Japanese grammar: the fickle word “ii” (良い) and a trio of particles

By | July 12, 2023

After studying a foreign language for a certain amount of time, you develop a level of confidence about grammar and commonly used words. But for all of us that have learned a language as a non-native, there comes a time when we fail to use even the simplest of words properly, resulting in disastrous consequences…

I admit I may have started this article a bit on the dramatic side, but let me take a step back and say this is about an experience speaking Japanese in daily life where I failed to communicate a relatively simple idea, resulting in conveying nearly the opposite meaning to what I intended. While it wasn’t actually disastrous, it does make a good opportunity to talk about grammar.

It all started when I was asked something like:

  • 今日、お店に行く? (kyou, omise iku?)
  • Do you want to go to the store today?

My thinking was that I was somewhat neutral about going to the store today. I didn’t need to go, but I was OK with going. In English, I would have responded with something like “sure, I’m OK going today.”

So in order to try and capture this I answered with the simple:

  • うん、今日はいい (un, kyou wa ii)
  • ???

Literally, this can be translated as “Yeah, as for today, (it is) good.”

However, I ended up creating confusion and giving the feeling I didn’t really want to go today. I was able to clarify it with a few more words, but only after the nuance of what I said was explained to me. So how did this happen?

Well, the first part of the problem is that “ii” (良い)normally means “good”, but it actually can be used in both a positive or negative way. This actually can be seen in English as well, compare these:

  • “That is good” (meaning “I like that idea”)
  •  “I’m good” (meaning “I’m not interested”)

In Japanese, the context around the “ii” helps to clarify. Unfortunately, I used the topic particle “wa” which actually implies more of the second case above, in the sense of “As for today, I’m good”, in other words, “Let’s not do it today”.

There are two ways to answer in the positive, and the only difference is a switch from the particle “wa” to the particle “ga” or “de”.

  • うん、今日がいい (un, kyou ga ii)
  • うん、今日でいい    (un, kyou de ii)

The first of these (the “ga”) has a strong nuance of “Yes, today is good”, whereas the second is more like “Today is fine.” Based on the way I felt, I should have probably chosen the latter. And I probably also should have added a “yo” particle at the end to add emphasis that makes the result a bit more natural. 

Sometimes particles can be omitted, but the result in this case (“kyou ii”) sounds decidedly vague, and would tend to be interpreted in a negative way (like when the “wa” is used).

Fortunately, for words that tend to be interpreted in only one way the difference of particles is not as critical, but for words like “ii” that can be used in various ways, the particle chosen can dramatically change the meaning of the sense.

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