I plan {to win}.
  • uchi うち (内)
    "In-between." "Within." While (...).
    • {ame ga furanai} uchi ni sanpo shita
      [I] strolled within-the-span [which] {rain didn't fall from the sky}.
      [I] strolled while {[it] wasn't raining}.
  • wake わけ (訳)
    • {ore no imouto ga konna ni kawaii} wake ga nai
      The meaning [that is] {my younger sister is this much cute} is nonexistent.
      There's no way {my younger sister is this much cute}.
  • hazu はず (筈)
    • {makeru} hazu ga nai!
      The expectation [that is] {to lose} is nonexistent!
      There's no way {[he] will lose}!

Now, the first thing you need to know about formal nouns is that: their definition is too complicated at best, and absolutely worthless at worst.

More specifically, among the words that are considered "formal nouns," a few of them exhibit clearly weird syntactic features. These are words you can look at and say: yep, this ain't a normal noun, it's a noun-like something.

However, most formal nouns don't exhibit such syntactical anomalies. Instead, they work literally just like any other noun, and their usage, however peculiar, can be simply attributed to their meaning as a noun, and the fact that's just how the Japanese language works in general.

As a consequence, it ends up being debatable which words are formal nouns and which ones are not, and why. Some lists of formal nouns contains more words, others have fewer. Even the very importance of classifying words in such vague way is up to debate.

For Japanese learners, I guess it's kind of useful because you can just put all these weird words in one place, like I'm doing in this article.


It's important to note that, although formal nouns are technically nouns in Japanese, they seldom translate to nouns in English and other languages.

The simplest case is toki 時, literally "time," translating to "when" most of the time. The word "when" isn't a noun in English, but it's how the formal noun toki とき usually translates.


Formal nouns work exactly like any other noun as far as syntax is concerned, except the ones that don't.

They're basically always qualified by an adjective, specially relative clauses, and their function ends up being affecting the thing qualifying them somehow. This is pretty much how auxiliaries and particles work: they affect what comes before them.

For example:
  • {neru} toki
    The time [when] {[you] sleep}.
    When {[you] sleep}.

Above, the relative clause {neru} qualifies the relativized formal noun toki とき, "time."

There are a few important things about this fact.

First, In Japanese, the head of the relative clause must be in the attributive form. Above, the head was the verb neru 寝る, "to sleep." The attributive form of verbs and i-adjectives is identical to the predicative form, so you don't really have to do anything about them.
  • watashi wa sugoku isogashii
    I'm very busy.
    • isogashii - predicative form.
  • {sugoku isogashii} toki
    A time [when] {[I] am very busy}.
    • isogashii - attributive form, literally identical, however, technically different.

The polite form of verbs, the masu form, is predicative-only, it isn't attributive, and thus can't be the head of the relative clause.
  • watashi wa nemasu
    I will sleep.
  • *{nemasu} toki

For na-adjectives and nouns, or no-adjectives, the predicative copula da is used in the predicative, but the attributive copula na, and the attributive copula no, respectively, are used in the attributive forms.
  • watashi wa hima da
    I am free. (schedule-wise.)
    I've got nothing to do. I'm bored.
  • {hima na} toki
    The time [when] {[you] are free}.
    When [[you've] got nothing to do}.
  • watashi wa ningen da
    I am human.
  • {ningen no} toki
    The time [when] {[you] are human}.
    When {[you] are human}.

One exception: when qualifying the no の nominalizer, a no-adjective gets the na な copula instead.
  • *{ningen no} no ni
    (wrong, probably just because you end up with one no の right after the other.)
  • {ningen na} no ni
    Even though [he] {is human}.

Predicative Prenominals

Unlike literally any other noun in Japanese ever, the formal nouns no の, koto こと, and mono もの or mon もん, can have predicative clauses come before them. This is tentatively explained grammatically in two ways.

First, the compounds noni のに and node ので, that mean "even though" and "because" respectively, work pretty much like conjunctions.

Actual conjunctions, like kedo けど and kara から, which also mean "even though" and "because," don't take the attributive form, because they aren't nouns, they take the predicative form instead. Note the difference:
  • ningen da kedo
    But [he] is human.
  • ningen da kara
    Because [he] is human.
  • {ningen na} node
    (basically same meaning as above.)

