Power Up Your ちょっと

Previously I discussed how to power up your いい and make it more polite by extending the number of syllables. Well, I just remembered another useful power-up – 少々. While it may look a little short, spell it out in kana and you get しょうしょう. Here’s the chart:


The length factor becomes even more obvious when you attach it to a normal sentence:


You can also add a syllable if you’re trying to emphasize the slightness of something: ちょこっと is a fun way to ask for a very small amount. Interestingly, ちょこっと and ちょっと are casual in part because of an additional syllable – the , which I wrote about earlier. While it adds emphasis, it also detracts from the level of politeness. So not cool to get all emphatic up in this black tie affair.

Unbreakable Rules – Never 様 Yourself

Quick, what’s the first thing you hear when you go into a restaurant in Japan?


I was taught to always respond with 一人, 二人, 三人, etc. My sensei told us to never say 一名様, 二名様, 三名様, etc., but she never told us why. I only learned why a few years back when I went to the Shibuya TGI Fridays with my friend Yoichi.

When greeted with the question above, Yoichi answered, 二名. Awesome, I thought, Yoichi’s badass enough to answer with the stuff the sensei told us not to use! Then I realized he had dropped the 様. なるほど. 様 is what makes the phrase honorific-polite and therefore strange if you use it on yourself – you’re only supposed to honor others higher than yourself. Get rid of the 様, however, and 一名, 二名, 三名, etc. becomes just another way to count people.

Which leads to the unbreakable rule: Never 様 yourself.

That is unless you have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!

号外 – もうちょっと聞かせてって言ったでしょう?

Matt added a couple of great comments to Wednesday’s post that are worthy of their own post.

Dude, I totally got dinged for calling -te the imperative form the other week. You’d better watch your back.

I just want to summarize the “miru 見る is controversial” thing for non-reading linguists: “miru” does indeed become “misaseru” if you add the “-saseru” ending according to modern rules. The controversy is whether it is acceptable to use this form instead of “miseru”, which is a separate verb meaning “show”. As far as I can tell there are two prongs to the controversy: (1) “misaseru” and “miseru” are equivalent, therefore the former is redundant, therefore it should not be used (you wouldn’t say “shisaseru” either, just “saseru”), and (2) “miseru” itself can be analyzed as “miru” + OJ causative suffix, therefore, “misaseru” is an ugly, modern usurper, functionally and semantically identical but aesthetically and morally inferior, and should be avoided. I’ve seen similar complaints about 着せる vs 着させる.

The counterarguments to the above include (1) to some speakers at least, they aren’t equivalent; everyone has “miseru” in their vocabulary, and the fact that some people also use “misaseru” indicates that for them it performs a function that “miseru” can’t, and (2) whatever, dude, living Japanese isn’t bound by your rules and regulations, and these forms sound fine to me.

Nice. I see how they are semi-redundant, but I also see the logic behind having them both – one is “you show it to me” and the other is “please allow me to see it.” Even in English the latter feels more かたい, which is why I think all three of the links bring up television “announcers”: people on television, especially the MCs for game shows, speak in keigo constantly. They are a dirty petri dish for the evolution of polite new linguistic terms (or at least terms that sound new/strange to everyday folk). Japanese people love arguing about this stuff. I heard lectures about 不思議な日本語 or whatever at three different midyear conferences during my stint as a JET, and at each one the speaker debunked some sort of new keigo usage.

さ、参りましょう. Matt then provided this great parallel which shows that these must be separate terms:

Incidentally the case for non-equivalence is more obvious with “kiseru” vs “kisaseru”. The former means “put clothing on someone” (e.g. a child) and the latter means “cause/allow someone to put clothing on”. Because there is an indirect object the difference is more stark, but then compare to “miseru” vs “misaseru” using a fanciful but parallel definition: “put something into someone’s visual cortex” vs “cause/allow someone to put something into their visual cortex”. The difference, or at least the possibility of some speakers keeping the two conceptually separate, becomes a little clearer.

Future Help

A short follow up to last week’s post on 助かりました. The present tense of this verb is also incredibly useful. The key is to remember that the present tense (助かる or 助かります) is the same thing as the future tense. That let’s you form patterns like this: 〜していただければ、助かります.

~ is any verb (not necessarily a する verb; the して just stands in for all verbs in the example) that you are having done for you. The subject of the ~ is another person. You, the speaker, are the subject of いただければ, which is the conditional tense (?) of いただく.

Looking at it literally we have, “If I could receive you doing ~, I will be helped (in the future).” In normal English, “I would really appreciate it if you could ~.”

A couple examples:

I would really appreciate it if you could wake me up at 8.

It would be great if you could turn it in at some point today.

It would help everyone if you could read in a loud voice. (Threw a 皆 up there to vary the subject a bit.)

You can even use an energetic 助かります! right after you’ve made a request to soften said request. (Effective when combined with a frowny face.) Kind of a reverse airbag expression.

In the future once you’ve been assisted, you can then say 助かりました!

