The Appear-ative Tense

Big-balled Japanese Mammal

Here’s a funny story. On the night of the Shiokawa Fireworks Festival, I was driving from Shiokawa to Nishiaizu through Yamato and Takasato. For those who don’t know, the roads that go through Yamato and Takasato are mostly unlit mountain roads. As I came over one hill, a bigass tanuki appeared in the road. I was going reasonably fast for the road – 60 or 70 km/h – but I figured I was still far enough from the animal for him to move out of the way. He took his sweet time, however, and I realized I was going to hit the fucker! I slammed on the brakes and swerved, just barely missing him…I think. I didn’t hear any strange noises, so I don’t think I killed him. But it was really closed. I almost killed him.

The next day at school I was drinking tea with the office ladies and told them this story using the Japanese phrase 「ほとんど殺した。」, a direct translation of the English, which induced laughter in all Japanese present. I quickly realized the mistake but also realized that I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say – I didn’t kill the tanuki but it was goddamn close. The phrase 「ほとんど殺した。」implies that I beat the tanuki to a bloody pulp but spared the poor, big-balled mammal’s life at the last moment. (If you think about it, this is true of the English, too: “I almost killed him.”)

Apparently, the way to express this is 殺しそうになった。

This is the other usage of そう, which describes the way something looks or appears. It’s often used with adjectives. You’re all probably familiar with these two:

うまい        うまそう        Looks/appears tasty.
おいしい     おいしそう      Looks/appears delicious.

So you can probably figure out what these mean:

危ない        危なそう
難しい        難しそう
暑い           暑そう

This pattern can be difficult to remember and difficult to say. I think the best way to think about it is to consider it an actual conjugation of the adjective, the Appear-ative tense if you will. If, for example, you learned this conjugation from the very beginning along with something like the past tense, wouldn’t it be easier to remember?

That would give us a small list like this:

Present             おいしい
Past                 おいしかった
Negative           おいしくない
Negative Past     おいしくなかった
Appear-ative      おいしそう

There would then be two things you need to remember about this conjugation. It differs from other conjugations in that to make it past tense, you must attach a copula – でしたor だった. The other is that it is a な-nominal – when you modify a noun with it, you must connect it to the noun with な, just as you would with words like 有名, 静か and 貧乏 (Look ‘em up!).

Consider the following:

うまそうなラーメン        tasty-looking ramen

暑そうな砂漠                hot-looking desert

難しそうな試験             difficult-looking test

When you have these in a sentence, you’ll find you won’t need hyphenated adjectives as much:

あのラーメン、うまそうだろう!    Damn that ramen looks tasty!

やばい。この試験、難しそう。        Crap. This test looks hard.

Okay, so that’s how adjectives work, but you can also use this tense with verbs:

食べる    食べそう     appear to eat
行く        行きそう    appear to go

Let’s check ALC and see if it has any example sentences for us:

Whoa, she looks like she’s going to a party or something.

This is clearly a spoken sentence, and that’s important in this case, because it’s clear that the speaker is actually looking at this woman who is all hooched up – she is in a figure/appearance (格好、かっこう) that looks like she is going somewhere, specifically a “party or something” – and decided to vocalize surprise at the woman’s hooched-up-edness to the person standing next to her.

Back to the homework sentence. Let’s look at a verb chart for 殺す which means to kill.

Present                        殺す                Kill
Past                            殺した              Killed
Present Progressive        殺している        Is killing
Past Progressive            殺していた        Was killing
Desire                         殺したい           Want to kill
Potential                       殺せる             Can kill

Appear-ative                殺しそう            Looks like x is going to kill


So, now we understand the first part of the sentence. It’s un-subjected in the Japanese, so it’s clearly “I.” But we also have ~になる, to become, in past tense form, so the sentence literally  means: “(I) became so that I looked like I was going to kill (the tanuki) (with my brand new car) (in the mountains between Nishiaizu and Kitakata).”

Not exactly the way we say things in English, but a very economical and accurate way of expressing the fact that I almost ran over (almost killed) a tanuki.

Robin was the closest with his guess, ‘A kid was being a little shit and you were "this close to killing him",’ as it correctly expressed the fact that I was close to killing something. So the beer goes to Robin.

Many people incorrectly answered using the Desire conjugation. Let it be known that I had no desire to kill the poor tanuki.

4 thoughts on “The Appear-ative Tense

  1. hey thr, Daniel-さん, i stumble across your blog while surfing randomly (only ended up here cuz i googled picture of Murakami’s 1Q84). Anyways, it’s very nice blog you’ve got here. I’m starting to read from your earliest post on this website. This is as far as I’ve gotten till now, and will be reading the rest of your entry on a chronological order, which i think will take me quite a while to get to your latest entry. anyways, I’m a self-learner when it comes to japonese, and happened to have just passed JLPT N1 just last december (partly due to the change of syllabus which made the test much more easier compared to the first time i took it, which was 2 December’s ago!) The funny thing about it all is that i’ve never been to japan and have little confidence when it comes to speaking the language. nevertheless, i still enjoy the language very much. とにかく、挨拶はこれくらいで済ませてもらいます。今後もあなたのブログ読み続けるつもりなので、よろしくお願い致します。