The right and wrong way to use the verb あげる (ageru) in Japanese

By | October 7, 2020

The nuances of expressing politeness is one of the most difficult parts of mastering the Japanese language, especially if your native language doesn’t have a strong concept of politeness levels (in my opinion, English does not). One of the things I always talk about when asked about politeness is the verb trio “kureru”, “morau”, and “ageru”. It’s not only because these verbs (or similar verbs) are used extremely frequently in everyday Japanese, but because the differences between them can be a little hard to understand.

I’ve written about these three verbs in detail before, but in the post you are reading now I want to focus on the last of these, “ageru” (あげる), specifically on one incorrect usage I’ve heard before.

In its simplest form, “ageru” means to give something from one person to another. For example:

  • 僕はプレゼントを友達にあげた  (boku wa purezento wo tomodachi ni ageta)
  • I gave a present to a friend.

This can also be used when the speaker is not involved, as in:

  • 彼はプレゼントを友達にあげた  (kare wa purezento wo tomodachi ni ageta)
  • He gave a present to a friend.

Both of these are natural––well, strictly speaking the “僕は” or “彼は” parts might be omitted, depending on context––and grammatically correct. However, what about this?

  • 彼はプレゼントを僕にあげた  (kare wa purezento wo boku ni ageta)  [???]
  • He gave a present to me.

Based on just what I have said so far, this seems totally natural. And yet, this is an awkward sentence that a native would never use. Why would that be?

For some learners, it is sufficient to simply remember that “ageru” should never be used when the speaker is the recipient of the thing being given. But it can be frustrating to remember such rules when there is no foundation behind them, so I wanted to give a little more information as to why this is so, which may help you remember the proper usage of this word better.

The verb “ageru” has several other meanings, but the one that is most relevant to this discussion is “to raise”, in other words to take something from a lower place up to a higher place. 

It turns out the reason “ageru” should not be used for something that you (the speaker) receives is that “ageru” carries with it a bit of politeness (or respect) towards the receiver. You can think of this as someone kneeling down in seiza and offering a gift to another person with both hands outstretched and raised up towards the receiver. In this case, the object is literally being “raised”, hence the connection with the other meaning of “ageru” I just mentioned.

Looking back at my first two example sentences, it is OK for you to “raise” (“give”) something to another person, and it’s OK for somebody to raise “raise” (“give’) something to another person. But it’s not OK for you talk about something “raising” (“giving”) something to your yourself because that involves you attributing a level of respect to yourself. It’s a little bit like using the prefix “san” on your own name, something you should never do (I guess the only exception would be if you had multi-personalities).

So then how should one express giving when the speaker is doing the receiving? There are many different verbs and expressions you can use, but for our purposes let’s just use “kureru” (くれる).

  • 彼はプレゼントを僕にくれた  (kare purezento wo boku ni kureta)
  • He gave a present to me.

The verb “kureru” doesn’t carry the same level of respect/politeness towards the receiver like “ageru” does. So what would happen if, instead of “ageru”, you use “kureru” to express the speaker giving something to another person?

  • 僕はプレゼントを友達にくれた  (kare wa purezento wo tomodachi ni kureta) [???]
  • I gave a present to a friend.

As you might imagine, using “kureru” in this way is a bad idea and results in an awkward, if not incorrect sentence. I have not actually heard this usage much in practice, but my dictionary says this carries a mild connotation of “despise” for the other person. 

The special nuances of “kureru” and “ageru” actually make it easier for the omission of givers and recipients of actions since it builds a context where they can be more easily inferred. For example, if “kureru” is used, it is clear that the giver is not the speaker, and this may allow omitting the name (or pronoun) of the giver in the sentence.

By the way, both “ageru” and “kureru” are commonly used after te-forms of verbs to express doing an action for the sake of another person (ex: 本を買ってあげた). Everything I said above also applies to this form, which can be understood in terms of “giving” (or “receiving”) an action.

(Note: picture of giving carrots to two deer taken from Pexels.com)

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One thought on “The right and wrong way to use the verb あげる (ageru) in Japanese

  1. NoxArt

    Hi,
    1) “Note: picture of giving…” I think the picture is not included / displayed…?
    2) I read somewhere that one should rather avoid あげる in practice as it may be too explicit about doing someone a favor and not sound very humble, what’s your experience?

    Reply

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