Japanese expression:「言葉が足りず、すみませんでした」 (kotoba ga tarizu, sumimasen deshita)

By | July 21, 2021

The other day when communicating with a native Japanese speaker over email I came across the following sentence:

  • 言葉が足りず、すみませんでした (kotoba ga tarizu, sumimasen deshita)

I was a bit confused on what was going on here, so I asked another native speaker and did some online research to understand this expression. In this post I’ll go over it in detail.

First let’s take a look at the individual parts of this expression:

  • 言葉 (kotoba) = “word” or “words”
  • 足りず (tarizu) = a slightly formal way of saying 足りなくて (tarinakute), which is the te-form of 足りない (tarinai), meaning “insufficient”
  • すみませんでした (sumimasen deshita) = a common expression of apology (roughly equivalent to “I’m sorry”)

If we put these together literally we get:

  • (I) am sorry word(s) were insufficient.

Indeed this sounds like a bad machine translation, and though I knew all of the above before I did any research I was still clueless what was being intended here. But to give you a fair chance to guess the meaning here, I should explain that the context was a discussion about a misunderstanding involving a certain process.

The first key to understanding this expression (as well as making a proper translation) is that subjects are often omitted. I added the first person “I” in my above rough translation, but it turns out we need to consider the “word(s)” to be the speaker’s, and also make the assumption that multiple words are being talked about, in other words “my words” or more naturally “what I said”.

“I’m sorry my words were insufficient” may be good enough to understand the speaker’s intention, but to go into more detail, this phrase is typically used when something that was previously said, often an explanation, was not good enough to convey the intended meaning to the reader or listener. Alternatively, the speaker may actually feel their explanation was sufficient, but is simply saying this to be polite (as is often the case in Japanese).

Now that we have a full understanding, let’s make a natural translation:

  • I am sorry that my explanation was insufficient.

By the way, because of the “~ず” and ”すみませんでした” parts this expression is somewhat formal and polite sounding, but if you wanted to be a bit more casual you could say the same thing with:

  • 言葉が足りなくてごめん (kotoba ga tarinakute gomen)

In both forms make sure you use “が” (ga) particle instead of “は” (wa), because the former emphasizes the thing that comes before it more (for more on this topic see this). Using “wa” can have the nuance “My words were insufficient, but…(something else was not insufficient)”

In closing, I’ll introduce one more expression which is vaguely related to this:

  • 言葉では言い表せません (kotoba de wa iiarawasemasen)

The verb 言い表す (iiarawasu) is a combination of “to say” and “to express” and means “to express in speech” (though it can also be used for written language). 「言い表せません」is the negative, past conditional form of 言い表す. As before, it makes more sense to interpret “kotoba” as referring to more than one word. Using all that, we end up with something like:

  • (This) cannot be expressed using words.

This is a pretty dramatic thing to say, but it’s a nice expression to know.

Make sure you don’t forget the は (“wa”) here since it has an important nuance: even though something isn’t expressible in words, it may be expressible in some other form.

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