Japanese grammar pattern: the trailing “te” form

By | February 24, 2020

Verb order is one of the most fundamental things about a language’s grammar, and for Japanese we have Subject + Object + Verb. Of course, this is just for the most basic of sentences, and there are various ways to build onto a sentence to make it more complex.

For example, expressing a chain of actions (which may be simultaneous or separated in time) is typically done by the “te” form, also called the gerund. To give a simple example:

  • 僕はドアを開けて入った (boku wa doa wo akete haitta)
  • I opened the door and went in.

Here, notice that the “te”-form verb is in the middle of the sentence, and the one at the end (rightmost) is in the past tense form (入った). Generally the final verb will be in the past tense, dictionary form (入る), or a polite variant of one of those. There are many other patterns but this is a common word order.

Japanese is particularly flexible in that the word order can be changed around, although it is usually within limits (for example you will generally never see something like Verb + Object + Subject).

In spoken language, word order shifts can occur because the speaker is using words in the order that they come to mind (think of stream-of-consciousness), and in written language word order shifts can help adjust the composition of longer sentences to make them easier to understand.

In the remainder of this article I’d like to focus on a specific word order adjustment that is commonly made in spoken conversation, which is when a “te”-form verb actually appears at the end of the sentence. Let’s start with a basic example:

  • いいなあ、車を買ってもらえて (ii naa, kuruma wo katte moraete)
  • Isn’t it nice, having someone buy a car for you.

Here the “te”-form verb is actually at the end of the sentence, and this is not a case where the “te”-form is being used as a light command/request. Let’s contrast with the typical version of this sentence:

  • 車を買ってもらえていいなあ (kuruma wo katte moraete ii naa)

This means the same exact thing, but using a more standard word order.

The reason to put the “いいな” at the beginning is because that is what first came to mind for the speaker (more of a emotional response, perhaps), and then they followed it up with an explanation about what is “nice”.

  • 誰だこいつ?人のもの盗みやがって。。。 (dare da koitsu, hito no mono nusumiyagatte…)
  • Who is this guy, stealing peoples stuff…

Here we actually see two instances of nonstandard word order. The first is the “te”-form at the end (using 〜やがる which is a verb with a particularly negative connotation), and the second is the word こいつ (another word with a negative nuance) that is used after the verb だ, instead of before. So if we rewrite this with more traditional word order we would get:

  • 人のものを盗みやがって、こいつは誰だ? (hito no mono wo nusumiyagatte, koitsu wa dare da?)

Again, the speaker has probably chosen this word order because the word “誰” (who) was the first thing to come to mind, and is probably the most important word in the sentence.

Let’s look at a final example:

  • 今度さ、カナダへ行ってみよう?車を借りて。。。 (kondo sa, kanada e itte miyou? kuruma wo karite)
  • Do you want to go to Canada someday? We can rent a car…

In this case too we see a trailing “te”-form being used. As with the other examples, the “te”-form verb really belongs in the middle of the sentence. Why might have the speaker used this form? It was probably because the part about renting a car came as an afterthought, so he/she added it on to the end. This part at the end may be spoken with less emphasis or volume that the rest of the sentence, and the “…” hints at this.

Like many slang uses in Japanese, I don’t recommend trying to integrate this pattern into your speech until you are very comfortable with it. In most cases, using “proper” word order is going to be safe, so if you aren’t sure just stick with that.

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