Japanese grammar highlight: Word order in Japanese

By | September 21, 2015

According to a poll I’ve been running since August 2014, the number one thing people would like more from this blog is information about Japanese Grammar.

Writing about grammar is tricky since there are are many good books and websites about it, and I like to try and avoid duplicating content that is available elsewhere. So I try and wait until I can think of topics where I can contribute something unique, or pick single words (or groups of words) and give an extra-detailed treatment with them, including a bunch of example sentences. In spite of the fact there is so much material out there, people still find it hard to learn Japanese grammar – so I try my best to make things a little bit clearer for those seeking understanding.

This time I’ve decided to take on the topic of word order in Japanese, which when people say “Grammar” is one of the top things they are probably thinking about (along with things like particles and maybe conditionals). In other languages, conjugation, tenses and conjugations can take quite some time to get the hang of, but in Japanese those are relatively simple with only a few tenses. (English, on the other hand, has all sorts of annoying things like “have gone”, “had gone”, “would of had gone”, etc.)

Basic word order (語順) in Japanese is where the subject (主語)is followed by the direct object (直接目的語), which is followed by the verb(動詞). This can be abbreviated as “SOV”. Let’s take an example:

  • Subject + Object + Verb
  • 僕がバナナを食べた。

English has the second two elements reversed, so that the object is at the end. Writing the same sentence in English we get,

  • Subject + Verb + Object
  • I ate (a) banana.

In Japanese, other things like the direction or location of an action are also generally in the same location, in front of the verb.

  • Subject + Location of action + Verb
  • 僕が日本で勉強した。

In English we have,

  • Subject + Verb + Location of action
  • I studied in Japan.

Though this may seem like a straightforward thing, it’s actually one of the biggest hurdles to understanding and speaking Japanese, at least initially. This is because if you’re native language is English, your brain is used to processing things in a certain order, and shifting this order makes everything take that much longer. Where you could just speak quickly in English in a stream-of-conscious fashion (without deep thought), in Japanese you have to think “I need to say the object *before* the verb” for quite some time until that pattern sticks. When reading, you may have to re-read sentences over two or three times until you get a good grasp of the word order. I think that understanding Japanese also requires more short term memory, since we need to read or hear more of the sentence before we can digest it.

From the previous example sentence, we can see another way Japanese is different than English – the placement of things that modify nouns. For example, in English we put the preposition “in” before a location, but in Japanese we put the particle “で” (de) after the word. For describing the direction of an action in English, we use the preposition “to” before the location (ex: “I went to Japan”), but in Japanese the particle is after the location (“僕は日本へ行った”). Even though particles are not the exact same things as prepositions, there are many similarities and this order difference is another thing that takes longer to digest when learning Japanese grammar.

Fortunately adjectives in Japanese are placed in front of the nouns they modify, just like in English. (This is reversed in Spanish)

  • 赤いリンゴ。
  • Red apple.

But don’t celebrate yet – Japanese switches things around again when there is a phrase or clause describing a noun, as if it were an adjective.

  • 僕が買った本。
  • The book (that) I bought

Here the preposition “that” is optional in English (though it may be better to include it in some cases), but there is no corresponding word needed in Japanese. Similarly “The place where I was born” would not need any connecting word in Japanese (“僕が生まれた場所”, where が could be replaced with の)

If we put this rule together with the the basic SOV pattern we talked about above, we can already start getting a pretty complex sentence.

  • 先生が言ってくれたことを聞いてなかった。
  • I wasn’t listening to what the teacher told me.

(Note: The 僕は part is technically the topic, not the subject because は is used instead of が, but I’m not going to go into that detail here. See this post for more information.)

For those still learning the basics of Japanese grammar, this sentence may be a little hard to parse, because the word order is so different from English. It’s almost like a mini puzzle. I’ve highlighted the words “I” and  “teacher” in both sentences to see how their placement is so different.

One trick I use in my head to parse these types of sentences is to separate the describing phrase from the rest of the sentence, as if I was adding parenthesis like this:

  • 僕は (先生が言ってくれた) ことを聞いてなかった。

Another time word order is reversed in Japanese is when there is an embedded phrase inside of a sentence is referred to. For example in English we say

  • [Something that describes the phrase] + [the phrase]
  • I think it will rain.

I call this quoting because you can think of it like this:

  • I think “it will rain”.

Essentially, the phrase “it will rain” is being described as being thought about.

In Japanese, this is reversed with the phrase coming first.

  • [the phrase] + [Something that describes the phrase]
  • 雨がふると思う。

Here the “I” part is omitted from the Japanese phrase, which is very common in natural speech and writing. I wrote about this here previously.

Though it would be perfectly natural to omit the “I”, it is grammatically correct to specify it. Here we come to another important aspect of Japanese word order, the flexibility to shift things around. For example, the following two sentences are both correct.

  • 僕は雨がふると思う。
  • 雨がふると僕は思う。

Although these have pretty much the same meaning, the second one (with the 僕は near the end) sounds to me a little bit like “I don’t know about you, but this is what *I* think”. Also I think that form would be more natural if you had a long phrase, so the 僕は and と思う parts were kept close together. Having said that, for the average case I think saying 僕は (or omitting it completely) is safest.

Japanese word order is flexible in other ways too. For example, sometimes the topic or subject is actually put at the last of the sentence.

  • なんだこりゃ?「=なんだ、これは?」
  • What is this?
  • 何やってるんだ俺は?
  • What am I doing?

Both of these are commonly said phrases and completely natural. The reason for doing this seems to emphasize the first part of the sentence (“what”) instead of the topic or phrase. Another example of this is “バカ、お前は”。

However, I recommend beginner students to stick with the basic SOV order as much as possible.

A final case of flexible word order is where Japanese can sometimes use OSV form, as in the following sentence.

  • Object + Topic + Verb
  • それを、僕たちが調べる。
  • We are going to research that.

This is something I see much more common in written Japanese (especially novels) as opposed to spoken. As in the above sentence, sometimes commas are used in Japanese to set certain elements apart and make the sentence easier to understand.

You could even put the それ(を) at the end of this sentence, though it sounds more colloquial there, as if it is an afterthought.(僕たちが調べる。。。それ). (Note: I think adding ”んだ” (short for のだ)after 調べる makes these sentences more natural, but I’ve omitted it to simplify things)

There are some cases where Japanese and English word (or phrase) order is similar. For example in conditionals, the “if” is typically followed by the “the” in both languages:

  • If clause + Then clause
  • 試験は勉強すれば、合格できるよ。
  • If you study for the test, then you’ll be able to pass it.

This also applies to the order things are done in, for example:

  • 箱を開けたらびっくりした。
  • When I opened the box I was surprised.

Here, in both languages the phrases are in temporal order, such that the action in the left part of the sentence occurred before the right part. This may feel like common sense but I can’t guarantee there aren’t languages with a different ordering here.

I hope this post has made word order in Japanese a bit clearer. If you have any questions, or any other areas of Japanese grammar you’d like me to go into, please let me know.



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