Japanese expression ともなく (to mo naku)

By | July 26, 2021

In this article I’d like to go over the expression ともなく (to mo naku), which you may come across when reading Japanese literature. While it is usually written in hiragana as ともなく, sometimes you can see it written in a mix of kanji and hiragana as とも無く

It’s composed of three parts: the particle “to”, the particle “mo”, and the adverbial form of “nai” (expressing non-existence or a general negative meaning). Putting these together, “to mo naku” means something like “without even ~”, though that doesn’t capture the full nuance of this expression.

The primary purpose of ともなく is to add a sense to vagueness or uncertainty. There are two ways to use this, either with a verb or without a verb preceding it. First let’s look at an example of the case where a verb is used preceding it.

  • 絵を見るともなく眺めた (e wo miru to mo naku nagameta)

In this case, the verb before “to mo naku” is “見る” (miru), which means to look. This gives a sense of vagueness to the action of looking, which can be expressed in English various different ways, such as ”unintentionally”, “thoughtlessly” or “absent-mindedly”. Let’s translate the above phrase to see how it turns out:

  • He/she looked at the picture absent-mindedly.

When using a verb, sometimes a question word is used, for instance:

  • 先生は誰に言うともなく呟いた (sensei wa dare ni iu to mo naku tsubuyaita)
  • The teacher mumbled, not speaking to anyone in particular.

This may seem a little confusing since in English we wouldn’t use a question word to express something like this. But it may help if you remember that in Japanese often “mo” or “de mo” is used after question words and results in something that is not a question.

  • 誰でもない (dare de mo nai)
  • It isn’t anybody.
  • 誰もいない (dare mo inai)
  • Nobody is there.

Using “to mo naku” without a verb has the same nuance, except that the verb is either implied or specified later in the sentence. Let’s use the example above about the teacher and rephrase it without the verb “iu”:

  • 先生は誰にともなく呟いた (sensei wa dare ni to mo naku tsubuyaita)
  • The teacher mumbled not to anyone in particular.

The meaning is essentially the same, and you can see the English sentence is the same except for the removal of the verb “speaking”. It’s important that you retain any particles that are before the question word (“ni” in this case). Another example is “どこからともなく” (doko kara to mo naku) which means something happened from an unknown place, and you can see the “kara” particle is used.

I wanted to point out ともなく often has the implication of something being non-intentional, but this is not always the case. For example let’s look at one more example:

  • あの化け物はどこからともなく出てきた。(ano bakemono wa doko kara to mo dete kita.)
  • That monster appeared out of nowhere.

In this case there is no concept of “intention” involved, but the overall feeling of “vagueness” still applies since it is not clear where the monster appeared from. In fact, I would argue that even the previous example with the professor doesn’t necessarily mean his or her mumbling was intentional, rather the key point is the vagueness or uncertainty of the target of his/her speech.

The expression ともなしに (to mo nashi ni) is a variaton of ともなく that means basically the same thing. 

By the way, if you want to just express the idea of doing something simply “without” a noun, you can use (もなく)“mo naku”:

  • 理由もなく泣き出した (riyuu mo naku nakidashita)
  • (I) began crying for no reason.

Finally, I should point out that these expressions have a bit of an academic or literary feel to them, and I rarely have heard them used in daily conversation. If you wanted to express the same nuance in conversational Japanese, there are other expressions but it depends on the situation. For example, the first example in this article can be rewritten as ぼーっと眺めた (bootto nagameta).

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