Using the Japanese particles “to” (と) and “tte” (って) to quote [plus abbreviated uses and particle combinations]

By | February 25, 2019

The Japanese particle と (to) has a fairly large number of usages. In one of my dictionaries there are ten independent meanings listed.

While I’d like to cover them all eventually, in this post I’m going to focus on one of the most common usages, that is when “to” is used to quote something.

By “quote”, I mean to set off a specific word, phrase, or sentence, much like single- or double-quotes are used in English. For example:

  • 僕はおいしい言った。 (boku wa oishii to itta)
  • I said “tasty”.

Note that in the above sentence, you have to guess from context that the “boku wa” part is not included as part of the quoted phrase since the “to” only talks about where the quote ends, not where it begins. However, in many cases (especially dialog) Japanese-style brackets (「 and 」) can be used. For example,

  • 僕は「おいしい」言った。

While “to” can be used to quote with a variety of verbs, these few are very commonly used:

  • 思う (omou) “to hink”
  • 言う (iu) “to say”
  • 仰る (ossharu) “to say” [polite]

“to” can also be used to describe something specific that was learned, understood, or known. For example,

  • 僕はすごく難しいやっと分かった (boku wa sugoku muzukashii to yatto wakatta)
  • I finally understood it was very difficult.

There are more verbose ways to express essentially the same thing. For example,

  • 僕はすごく難しいいうことが分かった (boku wa sugoku muzukashii to iu koto ga wakatta)

Literally, however, this is closer to something like “I finally understood the fact that it was very difficult” (though I should point out こと doesn’t actually mean “fact”, it’s more like “abstract thing”).

Here are a few other similar words that can be used in the same way with “to”:

  • 了解する (ryoukai suru) “to understand”
  • 知る (shiru) “to learn, to know”
  • 承知する (shouchi suru) ”to know”

In everyday conversation, for the above usages the word “tte” (って) is often used instead of “to”, and this can be said to have a slightly informal or casual tone. (The exception is “~ to iu koto” which can be shortened to “~ tte koto”)

For example,

  • いいなって思った。 (ii na tte omotta)
  • I thought (it) was nice.

Notice that in the English translation above there are no words used to explicitly quote the “it was nice” part, although sometimes the word “that” is used before such phrases to clarify things (ex: “I thought that it was nice”). In Japanese, however, without the “to” or “tte”, the grammar is incorrect and things sounds awkward.

In some cases “to” or “tte can be used immediately before verbs that don’t normally imply thinking or stating something literally. For example, in the below sentence the only verb is 諦める (“give up”):

  • 高すぎる諦めた。 (takasugiru to akirameta).

In cases like this, thinking there is an implicit 思う (or similar verb) can help you understand:

  • 高すぎると思って諦めた。 (takasugiru to omotte akirameta).
  • I thought it was too expensive and gave up.

The above English translation is literal but arguably a little unnatural. A more appropriate translation might be, “Thinking it was too expensive, I gave up” or “I gave up since I thought it was too expensive.” Here is another example with an implied verb:

  • 教科書を買わなきゃすぐ出かけた. (kyoukasho wo kawanakya to sugu dekaketa).
  • I thought I had to buy the textbook and soon went out.

By the way “kawanakya” is an abbreviation for “kawanakya ikenai” and is used commonly in casual language to describe “needing” or “having” to do something.

While I am talking about the “to” particle being used to quote things, I should mention there are three useful particle combinations: “ka to”, “to wa”, and “to mo”.

“ka to” (かと)is used when the speaker wants to express that they thought about some possibility, or thought that maybe something was true.

  • 日本語話せないかと思った。 (nihongo hanasenai ka to omotta)
  • I thought maybe (you) didn’t speak Japanese.

You can actually omit the verb in this type of sentence:

  • 日本語話せないかと。

This abbreviated form sounds a little “intellectual” to me, though that is just my personal opinion.

Second, “to wa” (とは) is used to express that the speaker didn’t think of something, or thought something would never happen. The word “masaka” can be used in this pattern for emphasis.

  • まさか合格したとは思わなかった (masaka goukaku shita to wa omowanakatta)
  • I never thought (I) would pass (the test).

As with “ka to”, you can omit the verb following the “to wa” (ex: まさか合格したとは).

As you probably know, the “wa” particle is commonly used with negative verbs to emphasize contrast, and this usage is another example of that since the verb (usually 思う) must always be in a negative form.

Finally, “to mo” can be used when you want to strongly assert something. The expression “of course” is a rough way to think of its nuance.

  • 日本に行くとも. (nihon ni iku to mo)
  • Of course I’ll go to Japan!

In the case of “to mo” I don’t think that “to” is technically acting in the quoting sense (you generally don’t use a verb after it), though I wanted to include it here since it was a combination involving “to”.

By the way, the “to mo” combination often reminds me of the TV show “笑っていいとも” (waratte ii tomo), which you can see more information about here. Its title is a play on words because it can mean two things:

  • Laugh, good friend (笑って、いい友)
  • Of course it’s OK to laugh (笑っていい、とも)

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