Japanese expression “〜するも” (~suru mo) and vagueness of the が (ga) particle

By | January 19, 2017

Recently I read the very enjoyable short story “麦本三歩は今日が好き” by 住野よる in the literary magazine 小説幻冬 (Dec 2016 edition). I even translated a short excerpt of it into English here.

There was one line of the story whose grammar I just couldn’t figure out, and I thought that it was either some strange pattern I had never seen before, or just a typo. While I could have used something like Japanese Language StackExchange to get some help, I decided to write the publisher directly (in Japanese).

Here is the line, from page 44:

も、熱さに一度指を放してしまってから一度フォークにひっかけてティーバッグをお茶の中で上下させ、成分を十分に溶け込ませてからフォークごと流し台に置いておく。

The sentence is a bit long and complex, but you may have picked up on the weird part–the “も” at the very beginning. I double checked and the character before this was a period. My first guess was that this was a typo for  “もう”.

Here is the answer from their editorial department:

→普通に書けば、「指でつまむも、熱さに一度放した」ですね。
つまり「指でつまんだけれども、熱いので、一度放した」という意味です。
「つまむ」と「も」の間に、「。」を入れることで、
作者独自の言葉のリズムを産み出しています。

The summary of this is that the も is usually connected to the previous sentence, rendering the pattern “〜するも” which translates to something like “〜したけれも”.  However, the author apparently added a period before the も in order to create a unique sense of rhythm.

Looking at the previous sentence before the “も” we see  “。。。フークで持ち上げてから指でつまむ。”, which means that this:

。。。フークで持ち上げてから指でつまむ。も熱さに一度指を放してしまって。。。

effectively means this:

。。。フークで持ち上げてから指でつまんだけれども熱さに一度指を放してしまって。。。

For beginner, or even intermediate students of Japanese this can be quite confusing, because a non-past verb tense (つまむ) is effectively being interpreted as a past verb tense (つまんだ). However, once you consider that Japanese verb tenses are generally a little more fluid than in English, this is a bit easier to accept. One manifestation of this how you may find a mix of past and non-past tenses in literature (even in the same paragraph) much more often than in English.  (The phrase “ちょっとまった!” is another example, can you guess what it means?)

Now that I knew this was a variation of the ~するも (~suru mo) pattern, I searched for that and found this educational post in Japanese. (Note that you shouldn’t confuse this with “〜するのも” (~ suru no mo) where the verb is being treated as a noun. This would have a different, more straightforward meaning (ex: “日本に行くのもいい”, “It would also be good to go to Japan”)).

As is typical with posts asking about grammar explanations, there are some differing opinions, but overall I think there is some agreement that this is a literary expression that is used less frequently (if at all) in spoken speech. Also, as I talked about above,  the 〜するも pattern can mean 〜したけれも, and the post also mentions meanings 〜したのに and 〜しても.

The topmost answer (No. 5) mentions something really interesting that I thought I would touch on here, which is that there are some people who advocate avoiding the use of “が” as a connecting particle (this is supposedly one of the reasons why 〜するも is preferred over が). The below examples were given:

・安いが、まずい
・安いが、うまい

In the first sentence, が has more of a connecting meaning, as in “It’s cheap and tastes bad.”

However, in the second sentence, it has more of a contrasting meaning, as in “It’s cheap, but tastes good.”

So, in summary, we see that the が particle can be used for two very different meanings (not to mention other common ones such as a subject marker which I am not addressing here). The poster of that answer mentions that this can “put a burden on the reader” and expresses his/her annoyance regarding its usage.

I vaguely remember learning that が had these double meanings a long time ago, but it’s good to know that some native speakers also struggle with the vagueness of this usage. Fortunately, I think most cases you can tell the purpose of が from the context, as in the above examples about cheap food.

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