Sentence Structure

Japanese sentence structure is classified as SOV (subject-object-verb). English is SVO. However, it is misleading to focus on the order of the verb and object as a source of confusion for Westerners learning Japanese. The real challenges of Japanese arise because of the totally foreign grammatical structure, which has been the focus of the past few chapters.

This differing grammar affects the sentence structure of Japanese in ways that go far beyond the basic concept of SOV. In this chapter, some of these issues are touched on.

Here’s a Question—What’s the Right Question Word?

A lot of English question words start with “W.” They mostly start with “D” or “I” in Japanese, plus the ubiquitous nani/nan (“what”). There seem to be a lot of them in Japanese for two reasons: one is that there are often different words for cases where we would use the same question word— “how much” vs. “how old,” for instance, both use “how,” but are different words in Japanese. And the other is because of all those darn “counters” that I talked about back in the chapter on numbers.

Check out a few:

What: nani or nan
Where: doko
Where to: doko ni
Where at: doko de
Why: doushite or naze
Who: dare or donata
With whom: dare to
To whom [did you give something]: dare ni
Which: dore
Which (particular object): dono (object)
What kind of: donna
How (by what means, as in travelling): nan de
How (used to propose something, like “how about X?”): ikaga
How much [does something cost]: ikura
How many (also used for asking a person’s age): ikutsu
How long will something take: donogurai
When (time in general): itsu
What time (specific hour): nanji
What day (of the week): nan-youbi
What day (of the month), or what date: nan-nichi
What month: nangatsu
How manu months: nan-kagetsu
What year: nan-nen
How many people: nan-nin
How many animals: nanbiki
What floor (of a building): nangai

You get the idea. The later question words use those counters I mentioned. For example, -kai is the counter for floors of a building. Ikkai is the first floor, nikai the second, etc., and so nankai is the proper question word for “what floor.” In other words, there are as many question words as there are counters! And there are tens of counters!! (You remember, there were ones for big ships, small boats, bottles, fruits, pairs of socks, etc).

Now, you may be saying, “Big deal! We say ‘how many ships‘ in English, so it makes sense to say ‘nanseki’ in Japense, since -seki is the counter for big ships.”

But wait. Seki is not the word for “ship.” That’s fune. And you can’t say “Ikutsu fune” (literally, “how many ships”). That would be wrong; you have to use the counter. We don’t have this structure in English.

One ship: Isseki, or to be very clear you could say, isseki no fune (literally, “one of ships.”)
Five cats: gopiki (go means “five”, but the word for cat is neko. -piki is the counter for animals.)

Depending how clear it is what you are referring to, you may not include the actual noun at all (like fune). You need it only for counters that are vague, like -mai, which is for flat, thin objects (paper, shirts, etc).

Some of the other question words contain those ubiquitous particles, like de or ni. We do this in English too, although to a
less fanatical degree. Asking “with whom” or “to whom” is different from asking “who.” German does this too. Anyway, on the fly
it can be tough to remember the right question word.

Word Order: “John Mary the Book Gave”?

You may not even realize this, but word order is crucially important in English (and in many Indo-European languages). We understand what role a noun is playing (subject, direct object, indirect object, etc) largely by where it is in the sentence. If we say,
“John gave Mary the book,” it is clear that John is the subject because he comes before the verb. “Mary gave John the book” clearly has Mary as the subject.

Similarly, “Mary” is the indirect object of the first sentence because of her position in the word order. “John gave the book Mary,”
makes us pause mentally because the word order tells us that John is giving Mary to a book, which doesn’t make much sense. Our mind immediately realizes that “John gave Mary the book” makes much more sense, so we go back over the sentence, seeing if we really read it correctly.

Now, this difficulty could be alleviated by saying, “John gave the book to Mary.” Ah, that feels better. Now we have Mary explicitly marked as the indirect object by the use of the preposition “to.” But note that using “to” has again constrained the word order: it sounds awkward to say “John gave to Mary the book,” even though it is grammatically clear who is giving what to whom. (This stilted style perseveres in older language— think of the song “The Twelve Nights of Christmas.”)

As you might imagine, all of this can be terribly confusing to a foreigner trying to learn English. And yet, you understand it intuitively.

In Japanese, word order is very flexible. Why? Because every noun is marked with a particle that indicates its grammatical role. We don’t have any kind of marker for the subject of a sentence in English, so we must indicate what noun is the subject by where it is in the sentence. In Japanese, whatever noun is marked with (ie, followed by) ga is the grammatical subject, no matter where it is in the sentence. The particle marks the direct object, and various others (nide, etc.) mark nouns in other roles. [For an explanation of the exceptional particle wa, see the chapter on Particles].

That is not to say that word order is totally unconstrained in Japanese. The main verb must come at the end of the sentence. And in general, the subject must come before the object (as in English, there are specific exceptions to this when you are emphasizing the object). There is also a general preference for stating the time before the place (“The meeting is at 9 am in Room 56” instead of “The meeting is in Room 56 at 9 am”). However, this can also varied for emphasis (things said earlier in the sentence have more emphasis).

