Japanese grammar: a tricky passage and morphing adjectives

By | April 7, 2017

Reading foreign language material is always an adventure, especially when you come across grammar you’ve never seen before. Oftentimes, you can just figure out the meaning from context, but I’m the type of person that wants to understand the grammar completely so I can grasp any nuances involved and potentially learn to use the patterns in my own speech and writing.

The other day I came across the following (seemingly) simple phrase in a Japanese magazine’s travel ad:


Let’s break this short sentence into parts:

  • 楽しい (tanoshii):   [adjective] fun
  • が (ga): Particle which marks what comes before it as the subject
  • いっぱい (ippai): many, a lot
  • ある (aru) : [verb]

Even if you are weak in grammar, you can put the meaning together and guess this sentence means “There is a lot of fun”, which is very close to the actual meaning.

However, if you look closely, you’ll find that 楽しい is actually an adjective, and putting that directly before “が” seems strange if ある is verb associated with 楽しい.

Actually, there is more to the story, since i-adjectives in Japanese contain a hidden verb which represents “is”. For example, 楽しい actually means “it is fun”, not just “fun”. You may think this is an academic point, but it does matter in practical use. For example, look at the below examples, where I use both the i-adjective and noun forms of the color red (赤い (akai)・赤 (aka)).

  • 赤(だ)
  • 赤だよ
  • 赤い
  • 赤いよ   [not 赤いだよ]

Here we see that when using the particle よ, we add it directly after 赤い instead of using “だ”. Saying “赤いだよ” would sound awkward and be incorrect. You might provide the counterpoint that “赤いですよ” is correct, but in that case the です is added to provide a sense of politeness, not for its purpose as the copula (‘to be’).

Anyway, to return to the main topic, why was “楽しい” used before ”が”? I asked a Japanese person, and was told you can think of the word 楽しい in being in parenthesis, even though it is not actually written that way. You can say that the sentence effectively means: (which does not use ambiguous grammar)

  • 楽しい事がいっぱいある

I did a quick Google search and confirmed the original phrase (楽しいがいっぱいある) is extremely rare, and so I think it would be considered as bad grammar, strictly speaking.

Another way to look at this passage is that if you interpret the sentence as it is literally written, it is actually correct grammar. But it means something very different:

  • 楽しいいっぱいある
  • It is fun but there are many of them.

Here, the meaning of が serves the purpose of connecting to separate thoughts, similar to けど. Sometimes this can be translated as ‘but’, but it can have a lighter nuance, more connecting than contrasting.

By the way, in the magazine ad the second line was actually:

海遊び山遊び  (play at the beach, play at the mountain)

With this additional context, the interpretation of “There are many fun things to do” or simply “There is a lot of fun” is further confirmed as correct.

As a side note, if you think about the incorrect (but understandable) usage in this ad, you could possibly make inferences about who the target audience might be.

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