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Summary of Japanese grammatical terminology

Grammar is the rules and regulations of writing. Understanding the rules of Japanese writing will help you to write sentences that are easy for the reader to understand. This article will explain Japanese grammar and key points to keep in mind when writing Japanese. We all know that it is better to use grammar correctly, but even Japanese natives are not really aware of this when we read and write Japanese in our daily lives. When you are writing to friends and family, there’s not much problem with incorrect grammar, but when you are writing or speaking for business purposes, you need to use correct Japanese. This is because incorrect grammar can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding your intentions.


Understanding the “units” of language

Japanese sentences can be divided into several units just like English can. It’s difficult to see which part is wrong when it’s in a long sentence. By breaking a sentence down into smaller units, you can understand how each one works and how to use it.

Units of language

  • 文章/ぶんしょう/Bunsho/Article: Group of sentences

  • 段落/だんらく/Danraku/Paragraph: Article divided into several groups

  • 文/ぶん/Bun/Sentence: a group of word that has coherent meaning and ends with a punctuation mark.

  • 文節/ぶんせつ/Bunsetsu/Clause: Separated sentences that don’t distort the meaning

  • 単語/たんご/Tango/Word/: The smallest unit of speech


One of the most important units of language to be aware of is the clause. A clause of a sentence segment that separates a sentence without confusing its meaning. Nouns, adjectives, verbs and other freestanding words are separated by a sentence clause.


Understanding the types of clauses

There are five types of sentence functions: subject, predicate, modifier, conjunction and independent word.


Subject

A subject is a phrase that corresponds to what or who in a sentence. Nouns are often combined with particles such as "は/ha(wa)", "が/ga" or "も/mo" to form the subject.

Example: は学生だ。/わたしはがくせいだ/Watashi wa Gakuseida/ I am a student.


Predicate

A predicate is a phrase that corresponds to what to do, what it is, that is (or is not) in a sentence. The predicate is often at the end of a sentence and explains the subject.

Example: 田中さんが走る。/たなかさんがはしる/Tanaka san ga hashiru./Mr.Tanaka runs.



Modifier

A modifier is a phrase that describes another phrase in detail.

Example: 母は赤い本を読んでいた。/はははあかいほんをよんでいた/Haha wa akai hon wo yondeita./Mother was reading the red book



Conjunction

A conjunction is a sentence clause that acts to connect the sentences or clauses before and after it.

Example: 急いで歩いた。だから遅刻しなかった。/いそいであるいた。だからちこくしなかった。/Isoide aruita. Dakara chikoku shinakatta./I walked fast. So I wasn’t late.


Independent word

An independent word is a phrase that is not directly related to any other phrase, so deleting these won’t alter meanings of the clause or sentence.

Example: あら、ここにいたの。/Ara, koko ni itano./ Oh, there you are.



Understanding how sentences work can help you recognize problems with missing subjects and too long qualifiers when writing.


Understanding the types of part of speech

A word is divided into smaller units than a phrase and classified according to its grammatical properties, such as whether it is autonomous, accessory, conjugated or not, and they are called part of speech. Japanese parts of speech can be categorized into 10 types such as verbs, nouns and adjectives. Because there are many of them, they will be explained in next week’s article.


Understanding honorific language

Honorific language is a word or phrase that expresses respect for the listener or the person in the topic. In the Japanese language, language is used differently depending on your position. By using the correct honorific language, you can show respect and politeness to others.

尊敬語/そんけいご/Sonkei-go: A direct expression of respect by the speaker by enhancing the other person's action, state, etc.

謙譲語/けんじょうご/Kenjo-go: An expression that shows respect indirectly to the other person you are talking to by lowering the speaker’s own behaviour or condition.

丁寧語/ていねいご/Teinei-go: An honorific expression of expressing respect by using polite expressions.

All of those different types of honorific language is complicated so they might be explained in the future articles.


Understanding sentence structure

When you write a sentence, you should be aware of sentence structure. Sentence structure is a classification of what type of structure a sentence is when viewed from a larger perspective. Understanding whether it is simple, compound, complex or compound-complex sentences will help you to be concise in your writing.


I have briefly explained the basics of Japanese grammar and the types of phrases (clauses) in this article. There will be follow up articles for some of the topics explained here such as part of speech and honorific language. An understanding of grammar will help you to write sentences with correct grammar, making your writing easier to read. Studying and understanding grammar when writing Japanese sentences will help you to improve your basic skills. I hope that this article has inspired you to study Japanese grammar and that it has helped you to understand it.


Momoka Yamaguchi


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