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.

おかげで vs. せいで

After the last posts, I got an email from a friend reminding me that there was one more element of おかげ(さま)で that I needed to discuss before I could run it into the ground. Here’s the email:

E-mail from a colleague I’m in contact with made me think of your post recently. (Context: discussing her school closure due to SNOWMAGEDDON up in Seattle):


Sounds like she is have a pretty sweet snowcation. So, yes, おかげで has another usage, which is closer to the ので and で that I wrote about in the past – it’s explaining causality, in particular beneficial causality. Because of/“thanks to” the snow and the school closure, she’s been able to read and study French and do yoga and damn you for living in a cold climate! I want a snow day! In the sentence above, おかげで is used at the beginning of a sentence, but you could easily use it as a conjunction and mash the clauses together: 休校になったおかげで、久しぶりに読書した。

This is the way that I first learned おかげで, which is partially why I was confused when I heard it as an idiomatic greeting. I knew that someone was being thanked, and I may even have had a sense that the someone had been dropped (pronoun drop yo) and was an implied “you.” But “you” hadn’t done anything for me! So why was I supposed to be saying お陰様で元気です? Because that’s what they say. When used as an idiomatic greeting phrase, you don’t have to consider the “beneficial causality” as much.

There is an equal and opposite conjunction せいで which is used to explain negative causality. For example, 雪が降ったせいで、自動車事故が増えた。

Personally, I loved watching all the videos the last few days of Seattle drivers running into each other in the snow because that’s exactly what would happen in New Orleans. I, however, mastered snow driving in Fukushima. The best policy is just not to drive (as long as you have sufficient supplies of chocolate and beer).

Cool Particle – で – Conjunction

Clearly Treyvaud’s で from the previous post (about で as implier of causality) wasn’t pure causality. The girl was just taking a break from her story, so the invisible それ in front of the で refers to the entirety of the story so far. Not a specific cause and effect relationship per se.

A large part of で’s role comes as a conjunction, a transition between two thoughts. To a certain extent, で is always conjunctive – it connects two different phrases or ideas within a phrase by describing why something was done – and only the level of causality changes.

The clear English equivalent is “so.” It’s surprising how similar these are. Not only do they both act as conjunctions, but the level of causality they both imply also varies. So, to a certain extent, Treyvaud’s で is asking, “So now that you’ve laid out all this juicy conspiracy goodness, WTF mate? What happens next? What does what you’ve just explained lead to?” But in reality, it’s just a word that enables a smooth transition to the next thought.

You see this used a lot in spoken Japanese. If someone is telling a really long, winding story that, rather than resolving itself, continues to take turn after turn, that person and the listener could have the following conversation:

Teller: でー
Listener: で?
T: でー
L: で?(笑)
T: で、

Which you could translate into English as:

Teller: So–
Listener: So?
T: So–
L: So where the hell is this going?! Heh.
T: I’m about to fuggin tell you if you’d let me finish.

Maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but you get the point. You can imply all that good stuff by interrupting with a single particle, a smile, and a good laugh.

The other conjunctive role of で is when you use it to stack up clauses, mostly when speaking. For example,

会社が新橋で、アパートが国分寺で、通勤がちょっとつらい。My company’s in Shimbashi, and my apartment is in Kokubunji, so my commute is a little unpleasant.

To me, the “so” feels like it implies slightly more causality than the で after 国分寺. I believe in cases like the above, で is the gerund form of です, so you can continue almost without end as you can with verbs sometimes:

6時に起きて、シャワー浴びて、朝食食べて、家出て、電車乗って... I woke up at six, took a shower, ate breakfast, left my place, got on the train…

Keep your ears open for this で (and verbs in gerund form playing the same role) and I promise you’ll start to hear it more often. And the more you recognize it and what it is doing, the easier it will be to use it yourself. Now go forth and conjunct!