However, because of the conjunction-like functions of noni のに and node ので, you end up being allowed to use the polite form of verbs, and the polite copula desu です, with them, even though this would be invalid with any other noun.
  • {ningen desu} kedo
    But [he] is human.
  • {ningen desu} noni
    (same meaning.)
  • {ningen desu} kara
    Because [he] is human.
  • {ningen desu} node
    (same meaning.)
  • {benkyou shimasu} node
    Because [I] study.
  • {benkyou shimasu} noni
    Even though [I] study.

Note that you can't use the plain copula da だ before no の. That's because it would mean something else entirely: the dano だの parallel marker. So the plain way is nano なの, and the polite way desu no ですの. This is also valid for no の when it's used like a sentence-ending particle.
  • {kirei desu} no
    [It] is pretty.
  • {kirei na} no
    (same meaning.)

Second, with koto こと and mono もの or mon もん, you can use the predicative form only when they come at the end of the sentence.

In this case, a grammatical explanation is that they're no longer nouns: they are sentence-ending particles, so you don't need the attributive form.(Okamoto, 1995:232–233, as cited in Murata, 1999:86–87)
  • kirei desu wa
    [It] is pretty.
  • kirei desu mono
    It's because [it] is pretty.
    • mono もの - a sentence-ending particle, apparently. Often used to state the reason for something.
  • kirei da mon
    (same meaning.)
  • *kirei desu mono wo mita
    (wrong, because it's not at sentence end.)
  • {kirei na} mono wo mita
    [I] saw a thing [that] {is pretty}.
    [I] saw something {pretty}.
  • kirei desu koto
    [It] is pretty.
    • koto こと - a sentence-ending particle, also often used emotively.
  • kirei da koto
    (same meaning.)
  • *kirei desu koto wo itta
  • {kirei na} koto wo itta
    Said something {pretty}.


In Japanese, words that can be marked as the topic can be relativized by their comments. Observe:
  • machi wa shizuka da
    The town is quiet.
    • machi wa - topic.
    • shizuka da - comment.
  • {shizuka na} machi
    The town [that] {is quiet}.
    The {quiet} town.
    • shizuka na - relative clause.
    • machi - relativized noun.

The same should apply to vice-versa: a relativized noun, in particular, a relativized formal noun, should be able to be marked as the topic.
  • {shizuka na} toki
    The time [when] {[it] is quiet}.
    When {[it] is quiet}.
  • toki wa shizuka da
    The time is quiet.

However, there's one important detail here: when this happens, the formal noun isn't a "formal noun," keishiki-meishi 形式名詞, anymore. It's a jisshitsu-meishi 実質名詞, "substantial noun."

To elaborate: formal nouns originate from the so-called substantial nouns. When substantial nouns are qualified by relative clauses, and so on, they sometimes start being used like auxiliaries, and this usage is called a "formal noun."

In particular, it seems the main motivation for the "formal noun" category is that such words are used more as formal nouns than as substantial nouns.

For example, the koto こと is pretty much always used after a relative clause. Most of the time you only see it used as the collocations koto aru ことある and koto nai ことない, which mean you "have done (something) before," or "have not."

You can start learning Japanese and go for years without ever seeing an unqualified koto 事 used as argument for a verb in a sentence. But, nevertheless, it can actually happen:
  • koto wo nasu
    To do the thing. (Zhu Li?!?!?)
    To do the job. To do the task.

The same applies to mono もの.
  • kane ni mono wo iwaseru
    To cause the money to say the thing.
    To let money do the talk.
    To use money, power, connections, to do something a poor person wouldn't be able to do, showing off the power of their money.

Only one formal noun can't be topicalized for syntactical reasons: the no の nominalizer. This happens because no の has no substantial counterpart. It has no actual meaning. It can't refer to anything on its own. So it can't be used without a qualifier.
  • *no wa hontou da
    "The no is true."
    • This sentence is grammatically wrong, because no の doesn't have a meaning.
  • {neko ga suki na} no wa hontou da
    The no [that is] {[someone] likes cats} is true.
    That {[he] likes cats}, it is true.
    It is true that {[he] likes cats}.
    • This sentence is valid, because no の is qualified by a relative clause.


