Variations on a phrase for asking directions when you are lost

By | July 14, 2017

Once in awhile I’ll look through the posts on WordPress tagged ‘Japanese’ and when I find those trying to teach Japanese grammar or vocabulary, I have a habit of searching for mistakes and will generally message the post authors when I find them. Often people who are studying Japanese themselves are posting what they have leaned, so it’s only natural for some mistakes to slip through. Of course I am one of these people myself. (I always appreciate people pointing out mistakes in my posts, so don’t hesitate if you ever find anything).

One recent post I ran across had the following phrase:

  • I’m lost, can you help?
  • 私は迷っています。おてつだいできますか? (Watashi wa mayotte imasu. Otetsudai dekimasu ka?)

When I first saw this, a few alarms went off in my head. But before I jumped to any conclusions I asked a Japanese person and also made a post online to see if my hunches were right.

Strictly speaking, I think if you used the above phrase the listener would probably be able to get what your intention was.

However, there are some things can be considered awkward, confusing, or unnatural with this phrase that make it somewhat unnatural.

These are potential issues with the sentence:

  • “私は” is really not needed here, as it is implied.
  • Having two separate sentences without any connecting words is awkward. (ex: “I am lost. Can you help?”)
  • Adding “道に” before 迷う might be more clear.
  • The polite form of 手伝う、”お手伝い” (otetsudai) is often used when the person speaking is doing the help.
    • For example “お手伝いしましょうか?” (Can I help you?”)

The biggest of these issues is the last, and after asking around I confirmed this is in fact unnatural, and actually sounds more like “Can I help you?”. As you know, omitting things in Japanese is common, but for that reason you have to make sure you give enough context to figure out the meaning.

My gut feeling was that “手伝ってもらえませんか?” was much less confusing and appropriate, and I confirmed with someone that this is in fact better.

However in this specific scenario, it is better to use the verb “教える” (oshieru) which means not only “teach”, but “tell”. This can be used with the word “道” (michi), which means “road”, but can be used in a general sense. Having said that, from context this is actually implied so it can be omitted. In the below example the word “ちょっと” (chotto, “a little”) is used to soften the tone and not in a literal sense. Note this variation also uses a proper connection (n desu kedo) and omits the unneeded “私は” at the beginning.

  • 道に迷ってるんですけど、ちょっと教えてもらえますか
  • Michi ni mayotteru n desu kedo, chotto oshiete moraemasu ka?

Here, “教える” is used in potential of the  “+te morau” form (“+te moraeu”), which means something like “Would you be able to do ~ for me?”

There are many other variations of this phrase, but I was told that the below is another natural way to express the need for help with directions in casual conversation:

  • すいません、ちょっと迷っちゃったんですけど、道()教えてもらってもいいですか?
  • Suimasen, chotto mayochatta n desu kedo, michi (wo) oshiete moratte mo ii desu ka?

This phrase does the following things:

  • ads “すいません” (abbreviated form of すみません, “excuse me”) to get someone’s attention politely
  • moves “ちょっと” to before the verb 迷う (“mayou”, “to get lost”)
  • uses 迷う in an abbreviation of the “+te shimau” form  (“+chau”) to express something negative or unexpected
  • moves “道” from before the verb 迷う to in front of 教える
  • changes “もらえる” to “もらってもいい” (the meaning is similar)

This resultant phrase is a bit long, but I think it would be a good idea to memorize it, making sure you understand each word and what it contributes.

Here is the post I made on Japanese Stackexchange if you want some more details.

UPDATE: I verified the unnatural phrase in question came from Google Translate. As expected, machine translation of Japanese to English has a long way to go.

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2 thoughts on “Variations on a phrase for asking directions when you are lost

  1. A Japanese Learner

    I appreciate your insight here. However, I suggest that you use brackets instead of the English quotation marks around Japanese phrases. This helps avoid confusion with dakuten for beginners.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the feedback, that’s a good point and I’ll try to avoid confusing notation in the future.


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