Japanese grammar: verb and adjective confusion

By | June 24, 2019

When talking about language we often group words into categories such as nouns, adjectives, verbs, and so on. These so-called “parts of speech” help us understand the roles of each word and figure out how to fit them together with other words.

However, the reality is that words in one category can often cross over into other categories, and in this post I want to talk about the overlap of verbs and adjectives in Japanese.

Verbs (動詞), in a simple sense, can be described as an action. For example, in the following sentence the word “ran” is clearly an action.

  • I ran quickly.

Adjectives (形容詞), on the other hand, describe something else (often a noun or pronoun). In this sentence, “green” is clearly describing “apple”.

  • I ate a green apple.

So how about in Japanese? The above two sentences can be translated pretty easily to Japanese, and the parts of “verb” and “adjective” are kept intact.

  • 僕は早く走った。 (boku wa hayaku hashitta)
  • 僕はのりんごを食べた。 (boku wa midori no ringo wo tabeta)

However, as I mentioned in the introduction, there can be overlap between these two types of words, or perhaps it’s better to say that one can act like the other. Let’s take a simple sentence in English, with it’s translation in Japanese:

  • He is fat.
  • 彼は太ってる (kare wa futotteru)

In English, “fat” is an adjective, whereas in Japanese we use the “-te iru” form (somewhat similar to the English “-ing”). The verb in question here is 太る (futoru), which means “to get fat”, so literally this means something like “he is getting fat”. However, unlike this English phrase, the Japanese 太っている can have the implication a constant state, not something that is actively happening.

If we wanted to emphasize that someone is actively getting fatter as time progresses, we could say:

  • 彼はだんだん太ってきてる (kare wa dan dan futotte kite iru)
  • He is gradually getting fatter.

If you want to see more details on this special usage of the verb くる, please see this post.

On the other hand, if we wanted to emphasize someone got fatter (a change of state”, we could simply say:

  • 彼は太ってきた (kare wa futotte kita)
  • He got fatter. (or more naturally, “he put on weight”)

Alternately, the simple “彼は太った” could also suffice.

What about the dictionary form 太る? Well, that can be used when we want to express something that will happen, or something that will happen conditionally. For an example of the latter:

  • いっぱい食べると太るよ (ippai taberu to futoru yo)
  • If you eat a lot you will get fat.

In Japanese we see this pattern of verbs acting like adjectives in many other places. Here are a few more examples:

  • 疲れている (tsukarete iru) ==> tired
  • 怒っている (okotte iru) ==> mad
  • お腹が空いている (onaka ga suite iru) ==> hungry
  • 死んでいる (shinde iru) ==> dead
  • 喜んでいる (yorokonde iru) ==> happy, pleased

There’s an important rule to know about these verbs-as-adjectives in Japanese: when you use them in the middle of a sentence, it’s generally best to just use their past form, not their -teiru form. For example,

  • ここに太った犬がいる (koko ni futotta inu ga iru)
  • ここに太っている犬がいる (koko ni futotte iru inu ga iru)

This is a bit confusing because as in one the examples above, the past tense of a verb like this generally expresses a change of state, whereas when used in the form of an adjective mid-sentence it can simply mean a constant state. So a proper translation of the first sentence above (with 太った) would be:

  • A fat dog is here.

A wrong translation would be:

  • A dog is here that got fat.

Keep in mind that when using actual adjectives, you should not use the past tense unless you are trying to emphasize a past state that may no longer exist. For example:

  • そこに大きい犬がいる (soko ni ookii inu ga iru)
  • A large dog is there.

It would be a little strange to say 大きかった犬 in this sentence.

Another verb form that can be used with adjective-wannabe-verbs is “-te ita”. This expresses there was a state in the past, for example:

  • 昔、よく怒っていた時期がありました (mukashi, yoku okotte ita jiki ga arimashita)
  • A long time ago, there was a time when I was frequently angry.

I should point out that the word “yoku” here is the adverbial form of “ii” / “yoi”, and while it can be used to mean “well” (as the adverbial form of “good”), it can also mean “frequently” or “often”. Here, the “well” meaning doesn’t make sense, so the intention must be “frequently”.

There is also the opposite case, where an adjective in Japanese can act like a verb (as least when we think in terms of English). For example,

  • 僕の頭が痛い (boku no atama ga itai)
  • My head hurts.

Here, the adjective “itai” can be expressed in English with the verb “hurts”, although there are ways to translate it with an adjective (ex: “my head is sore”).

By this way, if you were thinking that English too can have vagueness in parts of speech, you would be right. Here is an example of a common expression that crosses the line between verbs and adjectives.

  • He is depressed.

While “depressed” can mean “physically pushed in”, of course this sentence has a more psychological meaning. Furthermore, while past tense is used, by using “is” we establish an ongoing state. Another example is “depressing”, which literally seems like “something is pushing into something else”, but in fact the meaning is more adjectival, along the lines of “something which tends to mentally depress” (ex: “a depressing movie”).

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