317 - うちに (before you know it)

Don't freak out, but this is now going to be our third lesson on うち(に).

First, let's go back and review the old lessons:

[NDL #96] - Home = I = Inside = While = Before?!
[NDL #97] - Home = I = Inside = While = Before?! 第2
[NDL #310] - JLPT N3: うちに (while)

OK. I'll pretend you actually clicked on those links, studied those lessons like a straight-A student, and now we're ready to move onto today's grammar point. Which is... うちに... again.

Sudden Vocab Break

Quick! Memorize these three words:

change of jobs

to repeat; to do something over again

to acquire (e.g. a skill)
Literally: "body + に + stick."

Just trust me. You'll need them in a second.

JLPT N3: うちに (~before you know it)

So the うちに that we're looking at today kind of means "before you know it."

Technically speaking, though, it doesn't match up with any single English phrase too well (big shocker there, considering that we're looking at Japanese).

First, note that we'll use this うちに when we have two clauses, Clause A and Clause B:

A うちに B.

As we saw last week, うち can mean something like "while," so the literal translation of this might be:

While A, B.

However, the meaning that we're looking at today is a little different than just "while." Specifically, it's different because the "B" clause that comes after this うちに will always be an unexpected change. So:

A うちに B.

While A, B happened (and B was an unexpected change).

Here's an example:

てんしょく を くりかえす うちに いろいろ な スキル が みについた。
I kept changing jobs, and before I knew it, I'd acquired all kinds of skills.
Literally: "change of jobs + を + repeat + うちに + various + skills + が + acquired (=body + に + stuck)."

So our "A" is:
てんしょく を くりかえす
(I) keep changing jobs. // (I) change jobs over and over.
Literally: "change of jobs + を + repeat."

Then, the unexpected change / "B" is:
いろいろ な スキル が みについた。
I acquired all kinds of skills.
Literally: "various + skills + が + acquired (=body + に + stuck)."

Connecting them with うちに, you might say that a somewhat literal translation of the sentence above is:

While I keep changing jobs, (before I know it), I've acquired all kinds of skills.

But I thought it was more natural to say:

I kept changing jobs, and before I knew it, I'd acquired all kinds of skills.

Are you with me still?

If not, please just pretend that you are. Then we can look at the structure of this grammar point...

Directly before うちに, we'll have one of these:

1) A verb in plain present tense, like 繰り返す (くりかえす), which we saw above. In other words, Vる.

2) A verb in plain present progressive tense, like 読んでいる (よんでいる // am reading). In other words, Vている.

3) A verb in negative plain present tense, like 知らない (しらない // don't know). In other words, Vない.

4) "Noun + の." Later we're going to use the word 語らい (かたらい // chat; talk). So, Nの.

Let's see how these all look when they pair up with うちに:

くりかえす うちに
while repeating (something), (before you know it)

よんでいる うちに
while reading, (before you know it)

しらない うちに
while one doesn't know/realize, (before you know it)

かたらい の うちに
during a talk, (before you know it)

Now, the sentences in this lesson are a bit lengthy... a sort of unavoidable effect of studying grammar functions that link separate clauses.

To make it slightly less intimidating, let's take a look at some of the vocabulary that will show up in the sentences. Note that this is not all of the vocab, just some standout words and phrases...

こども の ころ
one's childhood
Literally: "child + の + time/period."

outer space

Literally: "space + aviator"

to aim at; to set one's sights on


bruise; birthmark

class reunion; alumni meeting

one's honored teacher

just like that; in the blink of an eye

war; disturbance; conflict

hundreds of years

Example Time

Take it one word at a time. You got this.

こども の ころ から うちゅう にかんする ほん を なんさつ も よんでいる うちに、 うちゅうひこうし を めざす ように なった。
Since I was a kid, I'd been reading a lot of books about space, and before I knew it, I had my sights set on becoming an astronaut.
Literally: "child + の + (approximate) time + from + space + related to + books + を + several volumes + も + am reading + うちに, + astronaut + を + aim at + ように + became."

ふと じぶん の うで を みると、 しらない うちに おおきな あざ が できていた。
I just looked down at my arm, and somehow I'd gotten a big bruise on it.
Semi-Literally: I just looked down at my arm, and before I knew it I'd gotten a big bruise on it.
Literally: "casually / without cause + (my)self + の + arm + を + look at + と, + don't know + うちに + big + bruise + が + was being made."
Note: Ironically, the one sentence that has 知らないうちに, quite literally, "before I knew it," does not have the phrase "before I knew it" in our English translation. Sorry.

ひさしぶり の どうそうかい で、 おんし や どうきゅうせい と の たのしい かたらい のうちに じかん は あっというま に すぎて いった。
At my class reunion, I was having all sorts of interesting talks with my old teachers and classmates, and before I knew it, the time had flown by.
Literally: "a long time since + の + class reunion + で, + honored teachers + や + classmates + と + の + fun + talk + の + うちに + time + は + just like that + had passed by (=pass by and went)."
Note: Notice that 久しぶりの isn't technically translated in our English phrase. It didn't seem necessary to me. Aren't all class reunions 久しぶりの?Maybe it's just one of those linguistic differences that we'll never fully understand.

Some Thoughts About "NOUN+の+うちに"

Notice how only the last example has a noun coming before うちに?

That's because in 99% of cases, you will probably hear a verb coming before うちに in sentences like these.

In fact, Rei and I had a very hard time thinking of natural sentences with "NOUN+の+うちに," and ultimately I had to reach out to my editor in Tokyo (who is the ultimate master of Japanese... and who wrote that last example above).

Here are some excerpts of what he told me about this grammar formation...

(Note: No literal breakdowns and stuff for this. Just translations. If you're feeling super motivated, why not try your own breakdowns? ^^)

I guess we don't really use the phrase "Noun + のうちに." Especially when speaking.

"Verb + うちに" is really common, isn't it?

Then, in regards to the sentence provided above, he wrote:

「語らい] is somewhat of an old-sounding word, but I thought that it went well with 「のうちに」.

I hope to be as knowledgeable as him someday. ^^

Oh, also, he gave us one last bonus sentence:

その くに では はげしい せんらん の うちに なんびゃくねん も の とき が ながれた。
While the country was mired in violent conflicts, hundreds of years passed by.
Literally: "that + country + では + violent / harsh + wars / fighting + の + うちに + hundreds of years + も + の + time + が + flowed."

Yeah... good luck hearing that in a conversation. A history book, perhaps.

That's all for today!

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