Nouns, Na-Adjectives, and i-Adjectives

In the last few lessons, I've been talking about how some words are i-adjectives, others are na-adjectives, and others are nouns. It's all a bit confusing, don't you think?

If so, know that you're not alone. Even high-level students get confused about the difference between na-adjectives and nouns, for instance (more on that later). Let's see if we can't get a bit of clarity...

i-adjectives are adjectives that have い (i) attached to the end of them, like:

Word 大き
Kana おおき
Romaji ookii
English big
Word 小さ
Kana ちいさ
Romaji chiisai
English small
Kana たか
Romaji takai
English tall; high;
Kana やす
Romaji yasui
English cheap

We've also learned that, in casual sentences, i-adjectives can serve as the "verb" of a sentence all by themselves. (They do not require the copula だ.)

For example:

ビール は やすい。
Beer is cheap.
Literally: "beer + は + cheap."

In a more formal sentence, we can just put a です onto the end of that:

ビール は やすい です。
Beer is cheap.
Literally: "beer + は + cheap + です."

In fact, an i-adjective can form an entire sentence if there is enough context to make the meaning clear:

Person A:
ビール たかい?
Is (the) beer expensive?
Literally: "beer + expensive?"
Note: I dropped the は (wa), which happens a lot in casual Japanese.

Person B:
No. It's cheap.
Literally: "no. + cheap."

I love i-adjectives because they make sense to me. I'm less fond of na-adjectives, and you'll see why below.

I hate using the word “adjective” when teaching Japanese.

Two reasons.

  1. The English concept of adjectives does not work well with Japanese.
  2. There are two different types of “adjectives” in Japanese, and they work completely differently.

I’ll start with the first one. Remember way back in elementary school when your teacher said, “an adjective is a word that modifies a noun?” No? Maybe you were drawing pictures on your desk or something when she said that.

Such a teacher probably wrote something on the board like “big dog.” “Dog” is a noun, and “big” is modifying that noun, so “big” is an adjective.

This examples works OK in Japanese, too:

おおきい いぬ
big + dog
→ A big dog

And your teachers might teach you something like that. And in doing so, they’ll divide Japanese “adjectives” into two categories:

  • i-adjectives, like 大きい (おおきい), above.
  • Na-adjectives, which, uh, sometimes have な attached to them.

Like this:

きれいな ひと
pretty + person
→ A pretty person

綺麗 (きれい) is a na-adjective, so instead of saying 綺麗人 (きれい ひと), we should say 綺麗な人 (きれいな ひと).

OK. Yeah. That works all right, too.

...until we suddenly run into the ridiculous number of cases in which our “na-adjectives” don’t need な.

For example, at the end of a sentence:

Your girlfriend has mad-beautiful hair. You must tell her that it’s beautiful! So you caress some of the strands framing her face and say:

かみ きれい
hair + pretty
→ Your hair is (so) pretty.

Ahhhhhhh, I love two-word sentences in Japanese. Yes, by the way, that’s a full sentence. Me Tarzan. Hair pretty. We love that stuff in Japanese.

But where’s our な?

Man, I don’t need me no な at the end of my sentences. Only before nouns, duh.

Another problem is that there is a ridiculously large number of words in Japanese that are sometimes “na-adjectives” and sometimes “nouns.” One great example:

health; healthy

When I first learned this word in Japanese class, they told me it was a noun:

けんこう が いちばん!
health + が + number one!
→ Nothing is more important than your health.

This, too, is a full sentence. Yay; Tarzan; etc.

Fast forward several months, and 健康 starts messing with my once-organized understanding of Japanese grammar. Namely, it starts acting like a punk-face na-adjective:

けんこうな おとしより
healthy + old person
→ A healthy old person

What? I thought 健康 was a noun! What's that な doing in the sentence?!

OK. So now we’re all confused. What are we supposed to do about it?

Well, I can tell you what NOT to do: What I did.

Back in the day, I thought, well, I’ll just memorize which words can be both nouns and na-adjectives, then I’ll learn to use those separately based on context and whatnot. Such a dumb idea. Primarily because it was based on the assumption that Japanese people themselves know the difference between a na-adjective and a noun—they don’t.

Case in point: Rei and I were brainstorming phrases that I could use for the above explanation, and she said:

けんこう だ ね
healthy + is + huh?
→ You’re healthy, aren’t you? // He’s healthy, isn’t he?

No, no, I said. I can’t use that. I want 健康 the noun, but that’s 健康 the adjective.

She looked at me like I was crazy. Then, after a few silent moments, said, OK... hmm…

It’s not that Japanese people are incapable of separating the na-adjectives and nouns. It’s that they don’t care. They don’t need to separate them, and neither do you in the vast majority of cases. I mean, when speaking your native language, do you care if a word is a noun, adjective, adverb, etc.?

If you’re a grammar queen, you might say that you do, in fact, separate all of those. Until I catch you saying things like “healthy food” (← adjective) and “eat healthy” (← adverb). Heretic!

The purpose of this uber-confusing intro to na-adjective is as follows: Do. Not. Overthink. This.

We are looking at surgical breakdowns of the Japanese language, but that doesn't mean that you need to understand every little bit of every single sentence. Mastery will come with time. And it will be messy.

When you want to think, “I don’t understand this,” instead think, “I’ll understand this eventually.” And move forward. Learn new words. Hear new sentences. Move forward. Because eventually you’ll reach that point where you can use na-adjectives, nouns, i-adjectives, and all of that stuff both correctly and without thinking about what they are.

I’ll help for as much of it as I can.

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