Japanese Grammar

Japanese Word Order

Japanese Word Order

By now, you have already spent a while learning Japanese. You may wonder if word order is not important in Japanese. In fact, when you speak Japanese, you don’t have to pay attention to word order as much as other languages. However, there are certain rules that you should follow.

Explanation for How Japanese Word Order Is Determined

In order to explain word order, we will show you examples without omissions. Therefore, they are not natural expressions. In Japanese, properly making omissions is the key to making natural expressions, which we will focus on in other lessons.

Basic Word Order

In grammatical terms, Japanese word order is SOV (Subject + Object + Verb). However, objects can be further divided into groups such as targets (indirect objects) expressed by the particle に, destinations expressed by the particle へ, etc. Thus, we would like to learn word order by using specific terms such as に part, へ part, and を part.

Subject (が Part) + Object (を, に, へ, and と Part) + Verb

なかさんがうたを(うたう / うたいます)。
Tanaka-san will sing songs.
なかさんがアメリカに(く / きます)。
Tanaka-san will go to the US.
なかさんが先生せんせいと(う / います)。
Tanaka-san will meet [his/her] teacher.
なかさんがうみほうへ(かう / かいます)。
Tanaka will head in the direction of the sea.

This is the basic order (SOV). If there are just three parts of speech, it is relatively easy to compose a sentence. As you have more context, you need to add other parts to this base. Please keep in mind that verbs are always placed at the end in Japanese.

Subject (が Part) + Target (に Part) + Direct Object (を Part) + Verb

なかさんが彼女かのじょゆびを(わたす / わたします)。
Tanaka-san will give his girlfriend a ring.
なかさんがどもえいを(おしえる / おしえます)。
Tanaka-san will teach children English.

This is equivalent to English sentence structure: SVOO. In practice, the に part and the を part sometimes trade places, but you can treat this order as a base. The idea is that animate things are placed first and inanimate things are placed next.

Temporal Noun and Location (に and で Part ) Are Placed at the Beginning

明日あしたなかさんがうたを(うたう / うたいます)。
Tanaka-san will sing songs tomorrow.
なつなかさんがアメリカに(く / きます)。
Tanaka-san will go to the US in the summer.
公園こうえんなかさんが先生せんせいと(う / います)。
Tanaka-san will meet the teacher in the park.
明日あした公園こうえんなかさんが先生せんせいと(う / います)。
Tanaka-san will meet the teacher in the park tomorrow.

By location, we mean locations of actions or existence (*You will learn the function of the particle に about locations in the next section). Don’t be confused about the function: destinations and directions. Although they indicate locations, we categorize them into objects. If you use both time and locations, time should be prior to locations.

Supplementary Information Should Be between Subject and Object

なかさんがマイクでうたを(うたう / うたいます)。
Tanaka-san will sing songs with a microphone.
なかさんが彼女かのじょえいを(る / ます)。
Tanaka-san will see a movie with his girlfriend.
なかさんがいまから学校がっこうに(く / きます)。
Tanaka-san will go to school from now.

With the above examples, we have used means (で part), partners (と part), and starting points (から part). In terms of grammar, there are no exact rules, and sentences can be understood even if you place them after objects. However, the order “Subject + Supplementary Information + Object + Verb” is more commonly used.

マイクでうたうたう: 8,730 hits
うたをマイクでうたう: 4 hits

彼女かのじょえいる: 46,100 hits
えい彼女かのじょる: 5,100 hits

いまから学校がっこうく: 121,000 hits
学校がっこういまからく: 10 hits

Above are the results of Google-searching the phrases by using their perfect matching function. There is a big difference made by whether supplementary information is placed before or after objects.

一生いっしょう懸命けんめいうたうたう: 2,000 hits
うた一生いっしょう懸命けんめいうたう: 1,580 hits

ゆっくりえいはなす: 506 hits
えいををゆっくりはなす: 677 hits

For reference, adverbs can naturally be used when it is placed both before and after objects.

The Topic Particle は

なかさんがマイクでうたを(うたう / うたいます)。
マイクではなかさんがうたを(うたう / うたいます)。
なかさんが彼女かのじょえいる / ます)。
えいなかさんが彼女かのじょと(る / ます)。
なかさんがいまから学校がっこうく / きます)。
学校がっこうにはなかさんがいまから(く / きます)。

Since you have already learned about combined particles, you can figure out the difference in nuance. Here, let’s focus on the word order. The parts that have the topic particle は attached, will move to the beginning.

明日あしたなかさんがうたを(うたう / うたいます)。
明日あしたなかさんがうたを(うたう / うたいます)。
なかさんが先生せんせいと(う / います)。
なかさんは先生せんせいと(う / います)。

If those parts are already at the beginning, the word order will remain as it is.

Variation of Word Order

You have learned the basic word order so far, but native speakers don’t necessarily always follow that base. In practice, especially in conversation, the order often varies. Let’s look at three patterns.

1. Unimportant Parts Are Placed at the End

なかさんがほん宿しゅくだいを(する / します)よ。
なかさんが宿しゅくだいを(する / します)よ、ほん

Both of them have the same meaning: “Tanaka-san will do Japanese homework.” If only the fact that Tanaka-san will do his homework is important, you may initially forget to mention ほんの. Then, after finishing your speech, you may complement your sentence by adding ほんの.

A: なにう(の / んですか)?
What will [you] buy?
B: パン(だよ / です)、明日あしたひるごはんの。
[It] is a bread, which is tomorrow’s lunch.

This is very natural conversation. He/she directly replies to the question, which is most important here, and then adds some context.

2. Parts Which You Emphasize Are Placed at the Beginning

なかさんがほん宿しゅくだい(する / します)よ。
ほん宿しゅくだいなかさんが(する / します)よ。

When you use the second example, you may be surprised because Tanaka-san rarely does Japanese homework, and you therefore want to emphasize ほん宿しゅくだいを.

明日あした寿司すしべる(んだ / んです)。
寿司すし明日あしたべる(んだ / んです)。

This is applicable even when the topic particle は is used. The meanings are the same: “As for tomorrow, [I will] eat sushi.” However, the second example strongly expresses your desire to eat sushi.

3. Long Parts Should Be Placed at the Beginning

わたしなかさんがソニーのカメラでやましゃしんき(だ / です)。
なかさんがソニーのカメラでやま写真しゃしんわたしき(だ / です)。

The meaning is “I like the pictures of mountains that Tanaka-san takes using a Sony camera” In English, this kind of sentence is not preferred: “Eating Japanese cuisine with my best friends at my home is fun.” Similarly, in Japanese, long parts are often placed at the beginning.

Summary

  1. Subject (が part) + object (を, に, へ, and と part) + verb, i.e. SOV, is the basic structure.
  2. Temporal nouns and locations (に and で parts of sentences) are placed at the beginning.
  3. Supplementary information should be between subjects and objects.
  4. The は part of the sentence should be placed at beginning.
  5. In conversation, word order often varies.
  6. Verbs are always placed at the end.

Again, Japanese language doesn’t require you to strictly follow the basic word order, especially in conversation. Your Japanese will probably make sense if you keep verbs placed at the end. However, when you make a public speech or write essays or articles, it is important to be able to use proper word order. Please keep the summary in mind.

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