Saturday, March 23, 2019


WIP : this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
Nominalization is the process of turning into nouns words that aren't nouns. In this article, I'll explain why it happens, how nominalization works in Japanese, and some ways it's used.


In Japanese, there are times you need a noun in order for a phrase to mean something, but you have a verb or adjective instead. At such times, it's necessary to turn what you have into a noun.

This is done with a nominalizer. There are various nominalizers in Japanese: no の, koto こと, mono もの, and the contractions n ん and mon もん.

Syntactically, these nominalizers work just like nouns. However, unlike nouns, they don't really refer to anything on their own.
  • neko
  • no
    (doesn't mean anything.)
  • shiroi neko 白い猫
    White cat.
  • shiroi no 白いの
    The "fact" that it's white.
    The "one" that is white.

The phrase shiroi no 白いの refers to adjective "white." Without the adjective, it refers to nothing. Another way to think about it: no の alone refers to anything; it's a wild-card. So it's useless: the point of nouns is to refer to tangible things, and just "anything" at all is intangible and devoid of form.

Only when you specify what sort of no の you're talking about, it gains a tangible, concrete form and becomes useful in the conversation.

Some nominalizers, like koto and mono, have vague meanings associated with them, those are light nouns. The no の particle, on the other hand, is completely abstract and has no meaning whatsoever. It's used mostly for grammatical purposes, while the other nominalizers are used for their nuance.

Since nominalizers are syntactically nouns, they can be qualified by anything that can qualify a noun. This includes, with some caveats, i-adjectives, na-adjectives, no-adjectives, and relative clauses.

Grammatically, adjectives are verbs in Japanese. They all have a copula in them, which translates to "is" or "to be" in English. Since a copula is a copulative verb, which is a verb, all adjectives work just like relative clauses with random verbs in them.
  • suru koto
    The こと [that] "does."
    • In English, the relative pronoun "that" is introducing the relative clause with the verb "does" which qualifies the noun "こと."
  • shiroi koto
    The こと [that] "is white."
    • Here, the verb of the relative clause is "is," a copula. The -i ~い suffix of the i-adjective is the copula in Japanese.
  • kirei na koto
    The こと [that] "is pretty."
    • Here, the na な is the copula for the na-adjective.
  • isha no koto
    The こと [that] "is a doctor."
    • Here, no の is the copula for the no-adjective.

With the nominalizer no の it works the same, with one caveat: generally, to turn nouns into adjectives, like with "doctor," you use the no の particle, but when qualifying the no の nominalizer, you use the na な particle instead.
  • isha na no
    The の [that] "is a doctor."

Grammatically, this na な particle is the attributive copula, counterpart to the predicative copula da だ.
  • sora ga kirei da
    The sky is pretty. (predicative.)
  • kirei na sora
    The pretty sky. (attributive.)
    The sky [that] is pretty. (as a relative clause.)


There are various ways nominalization is used in Japanese, and it varies from nominalizer to nominalizer.

The one thing in common is that nominalizers can be used as nouns that refer to the actions of the verbs of the relative clauses that qualify them.

For example:
  • geemu ga tanoshii
    Games are fun.
  • hashiru no ga tanoshii
    The "act" [that is] "to run" is fun.
    "To run" is fun.
    Running is fun.
  • hashiru koto ga tanoshii
    (same meaning.)

The nominalizer koto has certain unique uses, for example:
  • mita koto nai
    [I've] never seen [it].
  • mita koto aru
    [I've] seen [it] before.

Some particles carry secondary meaning when combined with nominalizers.

For example, one of the meanings of the ni に particle is "for."
  • karada ni ii
    For body, good.
    Good for [your] body. Good for [your] health.

This is also true when it marks a nominalized verb.
  • benkyou suru no ni ii houhou
    For "to study," a good method.
    A good method to study.

However, in the noni のに format, it can also be interpreted as "even though" in some cases.
  • benkyou shiteiru no ni seiseki ga warui
    For "to be studying," grades are bad.
    Even though [he] is studying, [his] grades are bad.
  • tsuyoi no ni maketa
    Even though [he's] strong, he lost.
  • kirei na no ni kareshi ga inai
    Even though [she] is pretty, [she] doesn't have a boyfriend.
  • isha na no ni binbou da
    Even though [she] is a doctor, [she] is poor.

Similarly, node ので can sometimes be interpreted as "because."
  • benkyou shita no de seiseki ga agatta
    Because [he] studied, [his] grades have risen.
  • aho na no de seiseki ga warui
    Because [he] is an idiot, [his] grades are bad.

When the copula da だ comes after no の, it can assert the speaker's opinion, or explain something, or give advice to someone.
  • benkyou suru no da
    [You'll] study. (that's what you gotta do.)
  • kirei na no da
    [It] is pretty.

In the cases above, the no の is often contracted to n ん.
  • benkyou surunda
    (same meaning.)
  • kirei nanda
    (same meaning.)

If the no の comes at the end of the sentence, it has two functions: either it's a way to ask something, or a way to declare something.
  • yameru no?
    Will [you] give up?
  • yameru no!
    [I'll] give up!
  • baka na no?
    Are [you] stupid?
  • koitsu wa baka na no yo!
    This [guy] is an idiot!

Note that this isn't the article about the no の particle. It just happens that, most of the time, nominalization occurs through the no の particle.

Fortunately there's finally something to say about the other nominalizers!

Like the no の nominalizer, koto こと and mono もの can come at the end of the phrase.

The word mono もの can also be contracted to mon もん.
  • aware na mono da 哀れなものだ
    aware na mon da 哀れなもんだ
    [It's] a pitiful [thing.]

This is basically the only situation in which mono もの acts as a nominalizer: when it's at the end of the sentence. Normally, mono 物 actually means a "thing." And if it refers to something, it can't be a nominalizer.

To make matters worse, mono もの is also a suffix used in the same fashion as the nominalizer. This usage is also classified as a sentence-ending particle.
  • otoko da mono 男だもの
    otoko da mon 男だもん
    [Because he] is a guy.
    • This kind of suffix is often used by children and women.

Above we have mono and mon, but they aren't nominalizers, they are suffixes.

We know this because the predicative da だ comes before them. If they were nominalizers, they'd be nouns to be qualified by the attributive na な instead.(Kato, 2013)
  • otoko na mon da
    [That's what] is a guy.
    • Here, mon is a nominalizer.

This is also the nominalizer that gets you:
  • yaru mon ka!
    [Like I'll] do [that]!
  • dekiru mon ka!
    [Like I] can do [that]!
  • anzen na mon ka!
    [Like it's] safe!


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