Expressions of receiving actions and thinking backwards in Japanese

By | August 11, 2020

One thing that sets apart Japanese from other languages, such as English, is the wide variety of ways there are to express politeness, whether it is special verb forms, words, or other grammatical constructions. One of the most basic of these is the verbs “ageru” / “kureru” / “morau”, which I have written a bit about here. However, even once you understand logically how these verbs work, it can take a shift in thinking to understand them fully, as well use them yourself in a natural way.

In this post I’d like to go over one common pattern that you will likely see in business contexts. It involves the verb “itadaku” which can be considered a bit politer than “morau”, though both of them have the same general meaning (“to receive”).

Let’s look at a realistic sample sentence that contains the pattern I’d like to go over:

  • 送料無料のサービスもご利用いただけます。 (souryou muryou no saabisu mo goriyou itadakemasu)

Here, “送料無料のサービス” literally means “free shipping service”. I’m mentioning this here without further explanation since I want to focus on the next part, namely the “ご利用いただけます” part.

利用 means “use” and the ご prefix is just for extra politeness. But what about “いただけます”?

“いただけます” is the polite potential form of the verb いただく (“to receive”, as mentioned above), and literally translates to “to be able to receive”. But if this is the first time you are seeing this expression it may raise a question: Who is receiving what?

To help answer that let’s look at another related expression:

  • 手伝っていただけますか? (tetsudatte itadakemasu ka?)

There is no subject here, but from context we can guess the subject is the speaker (I/me). The form here is basically the same as the “+te morau” form (mentioned in the beginning of this post) except the polite potential form of “itadaku” is used instead. This is used to represent the speaker being able to “receiving” an action, and can be translated in this case as:

  • Would you be able to help me?

Furthermore, “+te morau” and “+te itadaku” can also be used right next to nouns that act as verbs. The below sentence essentially means the same thing, except is a bit more polite because of the “お” prefix:

  • お手伝いいただけますか? (otetsudai itadakemasu ka?)

So now let’s return to the original example sentence to see if we can figure out what it means:

  • 送料無料のサービスもご利用いただけます。 (souryou muryou no saabisu mo goriyou itadakemasu)

Using what we just discussed, the latter half of this sentence basically means:

  • 使っていただけます (tsukatte itadakemasu)

Again, since it is omitted we assume the subject here is the speaker, which is the company making this statement (say on a website or some advertising material). Using this, if we do a somewhat literal translation of the phrase in question, we get:

  • We can also have you use the free shipping service.

By this point you probably understand the point of this sentence, but reading it above sounds a bit awkward, because in English we generally don’t write (or think) in terms of the provider of the service. Let’s switch around the order and see what the result sounds like:

  • You can also use the free shipping service for us.

Again, saying “for us” sounds odd in English since we generally don’t explicitly talk about actions in this way, especially between a customer and a business. So a more natural translation would look something like this: (I also switched to use the word “our” before the shipping service since that is implied)

  • You can also use our free shipping service.

The reference to “thinking backwards” in the title is about thinking in terms of the person receiving the action, which is a major shift from how we usually think in English. While this may sound a bit complicated, once you see this pattern used a few times you’ll soon pick it up, and probably be able to use it yourself, too. There are many other places we see this “backward” thinking. (Note: I am not using “backward” in a negative sense, rather just in terms of opposite from what English speakers are used to.)

Finally, while my translation “We can also have you…” didn’t end up being very natural in this case, the “~have you,” pattern can be a natural way to translate “~te morau” or “~te itadaku” in some circumstances. For example:

  • 手伝ってもらおう (tetsudatte moraou)
  • I’ll have you help me.

Here,  “moraou” is the volitional form, which I went over in detail here. In this case, rather than meaning “Let’s…” it simply expresses the will/desire of the speaker, similar to “…moraou to omou”.

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