Content Markers, Part I

Contrastive conjunctions (or "conjunctive particles," whatever) like けどけれどけれども、etc. are not only used to say "but." They have a second function: Marking unspoken content.

I like to refer to them as "content markers."

For example, in the Toby in Tokyo video series, we see this dialogue between a character (Diego) and an interviewer:

ハーフ なんです ね。
So, you're half-Japanese.
Literally: "half-Japanese (=half) + なんです + ね."


はい そう です けど。
Well, yeah, technically.
Literally: "yes + that's right + but."


↑ The けど in Diego's sentence is marking some unspoken content, something Diego is refraining from saying directly. Let's look at a quick video explanation of what's happening:
The concept of "content markers" is something that will come up time and time again in our studies.

Technically, the use of けれど(も) as a content marker is a JLPT N3 grammar point(!), and we do have a lesson on it, but it seems odd to me to single out けれど(も) and wait until N3 level to start using content markers, as they are so crucial to communicating naturally in Japanese.

The sentences might be a little bit difficult, but let's look at an excerpt from that lesson…

Warning! We are using some complicated sentences in this lesson. It is very likely that they will feel a bit overwhelming. That's to be expected, since we're technically looking at a bunch of JLPT N3 sentences.

When feeling overwhelmed, please just focus on the word-by-word breakdowns of sentences. And when that doesn't help, just gloss over stuff. You can always come back to this lesson once you reach a higher level.


I want to you really understand our first example, so here is every word that will appear in it with the appropriate definitions in this situation (the particles' meaning can change quite a bit in other contexts):

漢字(かんじ // kanji
勉強(べんきょう // studies; studying
勉強法(べんきょうほう // study method


したい(want to do
です(is; to be [technically, a "copula"]
あります(is; to be; to have

を(an object-marking particle
ん(a somewhat complicated particle for explaining and insinuating information
は(a particle for bringing up new topics
か(a question-marking particle

OK, OK. Now we can dive into our first example of けれど (も) acting as a "content marker:"

かんじ を べんきょう したい んです けれども、 いい べんきょうほう は あります か。
So, I want to study kanji. Do you know of a good study method?
Literally: "kanji + を + studying + want to do + んです + けれども, + good + study method + は + there is + か."

To simplify, let's divide this example into two separate phrases:

かんじ を べんきょう したい んです。
I want to study kanji.
Literally: "kanji + を + studying + want to do + んです."

いい べんきょうほう は あります か。
Do you know of a good study method?
Literally: "good + study method + は + there is + か."

Now, it seems kind of weird to combine those two sentences with "but," right?

But that's exactly what we're doing:

かんじ を べんきょう したい んです けれども、 いい べんきょうほう は あります か。
So, I want to study kanji. Do you know of a good study method?
Semi-Literally: I want to study kanji, BUT do you know of a good study method?
Literally: "kanji + を + studying + want to do + んです + けれども, + good + study method + は + there is + か."

The thing is, the Japanese けれども being used in this sentence does not mean "but." It just means that I am not finished saying what I want to say. In a way, it provides us with a soft, smooth segue into the second half of the sentence.

The けれど in our sentence above doesn't really mean anything. It's just allowing us to move onto what we really want to say: Do you know of a good study method?

I tried to convey this sense of transition by using the word "so" in the English translation:

So, I want to study kanji. Do you know of a good study method?

Sadly, few translations can ever completely capture the nuance of another language. So our best option for understanding this, as is often the case, is to look at lots of examples...


Here we have a business phone call...

もしもし、 シャーク しゅっぱん の きのした です けれど、 ほんだ さん は いらっしゃいます か。
Hello, this is Kinoshita from Shark Publishing. Is Mr. Honda available?
Literally: "hello (for phone calls), + shark + publishing + の + Kinoshita + です + けれど, + Honda-san + は + is + か."
Note: いらっしゃいます is an honorific form of います. So, Kinoshita-san is very politely asking if Honda-san is there.

Here our けれど is not being translated into the English at all. We simply divide our translation into two sentences. But in the Japanese, we glide from one sentence to the next with our けれど.

It may help to note that I have sometimes seen this けれど translated to things like "excuse me, but."


ちはる さん、 せんげつ けっこん した そう です よ。
I heard that [Apparently] Chiharu-san got married last month.
Literally: "Chiharu-san, + last month + marriage + did + apparently [hearsay marker] + です + よ."

ええ、 このあいだ でんわ で はなしました けれども、 しあわせ そう でした よ。
Yeah, I talked to her on the phone the other day, and she sounded really happy.
Literally: "yeah, + the other day + phone + で + talked + けれども, + happy + seemed + was + よ."

↑ We haven't covered these two uses of そう(だ) yet. Something to look forward to in our JLPT N4 lessons!


Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier, but this practice of "content marking" can be done using a variety of particles that more or less get translated to "but" in English:


けれども, and けれど tend to be used in written language.

Then we have けど. When I took Japanese lessons long, long ago, my teachers told me けど was mostly for casual speech. In reality, however, it is used widely (pretty much all the time, in fact) in both casual and formal spoken Japanese. For example, our last sentence in this lesson uses けど, but it's still polite language. And all of the sentences we've seen so far are polite, too.

In short, if you're speaking, then just go ahead and use けど, not けれども, or けれど.


Now, my favorite way to use "content markers" like けれど is to put them at the end of a sentence.

Since they are usually used to introduce a second phrase, putting one of these at the end of what you say gives the nuance that you are sharing or thinking about some information that is not spoken explicitly.

For example:

そんなに たくさん たのんでも たべきれない と おもいます けど.....
If you order that much, I don't think you'll be able to eat all of it.
Literally: "that much + a lot + even if ordered + cannot eat all + と + think + けど..."
Note: Adding ~きれない to the verb stem of 食べる (たべる // to eat) gives us 食べ切れない (たべきれない // cannot eat all).

What do you think the unspoken sentence is here?

I'm guessing it's something like, "So, maybe you shouldn't order so much food," or "So, don't order so much food."

But Japanese people loath confrontation, so rather than say something like that, we can just mark an invisible sentence that says it with our けど.


That's it for this lesson.

It's a complicated concept, and I fear it might be a bit difficult to grasp using only a handful of examples.

What I'd like you to do instead is to listen for "but" words like けどけれども、etc. and try to notice when they don't really mean "but" at all. Chances are, they're being used as "content markers" in such situations. Perhaps the most useful way to use content markers, however, is to put them at the end of sentences, like we saw Diego doing in our video above. This can be so useful, in fact, that we're about to have two more lessons on it…

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