すごい <--> 非常に

Speaking politely in Japanese isn’t just about being deft with keigo. Keigo, which you use constantly and just don’t realize it, is just a small part; basic word choice is also important, as it is in English. There are several different ways to say the same word, and generally the longer the phrase is, the more polite it is. One of the best examples of this is the many different versions of いい. You can power up your いい, but you can also power it down to ええ depending on who you’re with.

Sometimes you need to use an entirely different word rather than a variation of the same word. This is especially true of English. I vividly remember the moment when I learned the definition of the word “asinine.” I was a freshman on the debate team and heard a senior member use it in a speech. When I asked him the definition he said, “It’s a nice way to called someone or something stupid.”

Unfortunately I don’t know how to say asinine in Japanese. I do know, however, that すごい is not going to cut it in important business meetings (just like “stupid”), which is why you should swap it out for it’s more polite cousin 非常(ひじょう)に. すごい, however, can be both adjective and adverb, while 非常に is only an adverb.

When you’re swapping for the adverbial すごい or すごく, you can do a straight-up replacement.    So you can do this swap:

すごく危ない –> 非常に危ない –> 非常に危険

(You might want also consider powering up that 危ない to the compound noun form 危険(きけん), which is the third option up there. I guess this really belongs in another post, but 非常に危険 felt more natural to me, so I went ahead and added it.)

The adjective version of すごい requires you to be more specific with your description; this is a good thing to practice, even in English. So rather than something being “awesome” or “great,” you can say something like 非常に質がいい (it’s of incredibly high quality), 非常にきれいな (it’s incredibly beautiful), or just 非常にいい (it’s incredibly good).

I have to credit my senior year Japanese professor here. Until she noted this easy switch in class, I don’t think I had a grasp of the meaning of 非常に.

On Flogging (Updated)

Also took the parents to the Yokohama Archives of History. Great exhibits, and I’m hopeless at history, so a refresher is always appreciated. In addition to the regular exhibits, they also had a special exhibit on missionaries. Samuel Robbins Brown, one of the missionaries, also wrote his own Japanese textbook titled:


The title went on for two whole pages, and I didn’t bother copying the rest, but it

equally disjointed

Several example pages were also displayed, one of which included this gem:

247. He deserves a flogging.
Ano okata wa tatakare nasarete mo yoroshiu gozarimasu.
アノ オカタ ハ タタカレ ナ井レテ モ ヨロシウ ゴザリマス。

You’ll have to ask Matt about the accuracy of the Japanese phrase (that seems to be the standard thing to do these days – in the comments), but to me it sounds more like the standard phrase ~てもいいです, where the ~ happens to be a passive keigo verb. For example, 電気を消されてもいいです。Or “I don’t mind if you turn off the lights." In the case of flogging, the sentence would be “I don’t mind if you flog that fellow.” I could see either of these phrases making the translational jump to "Go ahead and flog that fellow/turn off that light," but can it take that last step to “deserve”? This could be some Meiji Era madness I’m totally unprepared to understand. I mean, is 井 really supposed to be floating around in there? If so, cool. If not, Nelson laugh. (My initial theory was that this was some aggressive passive tense action. Like, 電気消されてもいいです. Literally "I don’t mind if the lights are turned off." But that would be just wrong…right?)

247 was followed in short order by these:

252. He is drunk every day.
253. His opinion and yours are the same.

What was going on in Yokohama in the Meiji Era?

Update: Adam found a link to the actual book on archive.orghere. You can get a PDF or text version or just flip through pages. Awesome. Check out Adam’s comment to see the ridiculous full title.

Man, I’ve looked through it just a little bit and found this great explanation: "Hashi, a bridge, is distinguished from hashi, chopsticks, by the suppression of the final i in the last, thus hash’, signifies chopsticks." That’s a really nice explanation. This book is going to be awesome.

More awesomeness as I discover it (page numbers refer to PDF):

Pg 18: "The oral language delights in courteous expressions, and one of the most remarkable features of the polished style of speech is the use of long words, and circumlocutions."

Pg 49-50: "The difference between wa and nga is scarcely translateable, but is to be expressed by the tone of the speaker’s voice, rather than by any corresponding words in English. The native ear at once perceives the difference, and a foreigner can acquire the use of these particles, only by practice and much familiarity with the Japanese usage."

Pg 81: After an extensive introduction, the first sentence in the book? "A bow-knot is easy to untie. Hi-za o-ri ni mu-sz-bu to to-ke ya-sz-u go za-ri-ma-s’." The only reason it’s here is because all the phrases are in alphabetical order, which explains 252 and 253 above. 

遠慮:Prometheus:: 怠る:Epimetheus

遠慮, as mentioned previously, means to actively refrain from doing something. This is a nifty way around negative imperatives or having to reply with a very blunt negative refusal.

怠る (おこたる) is another wicked cool Japanese verb that means, fundamentally, not doing something. Unlike 遠慮, which has a relatively positive meaning, 怠る has a negative connotation – it means to inadvertently fail to do something.

The usage pattern is Nを怠る, N being any noun or nouned verb such as 〜するの or 〜すること. (“Nouned,” by the way, is a verbed noun.) I’ve run into it recently while looking at manuals for arcade games. One sentence that comes to mind is 定期的な掃除を怠ると、X – “Failure to undertake periodic cleaning will result in bad consequence X.” I can’t remember what bad consequence X was, but I think it was something along the lines of electrocution…or maybe just malfunction?

