Tumbleweed's Introduction to this Page

I feel it's important to mention that my pages are not commercial in any way. Despite that, I found this page, and it's associate page How to Understand a Japanese Sentence, to be very well written and easy to understand for beginners and intermediate level students of Japanese. The pages themselves are from 1995 so I don't know how current the information at the bottom of the page is. I'm attempting to contact Ken Butler for more updated information, but either way, the information you'll find here should be very useful in your quest to become more intimate with the Japanese language.

Note: I make no claim to copyright ownership of the information as presented here. Copyright is retained by the author and full information is presented at the bottom of the document, along with contact information. This page is presented solely for educational purposes and is not a commercial venture on my part.

Ken Butler's


World Wide Japanese Language Learning Web



Particles vs. Patterns --
Verbal Guideposts in Speaking Japanese

Sentence patterns are often referred to in discussing language learning. Once one manages to get an ability to understand and speak a sufficient number of sentence patterns, one will be speaking the new language, or so the thinking goes.

But what about Japanese? It's not much of an overstatement to say that there are no sentence patterns in Japanese. And if such in fact is the case, then at first glance this might present somewhat of a problem to a person trying to get a basic command of the language.

However . . .

Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
Tanaka-san gave

This is a legitimate utterance in Japanese, though it is not a sentence (or "sentence pattern") in terms of English grammar. The equivalent English would be something like:

[He] gave [that] [book] [to] Tanaka-san.

As is apparent, the English sentence has a subject (He) and an object (that book), in addition to the verb (gave) and indirect object (Tanaka-san), whereas the Japanese utterance has only an indirect object (Tanaka-san) and a verb (agemasita). Therefore the Japanese utterance is not a sentence, at least not by English standards.

But by Japanese standards it is a very acceptable utterance. The subject and object are simply supplied by the listener on the basis of the context of what is being said, and the relationship between the two words in the utterance is indicated by the function of the structural particle ni, which has no inherent "meaning" in and of itself. This central aspect of Japanese greatly simplifies learning to speak the language, provided you approach your learning from the proper angle. And the "proper angle" is an understanding of structural particle usage and an awareness that there are utterances in Japanese, but no sentences.

It is of course possible to speak an utterance in Japanese that is fully acceptable in terms of English grammar. Let's take a look at the following:

kare wa kinou sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
(he) (yesterday) (that book) (Tanaka-san) (gave)
"He gave that book (to) Tanaka-san yesterday."

Aha! you say. Ken Butler has just told me that there are no sentences in Japanese, and then he proceeds to produce something that viewed from any angle has to be a sentence. It has a subject (kare), an object (sono hon), a verb (agemasita) and even an indirect object (Tanaka-san). And there is also a "time word", kinou. If that isn't a sentence, I've never seen one, you say.

Well, you got me. I admit that it's a sentence. But I hasten to add that hearing such a sentence spoken in normal Japanese conversation is a rather rare occurrence.

A fundamental problem with some of the available Japanese language textbooks is that in an effort to include "sentence patterns" for students to learn, the authors of the textbooks tend to opt for "sentences" such as the one above, which I quote again:

kare wa kinou sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
(he) (yesterday) (that book) (Tanaka-san) (gave)
"He gave that book (to) Tanaka-san yesterday."

Whereas in actual spoken Japanese, you are more likely to hear the following utterance, instead of the complete "sentence":

agemasita. ---> "(Someone) gave (something) (to) (someone)."

This is an acceptable and very common type of utterance in Japanese. The first "someone", the "something", and the second "someone" (and maybe a few other little details) are all understood on the basis of the context of the conversation.

So in spoken Japanese, instead of our long "sentence" above that conforms to English grammar, you are more apt to hear (and hopefully speak) the following in a conversation intended to convey the meaning of the long sentence above:

1. kinou agemasita.
---> (Someone) yesterday gave (something) (to) (someone).
2. sono hon o agemasita.
--->(Someone) gave that book (to) (someone).
3. kare wa agemasita.
---> He gave (something) (to) (someone).
4. sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> (Someone) gave that book (to) Tanaka-san.
5. kare wa Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> He gave (something) (to) Tanaka-san.
6. kinou Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> Yesterday (someone) gave (something) (to) Tanaka-san.
7. kare wa kinou Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> Yesterday he gave (something) (to) Tanaka-san.
8. kinou sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> Yesterday (someone) gave that book (to) Tanaka-san.

and there are still several more possiblities that you would probably hear before you heard:

kare wa kinou sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.

In the each of the above numbered utterances, the "someone", "something", and second "someone" are understood on the basis of the context of the conversation. But more importantly, the meanings of the utterances are understood on the basis of the structural particles used (and of course the meaning of the words that are used.)

