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.

Cool 方言 – よう知っとるな

As I’ve written before, I’m not a big believer in good pronunciation = fluency or excellent command of dialect = fluency, but I have come to realize that learning dialects gives you more variations to help reinforce your understanding of 標準語 patterns. And it’s also nice to know what people on TV are saying.

One of my favorites originates in Nagoya. My former roommate, Nagoya born and raised, used to say it all the time, often when I dropped some obscure Murakami fact that no one should ever know. (Murakami’s first use of the name “May Kasahara” wasn’t in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – it was in the 夜のくもざる series of super-shorts in the story “Eel”. Either that or the short story “The Twins and the Sunken Continent.” Can’t remember.)

よう知っとるな, when you convert it back into unslurred words, is よく知っておるな. And then further into 標準語, よく知っているね.

おる and おります are often used as humble keigo, and this article claims that it is also used to deprecate and insult (much like the phrase してやる rather than してあげる), but I think in this case it’s just dialect common in areas West of Tokyo. This phrase might actually be Kansai-ben. I always associate it with my roommate and assumed it was from Nagoya. Either way, a cool little phrase to bust out every now and then when somebody impresses with some wicked truth – “Damn yo, how you get so knowledgeable and shit?”

Who Dat?!

Speaking of Subway, I often pick a footlong after lunch and keep it in the fridge at work. I get super hungry right around 6, so they’re nice to have on days when I have to work overtime. After the boss man has left (“the Syach,” as we like to call him), I sneak over to the tables that are cubicled off in the corner of the office and eat half. I save the other half for a little later when everyone has gone. (Quick sidenote: in Japan, a full sandwich is listed as 30cm but still gets the designation フットロング.)

On Monday I was eating the first half of my sandwich, just staring out the window, when one of the Sales guys peeked his head in and laughed. I think I mumbled something like ごめんなさい, and he said いえいえ、誰かな~と思って… and then left.

The meaning of what he said is pretty straight forward here. Literally “Who is that? I thought…” Or in more natural English, “I was wondering who that was…” The point I’d like to make is that this is not a complete sentence in Japanese. He easily could have said 誰かなと思った, but instead it ends on a gerund, and much like the で discussed last week, there is a bit of causality implied. This makes more sense when you fill in the final clause of the sentence: 誰かなと思って、顔を覗かせた。In natural English, “I just peeked in wondering who was in here” or maybe “I just wanted to see who was in here.” (Other alternative second clauses include, ここに入ってきた or ちょっと見てきた.)

The point is that while the gerund clause modifies the implied, invisible clause, it’s the main point of the sentence since the implied, invisible clause is obvious to both parties. Most excellent. It also reminds me that you could probably go a whole day in Japan using only gerunds. Reminds me of my No 僕 Challenge, but I’m too lazy to try this one.

And for those who didn’t recognize the title, Geaux Saints!


File this one under “I should’ve known better.” Sapporo’s 新発売 collaboration with famous Hokkaido chocolatier ROYCE’. (I’ve always wondered if that is pronounced “ROYCE Prime.”) It’s far too sweet and not very roasty or bitter at all, probably because of all the sugar they added to cover the bitterness of the cocoa nibs listed in the ingredients. I prefer Kirin’s Beer Chocolat which didn’t use any actual chocolate.

As you can tell from the title of this post, I have a small point to add about the Japanese てくる form, which I addressed here and hereTreyvaud sent me a link to a paper titled “Acquisition of the Japanese Errand Construction in Japanese as a Foreign Language.” I dig the “base construction” theory of てくる on page 14 (all our base are belong to us, as it were), but the real point of the article is to examine why “the use of kuru ‘come’ in the [Japanese errand] construction especially seems to puzzle many of the students.”

One of the most interesting parts of the article to me was learning that there are times when it is ungrammatical not to use てくる or ていく. (In other words, the -masu form is at times incorrect.) Treyvaud explains:

The graph on page 29 really interested me, because it seems to show that even beginners can recognize a correct sentence — they’re just more likely not to realize that the incorrect ones are incorrect (because of English leaking in, L1 transfer). I guess since most courses aren’t going to teach you a list of incorrect forms, the only way to overcome this is endless practice until you have a big bag of Japanese-specific knowledge to compare new sentences to (so that unusual forms are suspicious because you know that similar sentences would usually be said differently), rather than relying on “can I understand it?” or “would it make sense in English?” as your standard as beginners more or less have to.

Conversely, in my own high school English classes, I remember spending a significant amount of time on incorrect grammar patterns. Run-on sentences, comma splices, split infinitives. (Although, I guess this is because native students can already “do” English and just need to be shown what not to do.) The author doesn’t seem to offer any suggestions to improve the status quo, but I wonder if highlighting incorrect usage wouldn’t help non-native students.

And finally, the sad truth: “only five percent of L2 learners can reach a native speaker’s level.” Sigh.

~ている – Stative Gerunds

現在進行形 is the name of the tense (present progressive in English). You’re probably well familiar with this pattern. 食べています (tabete imasu). 飲んでいます (nonde imasu). Eating stuff. Drinking stuff. Doing stuff in general.

But I was reminded last week by 落ち着いている that you have to be careful with this pattern in Japanese because the same construction can be used as stative description depending on the verb. One of the best examples of this is the phrase 変わっている. This should not be translated as “is changing.” If something is 変わっている it means it is “in a changed state,” i.e. it is strange or weird. This is often used to describe quirky, unusual people.