Formal nouns, like particles and other auxiliaries, are often spelled in hiragana. Substantial nouns, on the other hand, are normally spelled with kanji. Observe:
  • toki ga kita
    The time has come.
    • toki - substantial noun.
  • sono toki
    That time.
    • toki - substantial noun.
  • {kita} toki
    When {[I] came}.
    • toki - formal noun.

Most of the time the noun is qualified by something, it's a formal noun. One exception are demonstrative pronouns like sono その, "that."

Furthermore, sometimes formal nouns are spelled with kanji anyway, because the line between a formal noun and a substantial noun is pretty much blurred.


There are some issues regarding formal nouns that I want to note.

To recap: formal nouns are nouns that are normally relativized, but not topicalized, because of reasons, or something like that.

I mean, seriously, if toki とき, "time," is a formal noun, why is shunkan 瞬間, "moment," not a formal noun?

People often say kankei nai 関係ない to say "there's no relationship," or one thing has nothing to do with the other. If koto and wake, of koto nai and wake nai, are formal nouns, does that mean kankei is a formal noun?

As I've mentioned previously, it seems the definition of formal noun is either too complicated to understand, or too useless to define.
  • Okutsu (1974: 206) comes to the conclusion that there is no necessity for the category of 'formal nouns' in Japanese grammar.(Murata, 1999:8)

As we've seen, formal nouns are a mixed bunch. We have the no の nominalizer that's clearly weird, the nouns that are sentence-ending particles sometimes, koto ことand mono もの, and the rest.

It's not an uniform thing: there are different levels of abstractness and grammaticalization among these words. Some are less abstract, some are more abstract. So the criteria for being a formal noun seems too hard to define.

In some lists of formal nouns, the word hito 人, "person," is included as a formal noun.

The reason for this, I believe, is that hito 人 is normally qualified by a relative clause, and doesn't often appear as the topic or without a qualifier, which is just what happens with other formal nouns, like koto and mono.

However, you can replace hito 人 by literally any other noun, like ponii ポニー, "pony," and it would be syntactically correct. And yet, I'm not seeing anybody saying "pony" is a formal noun.
  • {nihongo wo benkyou shite-iru} hito
    People [who] {are studying Japanese}.
    A person [who] {is studying Japanese}.
    Someone [who] {is studying Japanese}.
  • {nihongo wo benkyou shite-iru} ponii
    Ponies [who] {are studying Japanese}.
    A pony [who] {is studying Japanese}.
    Somepony [who] {is studying Japanese}.
  • hito wa shinu
    People will die.
    A person will die.
    Someone will die.
  • ponii wa shinu
    Ponies will die.
    A pony will die.
    Somepony will die.

Furthermore, mono もの is said to be a formal noun in sentences like this:
  • sore ga {jinsei tte} mon da
    That is the thing [that] {is called life}.
    That is what {[we] call life}.

However, there's nothing really special about this sentence. It's just literally saying what kind of "thing" it is. It just happens that "thing" is the most abstract word you have to refer to a thing, any thing, like life, so it just tends to be used more often than other words.

You could totally say a phrase like this, for example:
  • sore ga sakkaa tte supootsu da
    That is the sport [that] {is called soccer}.

And yet "sport" isn't a formal noun.

As Okutsu (1974:205, translated by Murata, 1999:7-8) notes:
  • Although hito (i.e. person) is usually regarded as a formal noun, nouns which are considered to be more abstract, such as doobutu (i.e. animal), seibutu (i.e. creature), sonzai (i.e. being) are generally not included in the category of formal nouns. It is thus considered impossible to draw a clear boundary between nouns in terms of the abstractness of their meanings.

In conclusion: which words are formal nouns, and which ones are not, or whether the group of formal nouns even makes any sense at all, is debatable. It's a neat way to group noun-like auxiliary words that people learning Japanese have trouble learning, though, hence this article.


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  1. Thank you. This information is hard to find on the web.