Overgeneralizing and 3 painful mistakes in Japanese

By | May 15, 2018

When learning a foreign language, we learn the meanings of words along with grammar rules for how to put them together. However, as most languages have evolved over hundreds of years in a haphazard way, there are many exceptions that also need to be learned. In this post I’d like to talk about a few interesting exceptions (or in some cases coincidences) I’ve encountered where you can take a wrong turn.

To begin with, one pattern that is often learned in the first year or so of Japanese is adding “~sou” (〜そう) to a na-adjective or i-adjective (removing the final ‘i’ in the latter case). This gives a sense of “seems like”. For example:

  • 難しそう (muzukashisou)
  • That seems difficult.

The word ‘kawaii’ (かわいい), meaning ‘cute’, is a word that I think most students of Japanese know. I’d bet that even many people who don’t know Japanese are familiar with this word, since it has gradually seemed into culture in the West (at least in the US).

Now let’s say you hear someone’s baby name and think it “seems cute”, so might try saying:

  • その名前、かわいそう (sono namae, kawaisou).
  • That name seems cute.  <warning!>

However, it just so happens that the word かわいそう means “sad” or “pitiful”, so you are actually saying.

  • That name sounds pitiful.


A simple way to fix this it to just say:

  • 可愛い名前だね (kawaii namae da ne)
  • That’s a cute name

By the way かわいそう (meaning ‘sad’ or ‘pitiful’) can also be written in Kanji as 可哀想, but using hiragana is more common.

Next, I’d like to talk about the pattern -nikui (~にくい) which is after the pre-masu form of verbs in order to express something is hard to do. For example:

  • 分かりにくい (wakarinikui)
  • That’s hard to understand.

Therefore, if you were looking at a blurry picture of someone you might say:

  • 顔が見にくいね (kao ga minikui ne)
  • Her/his face is hard to see. <warning!>

However, it just so happens that “minikui” (sometimes written as 醜い) also means “ugly”. I’m sure you can see that from, since in English we have expressions like “she is easy on the eyes” which means someone is attractive or pretty. So you are actually saying:

  • Her/his face is ugly.


In this case, it’s safer to use the word -zurai (〜づらい) which has a similar meaning to “-nikui”.

  • 顔が見づらいね (kao ga mizurai ne)
  • Her/his face is hard to see.

For a final example, a very basic and useful word in Japanese is “いい” (ii), which means “good”. Once you learn the word “なる” (naru) then you can put these together and say things like:

  • 天気がよくなった (tenki ga yoku natta)
  • The weather has gotten better.

Now, if you know someone has a headache (which can be expressed by saying 頭が痛い, atama ga itai), you might want to ask them later in the day how they are feeling.

In English, one might use a phrase like “Is your head feeling any better?” and you might try and put together various pieces of Japanese knowledge and come up with:

  • 頭がよくなった? (atama ga yoku natta?)
  • Did your head get better? <warning!>

As you guessed it, in this case again there is another expression that conflicts with what you are trying to say. It is “頭がいい (atama ga ii)” which means “smart”. So you are actually saying:

  • Did you get smarter?

Double ouch!

There are a few ways to avoid this rather embarrassing mistake (and let’s just say I know someone personally who has done this…)

Here is one idea:

  • 頭が痛くなくなった? (atama ga itaku naku natta?)
  • Did your head stop hurting?

While it will get your point across without any misunderstandings, it’s a bit awkward sounding. If you want something more natural, you can try:

  • 痛みがなくなった (itami ga nakunatta?)
  • Did the pain go away?

Also, using some more advanced words you can say something like:

  • 頭痛が和らいだ? (zutsuu ga yawaraida?)
  • Did your headache ease up?




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3 thoughts on “Overgeneralizing and 3 painful mistakes in Japanese

  1. Ian

    Quick comment. If かわいそう means “pitiful”, wouldn’t the following sentence just mean “That name pitiful”?

    Because the そう element at the end of adjectives is what gives off the meaning of “seems, sounds”, correct?

    Although I presume that “That name pitiful” , even without the verb, does carry the meaning to the effect of “that name sounds pitiful”.

    Just a beginner-level Japanese learner and his two cents.

    Great blog post, especially for learners such as myself

    1. locksleyu Post author

      In Japanese, the copula (だ・です) or some form of it is often omitted. For example “彼が好き” doesn’t actually have a verb in it.

      Similarly, その名前、かわいそう doesn’t have a だ or だよ at the end of it, but it is implied. かわいそうだ sounds a little tough/manly to me and かわいそうだよ is more emphatic.

  2. Marina

    I’ve been a long time away from blogging but some things never change. Your articles are interesting as ever and really helpful for Japanese learners. I’ve pointed several your way over the years and not one has regretted it


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