You have to be vigilant not to fall into this traps. I recently had to pull myself out of one. In the Murakami story “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall,” there is a short introduction where the narrator meditates on the uncertainty and ineffectiveness of words:






I initially translated that last line as “And the next moment words are dying.” But it actually should be “And the next moment words are in the state of being dead”; in other words, “words are dead.” This passage is interesting because you have three different conjugations of the verb die: 死ぬ (shinu), 死んでいく (shinde iku), and 死んでいる (shinde iru). Here is the translation I ended up with:

There are too many things I want to say and too few things that I am able to say.

And to make matters worse, words die.

Every second words are dying. Words die in alleyways, in attics, in the wilderness, and in waiting rooms at stations with the collar on their coat turned up.

Excuse me, sir! The train is here!

And the next moment, words are dead.

I guess if you wanted to be more dramatic and read into it a little you could go with “Every second words are uttered and then go off to their death” for 死んでいく. Anyone have other ideas?

If you are trying to say “is changing” you should probably say 変化している (or possibly 変身している), or you could bust out some ところ action and say 変わっているところ.

Other frequently used examples are:
開いている。 It’s open.
閉まっている。 It’s closed.
冷えている。 It’s chilled (and ready to drink).

Maintain gerund vigilance.

~てくる – Changes

The pattern ~てくる is also really useful way to express a change in state. I remember it being a confusing pattern when I first started studying Japanese, but I solved that problem by using it constantly (regardless of whether or not it was appropriate) because, let’s face it, shit be changing, yo. (Cue Tupac track.) Gradually I’ve narrowed down the appropriate usage conditions.

Here’s a quick example sentence: この2ヶ月間仕事が忙しくて大変だったけど、やっと落ち着いてきた。

The first clause sets the scene – work was busy and it sucked. But (there’s the fulcrum for the change) things have settled down (or so he thinks). The second clause shows how things have changed from the first clause. They have gone from an 落ち着いていない condition to an 落ち着いている condition. The きた, I feel, helps emphasize this transformation and the やっと impresses exactly how long the subject was waiting for the きた to くる so he could キター!

So the next question is what’s the difference between ~た and ~てきた? It’s pretty subtle. Another example. I got a birthday package from a friend in the US the other day. If my friend spoke Japanese I could say that it got here with a simple 荷物が届きましたよ. Just the basic way to say that the package was delivered. I could also say 届いてきたよ, which feels more urgent – as if my friend or I were awaiting the arrival of the package slightly more desperately. Maybe the package was delayed? Maybe there was a kitten inside?! Or maybe we were just waiting to compare the USPS with Japan Post. (Japan Post wins.) As in the example yesterday, the きた・くる seems to address a sort of mutual understanding that exists whereas the plain form of the verb is best for communicating brand new information.

〜なってきた・くる is another pattern that you can use to express how something changes. An example: 寒くなってきた. Like Monday, the timeframe feels more specific, as in 最近 or 今日 or 今週. And once it’s cold enough, (you can use Monday’s pattern to say…) 雪が降ってくる.

~てくる – Going to Do Stuff

This week I’ll explore the glories of the pattern ~てくる。The eternal caveat: trying to get back to the core of How to Japonese, this week will be especially unfounded in textbook “learnin’.” I’m looking back through the fog of time, thousands of hours of study, and countless repetitions in an attempt to narrow down the “sense” that I’ve developed for this pattern and how I came to that sense. How I’ve gotten used to it, I guess. Hope it’s helpful.

For me, this pattern represents the earliest stages of getting used to it. Jay Rubin’s book Making Sense of Japanese is the Bible of “getting used to it.” I first read through it my sophomore year of college. Not all of it sank in immediately, but this pattern did. He has one short section titled “Go Jump in The Lake, But Be Sure to Come Back” where he calls 〜てくる an idiomatic expression; in English we say “go do,” and in Japanese they just happen to say “do and then come.” Get used to it.

The most basic ~てくる pattern is 行ってきます, which is what people say when leaving the house in Japan. When translating, it’s probably best to go with something like “I’ll be back” or “I’m stepping out” or even “See you later.” The expression literally breaks down to “I will go and then come (back)” but really only means “I’m going.”

That’s easy enough. You can extend this to any activity:
弁当(を)買ってきます。 I’m going to buy a bento. (Because I can’t be asked to make anything.)
一服してくるよ。 I’m taking a cigarette break/rest. (Because this office is hot as hell!)
まい泉でトンカツを食べてきた。 I went and had tonkatsu at Maisen. (Which is why I can’t get up from the couch.)
年末ジャンボを二枚買ってきた! I bought two New Year’s Jumbo tickets! (And when I win I will retire at 28.)

The big question is what is the difference between plain, old 買いました and 買ってきました. The former conveys only the basic information – you bought something. The second one feels more like an event, one that the person being addressed was previously aware of – you went out and bought something that you had been talking about earlier. (You can see this implied information in parenthesis for the examples above.) And 買います and 買ってきます? The former to me feels undefined in terms of timeframe, whereas the latter is going to happen sooner or at least in a more specified timeframe such as これから or 明日 or お金がたまったら.

I’m going to go ahead and say that you should be using this pattern 40% more often than you currently do. So go on. Get out there and go do some stuff. And come back when you’re done.