Japanese Grammar: a few techniques to help craft more complex sentences

By | June 22, 2022

When learning a foreign language, generally everyone starts with basic sentences with only a few words, and then moves their way up from there. But often making the jump from 5-word sentences to 5-line sentences can be difficult, so language learners can sometimes fall back to using a bunch of little sentences (which is OK as long as it still gets across your point). In this article I wanted to go over a few techniques you can use to help craft longer sentences, and understanding these will also help your listening and reading comprehension as well. I wanted to point out that longer sentences are not always better, but especially in writing (and, to a certain degree in conversation) it’s important to be able to express yourself properly with a variety of grammar structures not just to communicate more effectively, but also to give a good impression.

First, let’s start with a basic 5-word sentence. While we could technically write a 1-word sentence that is grammatically correct, starting out with 5 words will make it a little easier to gradually expand. In Japanese, the basic word order is “Subject + Object + Verb” (though there is a lot of variability), so let’s start out with this sentence:

  • 僕はケーキを食べた (boku wa keeki wo tabeta)
  • I ate a cake.

Here the particles “wa” and “wo” are used to mark the roles of the words preceding them, but I am not going to focus on them in this article. (You can see a few of my posts on particles here.)

So now let’s look at how we can increase the length of this sentence, essentially add elements and increase the complexity while maintaining correct grammar.

The most fundamental way to connect actions in Japanese is to use the “te” form, also called the gerund form. This form has a large number of uses, but here let’s just focus on the simplest which is a succession of actions that occur in order.

  • 僕は座ってケーキを食べた (boku wa suwatte keeki wo tabeta)
  • I sat down and ate a cake.

Here “suwatte” is the te-form of “suwaru” (to sit), and since it occurs first in the sentence before the “tabeta” verb (past tense of “taberu”, “to eat”), it indicates the action of sitting occurred first (though technically it can mean at the same time).

The pre-masu form (for example “tabe” of “taberu”) can be used similarly to the te-form to connect actions temporally, though it sounds a bit more literary. 

  • 僕は座りケーキを食べた (boku wa suwari keeki wo tabeta)

In terms of grammatical rules we could add a bunch more te-form verbs in the same sentence, but generally that would not sound good or be considered good style, similar to a long sentence that reads, “I did this and that and the other thing and that…” So we will start needing to use more complex grammar structures to lengthen our sentence in a pleasing way.

The next most basic way to connect things is via transition words or phrases. Depending on what phrase you use there are various nuances, from a neutral “and” feel to a strong contrast. You can also express a reason. Here are a few common ways to connect: (I will write these in a form so that the 〜 part is a verb or i-adjective, though you can also use them with na-adjectives with some modifications)

  • 〜けど (~kedo) [“but/and…”]
  • 〜んだけど (~n da kedo)  [“The fact is that ~, but/and …”]
  • 〜のに (~no ni) [“Even though ~”]
  • 〜から (~kara) [“Because it is ~”]

Let’s pick one of these and expand our sentence using it:

  • テーブルがあったから僕は座ってケーキを食べた (teeburu ga atta kara boku wa suwatte keeki wo tabeta)
  • Because there was a table, I sat down and ate a cake.

At this point you may notice the sentence sounds a little odd, but I am going to focus more on showing grammar patterns than crafting an interesting story in this post.

Another common way to connect things in Japanese is using conditionals. I have written a detailed article on the conditionals, but for our purposes let’s just say that there are すると (suru to)、したら (shitara)、 and すれば (sureba), each with their own nuances, but in generally they all roughly mean something like “if” or “when”.

Let’s build up our sentence a little more using a conditional:

  • テーブルがあったから僕は座ってケーキを食べたら美味しかった (teeburu ga atta kara boku wa suwatte keeki wo tabetara oishikatta)
  • When I sat down and ate a cake because there was a table, the cake was delicious.

Notice that I’ve adjusted the word order of the English translation a little for clarity, and also explicitly mentioned “the cake” at the end even though it is not explicitly in the Japanese sentence.

Changing gears here a little, another way to make sentences longer is to modify nouns using other nouns, adjectives, or adjectival phrases (which can be quite long). Let’s try adding a little adjectival phrase to our example sentence:

  • 僕の探していたテーブルがあったから僕は座ってケーキを食べたら美味しかった (boku no sagashite ita teeburu ga atta kara boku wa suwatte keeki wo tabetara oishikatta)
  • When I sat down and ate a cake because there was a table that I was searching for, the cake was delicious.

In Japanese the phrase “〜という〜” (~to iu~) is often used to help connect things, and while “iu” literally means “to say”, this phrase often does not actually involve speaking and merely indicates conceptually that two things are connected, in the sense that the first part is describing the second part. Let’s add a という to our sentence and see how it looks:

  • 僕の探していたテーブルがあったから僕は座ってケーキを食べたら美味しかったという事は覚えてない (boku no sagashite ita teeburu ga atta kara boku wa suwatte keeki wo tabetara oishikatta to iu koto wa oboete inai)
  • I don’t remember sitting down and eating a cake because there was a table that I was searching for, and the cake being delicious.

The English translation is now getting to be more difficult, and in fact translating long sentences is an art in and of itself (which I am planning on creating an article about eventually). But let’s not worry about the translation aspect too much for now, I just want you to see how these parts fit together to make a sentence. 

To finish, let’s look at a real sentence from a Japanese fairy tale that shows some of these structures in action. This quote is from “The Life of Musical Instrument” by Ogawa Mimei, for which you can see the entire translation here.

 それでなくてさえ気が沈んで、さびしいのを、毎日、波の音を聞き、風の並木にあたる音を聞くと、いっそう気持ちが滅入るのでした。

Even if you don’t know all the kanji or vocab words in this sentence, see if you can pick out some of the forms that are used. This sentence contains the te-form and pre-masu form, an adjectival phrase, and one of the conditionals we talked about above. You can see the author has used commas to help separate things out and make it easier to read (this author tends to use a lot of commas).

One word that is used several times in this sentences is the  “no” particle, which has a variety of meanings. I have a post about that here if you want to go deeper.

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