Omitting subjects and other words in Japanese [Intermediate]

By | January 7, 2014

One aspect of Japanese grammar that is easy to overlook is the omission of subjects and other words which would normally be included in English. If you’re not careful about subject omission you can end up with grammatically “correct”  sentences that sound awkward. Let’s start with a simple example:

  • When I got home, my television was missing, so I called the police.

How would you translate this into Japanese? If you don’t know some of the vocabulary that’s ok, just use the words you know and focus on grammar for now.

If you tried to literally translate all the cases where “I” or “my” is present, you would end up with something like this:

  • 僕は帰ってきたら僕のテレビがなくなってたから僕は警察に電話した。

However you probably feel there is something not quite right about this. In fact, there are way too many “僕”s being used!

The general rule is that whenever something can be inferred from context by the listener, you should omit it.  In this case, the first “僕” is the only one you might need depending on what you were previously talking about. For example, if you were just having a conversation about your dad (who you live with), then it would be best to specify “僕は”, or at least change subjects with a phrase like “そういえば。。。”

Of the three “僕”s, the last “僕は” sounds the most unnatural since the “は” give the impression you are comparing yourself with somebody else. It is as if you called the police, but somebody else didn’t. The television is assumed to be yours, you can leave out the middle “僕の” as well.

Removing all the unnecessary words cleans up the sentence as follows:

  • 帰ってきたらテレビがなくなってたから警察に電話した。

This reminds me of the time I heard a Japanese person say something like “Husband is not here”. This is because typically in Japanese you would  say “旦那(は)” or “妻(は)” in Japanese, without “僕の” or “私の” before it. That’s especially true if you are making a statement. If you were asking a question about someone elses wife, you might use a word like ”奥さん” which is a bit more polite than ”妻”

On to a second example. Let’s say someone points at a book and asks you about it. How would you say the following?

  • Somebody bought me that book for Christmas.

Since the “〜してもらう” expression implies someone did something for the speaker and “somebody” is implied, we can write this sentence cleanly as such:

  • (その本は)クリスマスに買ってもらったものだ。

The ”〜してもらう” , ”〜してくれる” , ”〜してあげる” expressions (and other similar ones) all give information about what parties were involved and reduce the need to use objects in many cases.

  • I’ll read this book to you.
  • 本を読んであげよう

In this example it’s very clear the subject is the speaker who is offering to read the book to the listener, so its most natural to omit both. Saying “僕は貴方に本を” would just sound awkward.

Objects of verbs can also be omitted if they are obvious from context. One clue is that if you can abbreviate that word using “it” in English, it’s likely safe to omit it in Japanese.

Let’s say someone asks you why you didn’t bring your PS4 to their house, and you answer as:

  • Because its heavy!
  • だって重いんだもん!

You could answer with the more simple ”重いから” but I think the above expression is more natural. [Regarding “だって重いんだもん”, One of my readers has noted that this expression sounds feminine, and I agree that it’s probably better for most men to shy away from it. So I’d revise to say “だって重いから” is better.

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19 thoughts on “Omitting subjects and other words in Japanese [Intermediate]

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  3. mc

    > I think the above expression is more natural
    This is where you need to be careful. Yes it’s natural but it’s also feminine sounding. The downside to having your primary language references come from your wife. 😉

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Yeah it’s a downside, but its pretty minor compared to all the other things I’ve learned (:

      1. mc

        Well anyway my point is that you need to be aware of the danger (of adopting feminine speech patterns) and actively counteract it. That’s what I’ve had to do. That particular example sentence is totally feminine (ie gay). I’m no expert but in this case you could probably go with:
        重いんだから or 重いだぜ

        1. locksleyu Post author

          Yeah thats a good point and I do actively try to counter act it, unless I’m joking around. In this case my article didn’t mention that important fact, so I’ve updated it as to not confuse anyone. Thanks again for pointing it out.

          I wouldn’t say the expression in question necessarily makes someone immediately thought of as gay, because I’ve heard many cases when a normal guy will throw in slightly-feminine sounding things (like そうなのよ or そうね), and as far as I know that person wasn’t gay. I’ve also heard of an actual gay person using these types of expressions, and they had a certain *tonality* corresponding to them just like you would hear in English.

          So overall while I do agree you need to be careful, we need to be careful to not overthink the feminine-sound phrases.

          By the way I think 重いんだから would be fine but have more of a “the fact is it is heavy” connotation so it changes the meaning of things a bit.

