In any language, one wants to be aware of norms so that other speakers can understand them. Of course, there may be certain exceptions, but it is important to be aware of the general rules when we speak or write in any language. And what is Japanese sentence structure like?
Let’s look at English as an example first: A man kicked the ball.
Looking at this sentence, we can notice that the basic outline is as follows: Subject -- Verb -- Object.
Most sentences in English follow this simple pattern. While more complex variations and exceptions exist, this general rule is typically followed when we speak English. This is all well and good, but what about the Japanese? I will explain to you here in this blog post, off we go!
In Japanese, the simplest form of a sentence is merely the verb. What the verb means can be determined through context. Take the following example:
the past polite form of the verb meaning “to swim”
In a proper context, this is a complete sentence. In English, you’d generally expect at least a subject in addition to a verb (“We swam.”). However, in Japanese, a mere verb will suffice.
But frequently, you’ll want to say much more than just a verb. Right! So, what is the Japanese sentence structure like for sentences that are a little more complex? There is no necessarily set structure to be technical, but there is a general norm that one can follow in general.
The reason there is no necessarily set structure is that Japanese uses particles (は (wa)、が (ga)、etc.) to denote a particular word’s function within a sentence. But that’s a topic for another day!
If there is no necessarily set structure, what is the general norm for Japanese sentence structure? Quite different from English, Japanese sentence structure generally follows the following pattern: Subject -- Object -- Verb
We can see that the Japanese sentence structure is quite mixed up compared to the structure of an English sentence! So let’s look at some examples to get a better grasp of the subject.
(watashi wa gyuuniku (w)o kau)
I will buy beef.
The subject 私 (Watashi): I, is marked out by the particle は (wa) and naturally occurs at the beginning of the sentence. The object 牛肉 (gyuuniku): beef, naturally comes in the middle of the sentence and is marked out by the particle を ((w)o), and is followed by the verb (買う Kau: to buy).
This is a simple sentence, but it demonstrates the basic order in common Japanese sentence structures. Since the verb generally occurs at the end of a sentence, it can take reading or hearing until the end of a sentence to understand what is being written or said.
However, it is important to understand that the following sentence would also make sense and mean the same thing:
(gyuuniku (w)o watashi wa kau)
I will buy beef.
Because Japanese uses particles, the subject and object can switch places within the sentence in a way that is improper in English, so long as they maintain the correct particles. For example, saying, “The ball kicked a man,” doesn’t make sense and is grammatically incorrect in English.
But ボールを男が蹴った。 (bo-ru (w)o Otoko ga ketta: a man kicked the ball) does make sense in Japanese, even though the object of the verb is first in the sentence ボール (bo-ru: ball), followed by the subject 男 (Otoko: man) and then the verb 蹴った (ketta: past tense of verb meaning “to kick”).
This should make the point about there not being a necessary sentence structure (though the verb should typically come last). However, the pattern of the subject before object before verb will still be the most common way to express oneself.
It is also important to reiterate that not all the information is necessary to state in the sentence. For example, if the context makes it clear, the example sentence 私は牛肉を買う (Watashi wa gyuuniku (w)o Kau: I will buy beef) does not need the subject or the object. So, 私は買う (Watashi wa Kau: I will buy) makes grammatical sense in Japanese.
Likewise, 牛肉を買う (gyuuniku (w)o Kau: buy beef) also makes sense. If the context makes it clear, just saying 買う (Kau: buy) would be all that is necessary. Japanese often makes use of context. Simply a verb will do.
If you have the basics down, then the next concern about Japanese sentence structure may be going beyond these basics. So far, we’ve only reviewed what many may consider the essentials of a sentence. What about adjectives? Adverbs? Descriptive clauses? For this blog post, let’s suffice to say that descriptions go before the thing they describe.
Like English, an adjective will go before the noun that it describes, etc. However, it goes beyond adjectives and the like: just about any description should go before what is described. For instance, in English, you may see something like:
The flashy man is the one who punched me.
In this example sentence, we see that the man is being described as flashy. But there is another description here: the phrase “who punched me” describes the “one” in the sentence. In Japanese, the full explanation would come first. For instance,
(Watashi (w)o nagurareta no wa hade na Otoko desu)
The one who punched me is the flashy man.
The whole descriptive clause 私を殴られた (Watashi (w)o nagurareta: the one who punched me) comes before what it describes. However, it is demonstrated that this is part of the description through the usage of the particles.
Note that the adjective 派手 (hade: flashy) and the accompanying な (na) particle is also used before the noun it describes, 男 (Otoko: man). The です (desu) that accompanies the end of the sentence is a manner of saying “it is so” in a more polite way.
In conclusion, Japanese sentence structure is not as rigid as English, but there is still a normative structure. The most important part of a Japanese sentence is the verb, and that context may make various parts of a sentence unnecessary.
Though it is good to be familiar with the normal structure, remember that other formulations can be completely correct as well. Hopefully, this introduction to Japanese sentence structure can help lead you to further mastery of the Japanese language and learn other useful words and phrases in Japanese. And if you want to go further, try the Ling App today!