So the sentence “John Mary the book gave,” is perfectly understandable and grammatically correct in Japanese, and it can have two meanings depending on how the nouns are marked: John-san ga Mary-san ni hon o ageta (John gave Mary the book) or John-san ni Mary-san ga hon o ageta (Mary gave John the book).

Got Questions?

Now that you’re attuned to the importance of word order in English, you will realize that we detect questions only by the word order— the real secret of the English question is to flip the subject and the verb. (Same for German).

For example, “He is going downtown” becomes “Where is he going?” or perhaps “Is he going downtown?” In other words, “is” is flipped to come before “he.” Even if there is no question word, as in the second case, you know that it is a question, simply because of the word order.

In Japanese, this can’t work because of the flexibility of word order, so questions must be formed a different way. There is (not surprisingly, perhaps) a certain particle that signals a question. Since the verb always comes at the end of the sentence, the clearest place to stick an extra particle that differentiates a declarative sentence from a question is at the end, after the verb. This tag particle is ka.

To form a question, just insert the question word in the position in the sentence where the answer would be in the declarative case, then attach ka to the end of the sentence. It’s like this:

She will read a book: Kanojo wa hon o yomimasu.
Will she read a book?: Kanojo wa hon o yomimasu ka.
What will she read?: Kanojo wa nani o yomimasu ka.
Who will read a book?: Dare ga hon o yomimasu ka.

See? Pretty easy. [I am glossing over the choice of wa and ga in the above sentences. The chapter on Particles tells a bit more about why you would probably want wa for the first three and why you must use ga for the fourth].

Clause Order

Japanese may be flexible about word order, but there is one hard-and-fast rule about clause order that you will continually find restrictive. In Japanese, the main (independent) clause must come last.

This is hard for English speakers because (1) we vary the clause order for emphasis, and (2) we are free to tack extra clauses and phrases onto the end of our sentences if we decide to add more information during mid-sentence. These constructions are less possible in Japanese.

For instance, the sentence “I like her because she is tall” has a different flavor than the sentence, “Because she is tall, I like her.” The first is centered around the fact that you like her, and her height just gives extra information/explanation. But the second sentence has a strongly conditional flavor— you might not like her if she weren’t tall.

Only the second sentence is possible in Japanese because the independent clause must come last. That sentence does not have the conditional implication that it does in English. If you wanted to imply that her tallness was an important condition in your liking her, you would do so by adding other words or set phrases.

Another thing we can do easily in English is add extra information after starting a sentence. We can say, “I like her,” then decide to add on, “because she helped me last year when my mom was sick,” and if we want to add still more information, we can finish with, “even though it was the middle of exams.” If you try this in Japanese, you should end the sentence after “I like her,” then make the rest into a new sentence— you can end it with something like kara or wake to indicate that it’s a reason for what came before. Or you can start the second sentence with a phrase like Naze ka to iu to, which means something like, “if you ask why, it’s because….

The point is that it’s much harder in Japanese to decide that you want to add extra information after you have boldly plunged into a sentence. Your English-speaking brain is used to knowing that it’s OK to tack on more pieces to the end of the sentence if it doesn’t seem adequate after the main clause. Japanese requires different mental planning, and you’re not trained for it.

(OK, this is a little too rigid. Japanese people do tack on extra information all the time because they, like you, often need to do that when speaking. But the tacked-on phrase tends to be short, such as Tabenikui yo— hashi de, “it’s hard to eat with chopsticks”).


To appreciate Japanese, you must learn to love nominalization. Nominalizing means turning things into nouns. You can do this with adjectives (“red” becomes “redness”), but the more interesting case is with verbs. In English, there are two nominalized verb forms: the gerund and the infinitive.

For the verb “walk,” the gerund is “walking” and the infinitive is “to walk.” (The gerund is only for noun uses of “walking.” It also has adjective and adverb uses, not touched on here). We make various constructions where these objects act as nouns, such as
“To walk is life’s greatest pleasure” and “I have no objection to walking.” I suspect it can be challenging for foreigners to know when to use the gerund and when to use the infinitive, since I have heard many cases where one is swapped for the other (such as “I didn’t know to walk would take so long”). These sentences are comprehensible, but sound a little funny.

In Japanese, you nominalize a verb by using the plain present or past form plus a special noun, of which there are many. There are a few “neutral” nominalizers, such as no (“one”), koto (“thing”; could be abstract or concrete), and mono (“thing”; usually concrete). So Watashi wa yomu koto ga suki desu means “I like reading,” while Kore wa mae kara hoshii to omotte ita no desu means “I’ve wanted one of these for a long time.”

Then there are some nominalizers that add meaning to the verb. For example, hazu after a verb means that something ought to be true, or ought to have happened. Kare wa kinou kita hazu desu means “he was supposed to come yesterday.” And tsumori means that you intend to do something: Douyoubi ni iku tsumori desu (“I plan to go on Saturday”; note that tsumori is used only for your own plans).

Written and spoken Japanese are full of last-minute nominalizations. They love to say a huge, long sentence full of embedded clauses, then suddenly end it with to iu wake desu or koto ga wakarimashita. These completely change the form of the sentence to little more than “A is B.” The entire beginning part of the sentence becomes a long, adjectival modifier of the word wake (“reason”) or koto (see the chapter on “Adjectives”).