The patterns “shite dou?” / “shitara dou?” and vagueness with verb tenses in Japanese

By | November 16, 2020

Compared to other languages, such as English and Spanish, Japanese has a fairly small number of verb tenses. So it’s not much of a surprise that some of the tenses have many different uses, and often do not give much information as to when an action happened. In this post I’d like to talk about two grammar patterns that seem similar, but end up having a very different meaning: 「したらどう?」 and 「してどう?」

The only difference between these is the tense of the verb. When talking about the patterns in a generic sense I will use the verb する (“suru”), which is a generic verb that means “to do”, but any verb can be used.

“Shitara” is in the conditional form, which has the nuance of “if” or “when” something happens. It can be used to talk about actions that have already happened, or might happen in the future. You can see more details about this form in this post on conditionals.

“Shite” is in a verb form that is sometimes called the “te-form” or the gerund. It is perhaps one of the most versatile tenses, and can be used for past, present, or future actions, or even commands. One of the common usages for the te-form is to connect two or more sequential actions, whereby the last verb in the sentence (or other helping words) helps gives context to interpret each te-form verb before that. You can see this page for a more comprehensive overview of this tense.

Now let’s look at two simple phrases using the two patterns:

  • 東京に来たらどう? (toukyou ni kitara dou?)
  • 東京に来てどう? (toukyou ni kite dou?)

These phrases are interesting because there is no ending verb, giving us less context to understand about the action in question, which is a form of the verb “to come” (来る) in each phrase. The only thing we really know is the first is related to some conditional action.

The first phrase, 東京に来たらどう, uses the “~tara dou” phrase that is used for a casual recommendation or suggestion. It can be translated as “Why don’t you ~?”. So this sentence can be expressed in English as:

  • Why don’t you come to Tokyo?

The second phrase, 東京に来てどう, lacks the conditional nuance, but because the te-form is involved it can refer to a future, past, or present action. Fortunately, when used with “dou” (meaning “how”) the resultant meaning involves asking about the result of some action. So we end up with:

  • How has it been coming to Tokyo?

This translation is a bit awkward though, so it might be better to express it as simply:

  • How has Tokyo been?

By the way, you can also say “東京に来てどうだった?” which is more explicit and clear, but the だった is not required.

The “~shitara dou” form for requests can actually be used in casual conversations without the “dou” part, which would yield this in our example: (Note it would require a proper rising intonation at the end for clarity)

  • 東京に来たら? (toukyou ni kitara?)

The “dou” must be retained for the “してどう?” pattern, because ending with the te-form sounds like either a casual request, or an explanation for something that was just mentioned (neither which fits our intended meaning).

In sum, while thinking about the vagueness of Japanese tenses can have you panicking as you consider the various possibilities of each sentence, in cases like these an understanding of common grammar patterns, plus a good understanding of the context, can help you figure things out pretty easily.

I actually thought of the idea for this article while I was watching the recent anime movie “天気の子” (the English title is “Weathering with You”), where this exact phrase 「東京に来てどう?」 was used. I decided on not writing a review for this, but it was a great movie and I highly recommend watching it!

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