Sentence Order

I remember way back when I was just getting started with Japanese, I bought all kinds of books about the language.

It was so exciting. Just holding a new book about Japanese, I felt like I had already made significant progress into the language.

Half the time I didn't even make it through the book, but that's another story.

In a lot of those early books that I read, I remember coming across explanations saying things like:

In English, sentences are made in the order of Subject-Verb-Object, while in Japanese, sentences are in the order Subject-Object-Verb.

We talked about this earlier in the course, yeah?

While I don't think we need to stress the order of words in Japanese sentences all that much, it is worth noting that verbs tend to come at the end of clauses.

Before explaining that...


Useful Grammar Terms

Since I do a lot of English writing jobs for Japanese companies (for example, books for English learners), and they give me complicated instructions, I think I know more technical grammar terms in Japanese than I do in English. A lot of them are pretty much useless outside of my job, but here are some that I think it would be helpful for all of us to look at:

文(ぶん // sentence

名詞(めいし // noun

動詞(どうし // verb

目的語(もくてきご // object [of a sentence]

主語(しゅご // subject

助詞(じょし // particle

Again, you don't have to learn these if you don't want to. I'm guessing that a lot of you are falling asleep just thinking about technical grammar terms.

So here's a sentence in Japanese:

いぬ は にく を たべる。
Dogs eat meat.
Literally: “dog + は + meat + を + eat.”

Now, can you find the NOUNS, VERB, PARTICLES, SUBJECT, and OBJECT in this sentence?

💀 Thinking Space! 💀
💀 Thinking Space! 💀
💀 Thinking Space! 💀
💀 Thinking Space! 💀
💀 Thinking Space! 💀
💀 Thinking Space! 💀
💀 Thinking Space! 💀
💀 Thinking Space! 💀

That would give us...

いぬ は にく を たべる。
Dogs eat meat.
Literally: “dog + は + meat + を + eat.”

So, the Japanese has SOV (dogs-meat-eat), and the English has SVO (dogs-eat-meat).

Instead of worrying about all of that, I prefer to just remember that the VERBS come at the end of Japanese sentences.  Isn't that easier?


Going Deeper: Particles and Subjects

In the above sentence with all of those colors and the underlined word, you may have noticed that I did not put any of the Japanese words into italics — that is, I did not mark which word is the subject of that sentence above.

What gives? Isn't 犬 (いぬ // dog) the subject of the sentence?

Well, kind of.

Don't you remember when we talked about subzero pronouns?!

If so, you'll know that we can imagine the above sentence like this:

(they) 食べる
いぬ は (they) にく を たべる。
As for dogs,  (they) meat () eat.
Literally: “dog + は + (they) + meat + を + eat.”

Here's another way to think of it: While the concept "dogs" is the subject of the sentence, the word 犬 is not the subject because it is coming before は, which is the topic-marking particle.

*Straight-A student raises his hand.* What about が? Isn't that the subject-marking particle?

You're sharp. Yes, we can imagine attaching the subject-marking particle が to the subzero pronoun:

(they ) 食べる
いぬ は (they が) にく を たべる。
As for dogs, (they meat () eat.
Literally: “dog + は + (they が) + meat + を + eat.”

I'm digressing.

Sorry. Almost done.

Last thing to note is that を is the "object-marking particle." That is, it comes after the object of a sentence.

A couple of things to note about the particle を:

(1) It is one of the most commonly dropped particles in Japanese.
(2) It always pairs up with transitive verbs.

If you don't know what a transitive verb is, don't worry too much (yet). We'll cover it eventually.

Also, we very briefly talked about transitive and intransitive verbs in one of our first-ever lessons: [NDL #4] - Help! My Japanese Needs Saving.


Like I always say, the best way to study Japanese is with natural example sentences and dialogues. So let's learn that way...

もう たべない の?
You’re not gonna eat anymore? // You’re done eating?
Literally: “anymore + don’t eat + の?”

うん。もう おなか いっぱい。
Yeah, I'm full.
Literally: “yeah. + already + stomach + full.”

アイス は?
What about ice cream?
Literally: “ice cream + は?”

たべる!デザート は べつばら。
I’m still gonna eat it! There’s always room for dessert.
Literally: “eat! + dessert + は + having room for despite being full (=separate + belly).”

There is so much to note about the sentences in this dialogue, which are a testament to how far we've come in these lessons.


First, note the uber-short sentence:

アイス は?
What about ice cream?
Literally: “ice cream + は?”

We don't just have an unspoken word or particle here; we have an entire unspoken clause! It is unnecessary to say something like:

アイス は どう する?
What about ice cream?
Literally: "ice cream + は + how + do?"
Note: For more on どうする go back to this earlier lesson.

Or even...

アイス も たべない の?
You're not even gonna eat ice cream? // You're not gonna eat ice cream, either?
Literally: “ice cream + も (=also) + don't eat + の?”

