One-Word Wonders

(Note: Although I mentioned in an earlier lecture that we wouldn't be looking at verbs until much later in this course, you'll see that I use a few in this lecture, since they are so well-suited to one-word sentences. So I'm kind of cheating. Sorry. ^_^)

Japanese is awesome because we can form full sentences using only one or two words.

On the other hand, Japanese is kind of evil because it does have the potential to melt our brains with long, complicated strings of grammar.

If you're foolish like me, you will learn a ton of these complicated strings of grammar before you ever learn to form one-word sentences.

I studied Japanese mostly by using books, primarily while living in the US. The one exception to this was a small stint at a language school in Tokyo... during which time I had pretty much zero Japanese friends. All of my friends were students at my school ー mostly Korean and American students. And all of us spoke whack Japanese.

So I didn't get a sense for forming casual one- and two-word sentences until I went to Japan to teach English in 2013, when I dove in headfirst and made lots of Japanese friends (and eventually, family).

Long story short: I can teach you some of the simple stuff I should have learned early on in my studies. Namely...

1-Word Sentences

To become masters of Japanese, we must become masters of context.

You take a bite of delicious cake, and all you need to say to your friend is:

This is delicious! // This is really good!
Literally: "tasty / delicious!"

You don't need to say "this," or "cake," or anything like that, because it's obvious from context that you're talking about the cake you just took a bite of.

Your friend tells you a story about a mutual friend of yours, about how a bird pooped on her head at the park, and then she was attacked by a gang of wild raccoons and had to jump into a disgusting, dirty pond to escape them.

You then say...

I feel so bad for her.
Literally: "pity / pitiable!"

You're in Sapporo, on a first date with the potential lover of your dreams, and you slip on ice and fall flat on your butt. Smooth.

Your date asks:

Are you OK?
Literally: "OK?"

In fact, you're pretty sure that your tailbone is broken, and the pain is horrendous. But not as horrendous as admitting this to your date.

So you say:

I'm fine.
Literally: "OK."

You're going to town on a delicious bag of Mike's Butter Soy Sauce Popcorn, and your friend is looking at you and thinking, "What a pig!"

But you're oblivious to this and assume they also want some delicious popcorn. So you hold out the bag and ask:

Want some?
Literally: "eat?"

But aren't there rules for making sentences in Japanese? Of course. And your books probably love to talk about them. But I doubt they're teaching....

Rules for Casual 1-Word Sentences

When we have context filling in the rest of the information needed for a full sentence (as in the examples above), then all of these three types of words are commonly used to form 1-word sentences:

  1. Verbs
  2. i-adjectives
  3. Nouns and na-adjectives

You'll find that one-word sentences occur most frequently with verbs and i-adjectives, though. (If you don't know what an i-adjective is, yet, no worries. We'll get to it.

Also note that one-word sentences will be much more common in casual Japanese, though it is possible to use them in some formal situations, also.

I've written some examples below. You'll just have to guess the context yourself, though.


A:行く? B:行く。
A:いく? B:いく。
A:Wanna go? B:Yeah.
Literally: "A:go? B:go."

A:飲む? B:飲む。
A:のむ? B:のむ。
A:Wanna drink this? B:Yeah.
Literally: "A:drink? B:drink."


It's cold. // I'm cold.
Literally: "cold."

It's spicy.
Literally: "spicy."

I'm busy.
Literally: "busy."

They're so noisy! // Shut up!
Literally: "noisy / loud!"

Nouns & Na-adjectives

I'm OK. // It's OK.
Literally: "OK."

I feel bad for her.
Literally: "pitiable."

No way! // Absolutely not.
Literally: "impossible."

Power Up with Conjugations

This is just a preview of things to come.

Once you learn to conjugate adjectives and verbs, the power of the one-word sentence will expand exponentially. Consider the following examples (without worrying about how they're being conjugated).

Let's go.
Literally: "let's go."

I'm tired.
Literally: "got tired."

What a relief. // That's good to know.
Literally: "was good."

So, look forward to being able to make sentences like these in the future, too. If you can't already do so, that is.

Obviously completely mastering when it's appropriate to use a one-word sentence will take time. But I encourage you to be on the lookout for when and how they are used by native Japanese speakers. Once you get a good sense of when and how they're appropriate, your casual fluency should improve dramatically. We'll also introduce a lot of them throughout this course.

This lesson is hinting at the potential of using context to fill out unspoken parts of Japanese sentences, which is one of my favorite things about this language. As speakers of English, we have yet another awesome tool at our disposal, though: Our massive English vocabularies. In the next section of the course, we'll look at how this asset can be utilized to form thousands of sentences.

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