In Utterance Number 1, above:
kinou agemasita.
---> (Someone) yesterday gave (something) (to) (someone).
There are no particles, but there is a "time word". Particles are not required after
time words. So therefore it is a simple straightforward utterance: "Yesterday gave.",
and you understand everything else on the basis of the context.

Utterance Number 2:
sono hon o agemasita.
--->(Someone) gave that book (to) (someone).
Here we have the classic o particle utterance: an "object-verb" utterance.
The function of the structural particle o tells us that what precedes it is the
object of the verb that follows it, and everything else is understood from the
context.

Utterance Number 3:
kare wa agemasita.
---> He gave (something) (to) (someone).
Here we have another "classic" utterance: The function of the structural particle wa indicates that what comes before it is the topic, and the verb completes the utterance. Everything else that is required to understand the utterance is understood on the basis of context.

Utterance Number 4:
sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> (Someone) gave that book (to) Tanaka-san.
Now things become a little clearer. This utterance uses both the structual particles o and ni. Therefore, without referring to context, we know that the verb is going to act on sono hon, and the "to whom" the hon is given is going to be Tanaka-san.

Utterance Number 5:
kare wa Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> He gave (something) (to) Tanaka-san.
Here we have a topic indicated by the structural particle wa that follows it, and an indirect object indicated by the structural particle ni that follows it. So, when a Japanese hears kare followed by the particle wa, the Japanese knows that kare is going to be the "topic" of the utterance, and that what follows will make a comment, so to speak, about the topic. Next comes Tanaka-san followed by the structural particle ni, so the Japanese knows that Tanaka-san will be toward whom the action of a verb that follows will be directed. Then the Japanese hears agemasita, "gave", and thereby knows that kare, the "topic" of the sentence gave something to Tanaka-san, and the Japanese immediately mentally supplies this "something" on the basis of the context of what is being said. Since the Japanese is a native speaker of Japanese, he or she is probably not consciously aware of supplying the missing parts, since this is the way Japanese speak Japanese. One naturally provides whatever missing parts are required to understand an utterance. Otherwise communication would be impossible.

Utterance Number 6:
kinou Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> Yesterday (someone) gave (something) (to) Tanaka-san.
Here the listener hears the time word kinou, "yesterday", which doesn't require a particle but which does tip the listener off to the fact that the verb at the end of the utterance will probably be in the past tense. Next comes Tanaka-san followed by ni, and then the past tense verb agemasita, and the listener at that point knows that someone gave Tanaka-san something yesterday, and associates that with the context and knows that the missing parts are "he" and "book".

Utterance Number 7:
kare wa kinou Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> Yesterday he gave (something) (to) Tanaka-san.
The speaker here is allowing him or her self to be a little less laconic, and has provided everything necessary to understand the utterance without reference to context, except the object of the verb (which by English standards might be considered somewhat crucial to the meaning).

Utterance Number 8:
kinou sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
---> Yesterday (someone) gave that book (to) Tanaka-san.
And here, on the basis of the meaning the speaker intends to convey, he or she has given the listener both the direct and indirect objects, and has indicated that they are such by using the particles o and ni.

- * - * - * -

Well, where does all this leave us in our quest to learn Japanese?

On the basis of the above list of utterances, one might conclude that instead of having just one pattern sentence to learn, one has an almost infinite number of utterances to learn, with each one of them having very little relationship to the others.

But fortunately, that is not the case.

Although there are no sentence patterns in the Japanese language, there is a finite number of basic structural particle patterns. And this is one of the major features of the Japanese language that makes it an easy language to learn to speak. You just learn a few basic structural particle patterns, and practice speaking them and the major modifications they can undergo in normal conversation where the speaker usually only provides the part of a basic structural particle pattern that the listener cannot determine from the context of the conversation.

You of course have to learn some vocabulary, too, but in the initial stages at least, vocabulary is acquired as a matter of course in learning to speak the basic structural particle patterns. Once you are speaking "basic Japanese" in this fashion, then you can acquire additional vocabulary on the basis of using the language for productive purposes.

If a student of Japanese acquires a productive ability in using, and understanding, these structural particle patterns (which aren't all that numerous), and has practice in both hearing and speaking the parts of the particle patterns that can be spoken alone (with the rest of each particle pattern understood from context), then the student is well on the way to speaking Japanese.

For the above utterances 1. through 8., and also for the long utterance that conforms to rules of English grammar, the structural particle pattern is:

Structural Particle Pattern

The graphic below illustrates how the above 1. through 8. utterances fit into this Structural Particle Pattern

8 Utterances Structural Particle Pattern

All of the parts of the above structural particle pattern schematic that are in brackets [ ] can be omitted at the descretion of the speaker from an utterance that uses this particle pattern, and the listener will understand them on the basis of the context. In the above schematic, if you look closely, you will see that this means that all of the parts of the pattern except the verb at the end can be omitted.