          Also I think 重いだぜ is probably grammatically incorrect since its an i-adjective. In this case 重いぜ would be better.

  4. mc

    > I wouldn’t say the expression in question necessarily makes someone immediately thought of as gay

    That’s not what I meant. Stand-alone it sounds & reads as feminine and by “default” it’s a feminine phrase. But in practice of course it depends on the context & intonation.

    How do the meanings of ” 重いんだから” & “だって重いんだもん” differ? I think they’re identical in meaning afaik. The ん here is the so-called “explanatory の”. ( )

    > 重いだぜ is probably grammatically incorrect
    Good call. Should be 重いんだぜ.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Regarding comparing “重いんだから” & “(だって)重いんだもん”, you’re right that both use the の to indicate a reason is being explained. I don’t have enough experience to be 100% confident with my interpretation, but from hearing usage in various situations I feel they have a very different *feeling*.

      For example, a usage I have heard several times is “子供じゃないんだから”, whereas I’ve never heard “子供じゃないんだもん” and just thinking about it in my head it feels very different. I associate the expression “~だもん” with a little bit of the “of course” connotation.

      Funny thing is when I have asked questions like this on Japanese message boards (like Oshiete goo), I usually get a bunch of different answers with different interpretations. Either the nuances are different for different speakers, or just difficult to succinctly explain (even in Japanese).

      1. mc

        Coincidentally I was next to a Japanese colleague when I read this. (Well not so coincidental since I have Japanese colleagues around me just about every day). Anyway he told me the meaning of the two 重い examples were exactly the same as far as he was concerned. No special nuance.
        I didn’t run the 子供 examples by him since we got distracted by work. But I agree sometimes it can have that petulant “so there” feeling to it.

  5. mc

    Me again. I brought up this question with two Japanese colleagues at work. They said meaning was the same but the “~だもん has a sense of finality. Like “Because it’s heavy, and that’s just the way it is.” Whereas the other has some unsaid potential like “because it’s heavy [but I can bring it over if I get a roller bag to put it in]”. Anyway like you said, the more you ask about things like this the more different stories you get. I still remember how shocked I was the first time I heard a guy using the supposedly feminine ending わ. Turns out there’s a non-feminine ending わ too (as in じゃ、そうするわ which means something like そうしてみます).

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for asking about だもん verses だから, those are interesting data points. I decided on doing my own research, and put a post on Oshiete Goo. As usual, the answers I get are usually written in pretty difficult Japanese (more difficult than the question itself), but I learn from those as well.

      I’ll let you read for the details, but in general several people are saying that だもん is more emotional or subjective.

      Also, I think わ you mentioned is only used by men in 大阪弁, or at least in non-tokyo Japanese.

      1. mc

        I’ll check out the thread at goo later. Unfortunately I also have to “parse” those kinds of discussions as my Japanese reading ability has plateaued for about the last 15 years.
        Regarding the -wa — my Tokyo-born wife says it’s not dialect and not unusual in Tokyo. Though it may be true that it’s more commonly used in Kansai. Perhaps because it was on my mind, I caught it in a conversation just yesterday at work. Not sure where the speaker was originally from but probably Chuubu region where his company is headquartered. I should have wrote it down immediately. I already forgot the exact phrase.

        1. locksleyu Post author

          If you find out what the phrase is let me know. I asked my wife (also Japanese) and she said that phrase is not common for men in Tokyo-speak (:

        2. locksleyu Post author

          I understand what you mean by ‘parsing’ Japanese text, often I try to reread several times to get the full meaning of what is being said.

          Though after 15+ years of Japanese learning actually I would say I am much stronger in reading than in listening, probably because I’ve never lived in Japan but had the opportunity to read many novels in Japanese.

  6. mc

    Keep in mind, there are lots and lots of people in Tokyo from 地方. So you’ll hear it Tokyo for that reason alone. I was working in downtown Tokyo when I first heard it in the incident I mentioned above. (But I think that guy was not Tokyo-出身). Where does your wife say it’s from? Kansai? Or just not-Tokyo?

      1. mc

        It may be a subset of this but the one I’m talking about only seems to apply with verbs. And seems to be the result of some deliberation and taking action. So ~yo is similar but not quite the same. At least that’s the feeling I get. I’ll keep my eyes & ears open (so we can continue this discussion ad nauseum 🙂

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