How to Incomplete Sentences in Japanese

I’m in the Japan Times this week with an article about incomplete sentences in Japanese: “To be a more complete Japanese speaker, leave your sentences incomplete.”

There are so many good examples, and I think I managed to include almost all of them in the piece (and even one they didn’t in 一体!). I found a great article in the chapter “Incomplete Utterance Ending in Japanese” from Developing Interactional Competence in a Japanese Study Abroad Context by Naoko Taguchi. It’s definitely worth a read. The chapter is easily summarized: “The pervasiveness of ellipsis and incomplete endings is a characteristic of Japanese communication” (25).

This is where I got the statistics toward the end of my article: Japanese leave their sentences incomplete 25-50% of the time! This is true even with formal situations, which were left incomplete 30-45% of the time.

One interesting point that I wasn’t able to touch upon in the article is that incomplete sentences also serve to “avoid an explicit marking of the polite or plain speech style” (26). So basically incomplete sentences can act as a hedge when you’re not sure how to address someone.

Another interesting point is that incomplete sentences “characterize the co-construction of an event.” Basically they encourage “collaborative turn completion,” which might explain why I felt like I was being interrupted by my coworker in this post. In actuality, she was just doing Japanese.

And finally, one statistic that I didn’t include in the article: L2 Japanese speakers only used incomplete sentences 4% of the time in one study or 12% of the time in another. This seems to suggest that you can make yourself sound much more native by using incomplete sentences strategically.

Comments are closed.