Sometimes in languages there are grammatical rules which are tricky or obscure such that even native speakers have difficulty with them. One example in English could be comma usage (although depending on who you ask, there is some subjectivity involved there). In this article, I’d like to go over an aspect of Japanese grammar that even some native speakers might get wrong.
First, some background information about a few usages of the word “そう” (sou). While this can be used as a word on its own, I want to focus on how it can be used to describe the speaker’s judgement of something based on external information. For example, I can say:
- そのチョコレート、おいしそう！ (sono chokoreeto, oishisou!)
- That chocolate looks tasty!
Here, the speaker is actually seeing the chocolate and making a subjective judgment that it is tasty, and it can be said that the speaker is making a guess at the ‘state’ (様態) of the thing in question.
To contrast, another usage of そう is when the speaker is describing they heard about something, and this can technically be called hearsay (伝聞).
- 日本人の先生は厳しいそう。 (nihonjin no sensei wa kibishii sou)
- I hear that Japanese teachers are strict.
Notice that the conjugation here is different, in the “state” case we drop the final い from the adjective (おいしそう), and in the “hearsay” case we keep it (厳しいそう). See this page for a detailed explanation of these in Japanese. Also, for those who are interested in classical Japanese, it is good to know that once the grammar for the “hearsay” case was previously used to express “state” (this is described here, search for 「古くは、様態ないし推量の意を表すのにも用いられた」).
Similarly, depending on whether you want to describe “state” or “hearsay”, other types of words will conjugate differently. For example, adding “そう” after the verb “する” would become “しそう” for “state” and “するそう” for the “hearsay” usage. The word “だいじょうぶ” (daijoubu) would be “だいじょうぶそう” (state) or ”だいじょうぶだそう” (hearsay).
Also, the word “そう” in both of these cases is technically “そうだ” (sou da) but with the “だ” part dropped. The reason that matters is because if you want to add something like the particle “よ” (yo), you generally say “〜そうだよ”, not “〜そうよ” (the latter actually is used in conversation, but has a distinct feminine nuance to it).
Now that I have gone over these two usages of “そう”, I want to talk a little more about the “state” one. Specifically, how we describe a negative state. Grammatically, things get a little hairy here because ない (nai) can actually be either an adjective (形容詞） or a helping/auxiliary verb (助動詞), and そう in this case is acting as a helping/auxiliary verb. So we need to make sure the various pieces get put together correctly.
Some time ago I had heard or read somewhere that proper word to use was なさそう (nasasou). Here is how we would use this pattern with different types of words:
- おいしくなさそう (oishikunanasou) <= It doesn’t seem tasty
- 勉強しなさそう (benkyou shinasasou) <= He/she doesn’t seem like they would study
- そうじゃなさそう (sou ja nasasou) <= That doesn’t seem to be the case
However, after using this pattern for years (and hearing others use it), I recently heard a native speaker use the word:
- 出なそう (denasou)
So I did some research and discovered that sometimes なさそう (nasasou) should be used, and sometimes なそう (nasou). But how to decide which?
I was fortunate to find this page which covers this topic pretty well in Japanese. Here I’ll give a summary of the main points.
Rule 1: for existence, use なさそう (nasou)
This is when you are using ない to express something doesn’t exist or is not present.
- 心配はなさそう (shinpai wa nasasou)
- It seems like he/she are not worried.
Rule 2: for i-adjectives that are in negative form, use なさそう (nasou)
- おいしくなさそう (oishikunasasou)
- It doesn’t look tasty.
Rule 3: for the negative form of verbs, use なそう (nasou)
- 勉強しなそう (benkyou shinasou)
- He/she doesn’t seem like they would study.
Rule 4: for verbs that have ない as part of them in their positive form, use なそう (nasou)
This is for verbs like 汚い (kitanai), すくない (sukunai), あぶない (abunai) etc.
- そこはあぶなそう (soko wa abunasou)
- That place does seem dangerous. (Note: there is no negative here!)
Fortunately, there is one rule you can remember instead of remembering all of the above four.
Rule: If you can safely put the wa or ga particle before ない (nai), then use なさそう (nasasou), otherwise use なそう (nasou).
- おいしくはない (oishiku wa nai)
- This is a well-formed sentence so we use おいしくなさそう
- 勉強しはない (benkyou shi wa nai)
- This is not a well-formed sentence (it isn’t grammatically correct), so we use 勉強しなそう
- そうじゃない＝＞そうではない (sou de wa nai)
- There there is already a “wa” particle in this sentence before the ない, so we use そうじゃなさそう
Another more technical way to remember this is when ない is acting as an adjective, we use なさそう (the さ here serves to change the adjective ない into the noun なさ), but when it acts as a helping verb, we use なそう. By the way, this page talks about a story where more than half of a certain high school class got this grammar wrong when polled. If you do a Google search for “降らなさそう” (which is incorrect) you’ll see over 4000 hits, although a few of them are talking about the very fact it is incorrect.
Fortunately, since even some Japanese natives seem to get this wrong, it’s not going to be a huge deal if a Japanese non-native speaker makes this mistake. But, for perfectionists or those who really want to learn proper grammar, this is a good thing to know.