Well then, you might say, how does a Japanese know on the basis of hearing only a verb and nothing else that the speaker is actually using the above long structural particle pattern. And the answer to this legitimate question is, as I've continually indicated: context. If the speaker is speaking on the basis of a context that requires a topic, a verb object, and an indirect object (and possibly a time word, and maybe an adverb), then the listener knows that the speaker is in effect speaking the above structural particle pattern when he or she says agemasita, and it is the responsibility of the listener to provide the missing parts.

But if you, as a foreign learner of the Japanese language, haven't practiced speaking and hearing the above structural particle pattern, and haven't also practiced speaking and hearing at least enough of the variations on the pattern in which various parts are left out, then when you hear the verb agemasita there is a good chance that it will have no more meaning to you than the verb "gave" would in English when spoken all alone.

And this is where many students who have studied Japanese for a couple of years using standard textbooks run into a problem when they come to Japan and try to speak with real Japanese. If they have perservered in their studies, they will know quite a few "sentence patterns" and will have a command of quite a bit of basic vocabulary. But this will not have prepared them to understand and respond effectively to a Japanese when he or she says
agemasita
while really meaning
kare wa kinou sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.

A question I've heard innumerable times from people trying to learn to speak Japanese is:

"I know all of the basic sentence patterns of Japanese, so why is it that I can't
understand what Japanese are saying, and why is it that they seem to get so impatient
with me when I try to say something?"

The reason why Japanese get impatient with a non-Japanese, specially a non-Japanese native
English speaker, is that the non-Japanese tends to continually try to include too much of what,
to the Japanese, is extraneous information, in his or her utterances.

A very simple example:

A Japanese asks: susi ga suki? or susi ga suki desu ka. ---> (Do) (you) like sushi?
The non-Japanese responds: hai, boku (or watasi) wa susi ga suki desu. ---> Yes, I like sushi.

Right here the Japanese senses that something is wrong with the non-Japanese's speech. Since
there are just the two of them carrying on the conversation, why has the non-Japanese insisted
on saying boku wa or watasi wa?. And why does the non-Japanese insist on repeating susi ga?
Any fool can understand that the non-Japanese has to be referring to him or her self, and that on
the basis of the context the object of suki, "like", is susi. So why clutter up a friendly conversation
with extraneous matter?

A non-native speaker of Japanese can probably get away with the above without destroying the
flow of the conversation, since many Japanese today, due to the influence of English, will
use boku or watasi when it really isn't required. But repeating the susi ga,would indicate that
there was definitely something slightly strange about the non-Japanese's Japanese, and the
Japanese listener would begin to feel somewhat uneasy.

But then if after this exchange the Japanese asked a question, and the non-Japanese responded:
kare wa kinou sono hon o Tanaka-san ni agemasita.
when all that was requried by way of response was: agemasita, and if the non-Japanese continued to make similar other long responses within a short period of time, there is a very good possibility that the Japanese would attempt to switch into broken English, since it would be apparent to the Japanese that the non-Japanese can't speak Japanese.

Here is a simple Zen kouan (a deliberately paradoxical statement designed to be meditated upon):

"It's impossible to speak Japanese with Japanese people unless you can speak Japanese."
(supposedly exclaimed by the Zen monk, Kenba [dates: ? - ?])

After a suitable period of meditation on this kouan, you (hopefully) will achieve at least partial enlightenment to the effect that unless you can speak Japanese in a manner that Japanese people are accustomed to hearing, it isn't Japanese.

In a country such as the United States, one hears all sorts of English spoken, and Americans, for the most part, are accustomed to hearing people speak English using constructions and such differently from the way they themselves speak. But as we know, Japan is an insular nation. The average Japanese has never, still today, heard Japanese spoken by anyone other than another Japanese. And in terms of what has been described above, all Japanese speak Japanese the same way. Ergo, it you don't speak Japanese the same way, you aren't speaking Japanese. And since all Japanese have had at least six years of exposure to English in middle school and high school, if they find themselves in a situation in which the person they are talking to doesn't seem to be speaking Japanese, they will usually try to switch the conversation into English, regardless of what actual level of ability they may have in that language. And the non-Japanese learner of Japanese has at that point missed another chance to gain experience in speaking Japanese as she's spoken.


(The content of this CyberTutorial is based in part on Part Two (Particle Pattern 7) of Unit Four
of Butler Consulting's Let's Speak Japanese CD-ROM, and Lesson Six (Structural Pattern 10)
of Butler Consulting's JapaneseForEveryone CD-ROM, where it's presented with tutorial comment
and digitized Japanese sound and sample utterances for interactive "hear and speak" practice.)


This Butler Consulting, Inc. WWW page is copyright 1995 by
Ken Butler 7-8-13 Seijo, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, Japan // Internet:kenbutler@twics.com
All Rights Reserved

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