...because it is clear from context (and common sense) that we're asking about eating ice cream after this when we just say アイスは? Furthermore, we know that there is an unspoken phrase coming after は, because は is never at the end of a sentence; technically, all sentences end with a copula (だ、です、VERBS, etc.).

Second, as we saw in an earlier lesson, "X + は" is like a big fat arrow pointing to the right. That is, it puts the focus on what comes after it. This is the opposite of が, which is like a big fat arrow pointing to the left, putting focus on what comes directly before it.

You will come across a lot more examples of "X + は?" sentences in the future.


Also, you should have no problem noticing that 食べない is the negative form of the verb 食べる (たべる // to eat), since we just covered this in the last few lessons.

By the way, you should also be able to read the words 食べない and 食べる without looking at the hiragana breakdowns by now. Force yourself to recognize the kanji!


Next, you should have noticed, though perhaps not fully understood, that the の in 食べないの? is altering the sentence's nuance.

I have mentioned before that we can, at times, consider the sentence-ending particles の to be "particles of explanation."

Just by seeing the の in this sentence:

もう たべない の?
You’re not gonna eat anymore? // You’re done eating?
Literally: “anymore + don’t eat + の?”

...we should be able to guess that the listener has stopped eating and the speaker finds this behavior interesting, surprising, etc.

If we only saw the sentence:

もう たべない?
You’re not gonna eat anymore? // You’re done eating?
Literally: “anymore + don’t eat?”

...then we should assume that the listener has not given any strong evidence that he or she will not eat anymore... or it is not surprising that the listener has stopped eating and will probably not eat anymore.

For example, maybe the speaker and the listener are at a restaurant where they got an order of 唐揚げ (からあげ // fried chicken), and there has been one piece left sitting on the plate for 15 minutes now. The server comes up and asks if it's OK to take the plate away, so the speaker asks the listener, "You're done eating?"

Are you confused? If not, you should get an IQ test because you might be a genius. The nuance of の confuses everybody!


At the end of the dialogue, we have the one-word sentence:


Literally that just means "Eat!" but it was given the generous translation "I’m still gonna eat it [ice cream]!"

How?! Why?!

Well, as mentioned a few times already, context is everything, and we know from context that the information being dropped from this sentence is "I" and "ice cream."

Forgetting about how "I" is being dropped, since that's a boring discussion for another day (The quick version: Drop words for "I" whenever possible.), let's look at how the OBJECT (=ice cream) and the は are dropped.

The fuller sentence might have been:

アイス は たべる!
I'm gonna eat ice cream!
Literally: "ice cream + は + eat!"

If を is the object-marking particle, and ice cream is the object, then why do we have は after アイス in this sentence and not を?

Again, this is a zero pronoun in action. With a zero pronoun, we can imagine that this sentence is:

アイス は(それを) たべる!
As for ice cream, (it を) eat!
Literally: "ice cream + は + (that + を) + eat!"

But no one would actually say that. It sounds weird. Zero pronouns are just a tool for guessing as to what sentences would look like if we didn't drop so much information out of them.

Here's another sentence for your Japanese arsenal: If you ever have friends over for a birthday party, and you're busting out the delicious cake, you can loudly ask everyone:

アイス たべる ひと!
Who wants ice cream?
Literally: "ice cream + eat + person!"

You don't need to say アイスを食べる because it's informal language, and it's very common to drop を.


Another tangent...

I like that the word 目的語 (もくてきご) means "object (of a sentence)," because the word 目的 (もくてき) all by itself means "goal; purpose; aim." 


And a final tangent...

I love the phrase:

デザート は べつばら!
There's always room for dessert!
Literally: "dessert + は + having room for despite being full (=separate belly)."

I like to bring this popular phrase to people's attention when they say stuff like:

The Japanese, in their cultured, healthy, ninja ways, have a phrase called 腹八分目 (はらはちぶんめ // lit. "belly + eight + parts + eye [="-th" in this case]"), which means "only eat until you're 80% full."

That's why Japanese people live so long. That's also why you're a terrible person and should hate yourself for eating so much.

— Katie Culture-Shock, "10 Reasons You Keep Failing to Diet, Get Rich, & Obtain Superpowers"

In response to this, we can coolly say:

Well, in Japanese they also have a phrase called (デザート)は別腹! which means "There's always room for (dessert)," and an alarming number of people in Japan have type 2 diabetes ("About 7.6 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 79 are diabetic," according to this article).

— Walter Wide-Eyes

I love Japan and Japanese culture, and many of my closest friends (and now family) are Japanese. But I'm not a fan of romanticizing the country and the people to extreme degrees. At the end of the day, we're all just humans. We're worried about paying the bills and maintaining good relationships. And in particular, we're worried about what's for lunch.


Is your brain tired yet?

I know mine is. Take your time with this stuff, and don't worry if a lot of this sounds confusing to you. It took me years to figure this stuff out because (almost) no one teaches it. I can see why Japanese teachers avoid it, though. This is all very hard to explain.

The grammar itself might not be too complicated. But explaining it is kind of a nightmare.

Hopefully my explanations helped a bit. ^^

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