Japanese expression “〜なくてすむ” (~nakute sumu)

By | January 12, 2022

In this post I’d like to go over the Japanese expression “~nakute sumu” which is used fairly commonly in everyday speech. First, let’s look at an example sentence:

  • 傘を持っていけば濡れなくてすむ。 (kasa wo motte ikeba nurenakute sumu.)

すむ can sometimes mean “to live or inhabit” (住む), but from context here we know it has a different meaning, especially because of the negative te-form verb preceding it. This other meaning is a little hard to translate, but you can think of it in terms of “to end”, “to be resolved”, or “to be sufficient”. For this second usage, the word can be written as 済む, but it is often written in hiragana as in this example.

The nuance of the “~nakute sumu” form is that something completes without some (generally negative) side effect occurring. In the example above, the negative side effect is getting wet. Given this understanding, let’s try to translate this sentence into English.

  • If you bring an umbrella you won’t get wet. 

It’s important to note that there is really no specific word or phrase you use to replace “~te sumu” when translating, you just need to understand the big picture and then phrase it in English appropriately.

Besides the regular negative te-form, you can also insert a “mo” to make “~nakute mo sumu” without any noticeable change in meaning. You can see this expression in two other variations: the “~naide sumu” form and the “~zu (ni) sumu” form. These essentially have the same meaning, but let’s convert the above sentence to use them to see how it would look:

  • 傘を持っていけば濡れずにすむ。 (kasa wo motte ikeba nurezu ni sumu.)
  • 傘を持っていけば濡れないですむ。 (kasa wo motte ikeba nurenaide sumu.)

If you are not certain which variation to use, just stick to the regular “~te sumu” as it is a little easier to conjugate and should work in most if not all cases. (By the way, the other two variations sound a little formal to me.)

While it’s less common, you can also see this pattern with a positive te-form verb, but only with certain verbs such as 避ける (sakeru, “to avoid”). 

Another important thing to know is when using the “~nakute sumu” pattern to describe something not done in the past that would have prevented something, you often use the “~sunde ita” form (instead of simply “sunda”). For example:

  • ちゃんと勉強していればテストに落ちないで済んでいた。 (chanto benkyou shite ireba tesuto ni ochinaide sunde ita.)
  • Had (you) studied properly, you wouldn’t have failed the test.

Sentences like this can be a little tricky because nowhere does it explicitly say that the action (“properly studying”) was not performed, but from context, especially the “~te ita” ending, you can tell that it wasn’t. English has the word “had” to make it a little more clear, but Japanese lacks such a word.

As a final note, I wanted to mention that one common expression for apologizing, “sumimasen” (すみません) actually comes from the same verb “sumu”, though it is used with a different meaning. In that case “sumu” means “義理がたつ”, which can be roughly translated as “to fulfill an obligation”, so “sumimasen” (or the casual “sumanai”) literally means something like “I will not fulfill (my) obligation”.

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