定期的な掃除をしないと、is a perfectly valid alternative except for that pesky ない hanging around near the end of the clause. The company providing the manual wouldn’t ever want to imply that the game center purchasing the game, the お客様 as it were, might not do something, so they instead suggest that they might fail to do something.

Japanese is awesome.

遠慮 and 怠る correlate nicely with Prometheus and Epimetheus, as suggested in the title to this post. For those of you unfamiliar with the myth, 1) your parents deserve a smack on the head – what were they making you read when you were a kid? – and 2) this is a good place to start.

Prometheus (literally “forethought”) and Epimetheus (“afterthought”) were given the job of divvying up cool traits to all the animals. Epimetheus went about the task with Japanese efficiency, giving elephants really long trunks, making giraffes super tall, allowing cheetahs to run really fast, and neglecting to save anything for humans. To help his brother, Prometheus made man in the shape and image of the Gods. This angered Zeus, so he denied humans fire. Prometheus stole it anyway.

怠る is perfectly Epimethean. I guess Prometheus didn’t really 遠慮 all that much, but 遠慮 definitely involves forethought, so perhaps this is still a useful analogy.  

Avoiding the ない

I’ve got a short piece on 遠慮 over at Néojaponisme. It’s a rewritten version of one of my first posts  – “How to Say No by Saying Yes”. Don’t forget that you can also make use of お断り as a “Hell no” for comedic purposes.

遠慮 is a useful phrase for avoiding ない, but かねます is a far more blatant dodge. It is a verb ending that attaches to the stem (most often to the verbs できる, する, 致す, and 負う) and means “can’t” or, more appropriately in this case, “unable to”.

So rather than use できない or できません, you can say できかねます which has the same fundamental meaning. This is, as you can probably imagine, an incredibly polite, serious way to say something. Personally I find it hilarious that you can just replace the unpleasant negative ending with one that isn’t negative and make it all better. I’d like to meet the first guy who did that.

(Oda Nobunaga: おい、お前。パイ作ってきてくれ。
Advisor: えっと、あのぅ。パイ、作れなーあっ。作ることができなーあっ。作り...かねます。
Nobunaga: かねますって、一体何なんだ?
Advisor: はっきり言えば、できないということ。
Sound of head falling on tatami.)

In every case, the speaker finds him/herself unable to do something that puts him/her in an unfortunate position. かねます almost has a built in “unfortunately” along the same lines as 〜てしまった as well as a “we ask for your understanding” as in ご了承ください.

An extremely useful set phrase I learned in college is わたくしどもでは決めかねます, which can be used if you’re ever put on the spot to make a decision that is outside of your immediate jurisdiction; it literally means “I alone am unable to make that decision”, but it also sort of implies that you will consult your superiors.

する, 致す, and できる are generally attached to other verbs. For example, 賛成 (さんせい) – そういう考えもあるかもしれませんが、賛成できかねます。 “You may think that, but I (unfortunately) am unable to agree.”  

負う, as ALC tells us, is often used to duck responsibility – 責任を負いかねます.

Very much like 遠慮, かねます is one of those secret code words/patterns that is able to convey a lot of meaning efficiently because everyone knows what it really means. You, too, can tap into all the trappings of かねます, as long as you know when you need to use them.

Underrated Phrase – お願いします

Students of Japanese whine about keigo more than any other part of the language. I wonder if they realize that they use it on a daily basis. お願いします is another one of those ultimate “get used to it” phrases, and it is keigo of the humble variety.

The pattern is pretty easy to remember: お + verb stem + します. The only other thing to remember is that you ONLY USE IT FOR VERBS WHERE YOU YOURSELF ARE THE SUBJECT. A few examples: お返しします (I humbly return something to someone), お断りします (I humbly refuse), お持ちします (I humbly carry something), お借りします (I humbly borrow something).

While お願いします is a form of keigo, it has other more important uses than purely just as a humble request. It is, as we say in English about “please,” the “magic word.” It’s almost more important than please in English – it’s please and thank you all wrapped into one.

This is purely theoretical, but I’m willing to bet that people in the States would be more offended by people not saying “thank you” than by people not saying “please.” I’m equally willing to bet that people in Japan are more offended by a lack of お願いします rather than a lack of ありがとう.

願う (ねがう) means to hope or request. I’m confident that it should always be used following a request to someone equal or above you, and it’s worth tacking on to all requests so you don’t end up looking like an asshole. Like a please or a thank you, it softens whatever request you made and shows that you you truly appreciate the effort that they, in this case, will go through. You can add a よろしく on to the front to reemphasize the request (by drawing it out through additional syllables, which always means “more polite” in Japanese). In the case of people on an equal level you can opt for  よろしく on it’s own; I have a feeling that the Japanese teacher of English I worked with used this with his students as a sort of joke when he handed them assignments. (よろしくね *cruel laughter*)

In conclusion, よろしくお願いします is often grossly misunderstood by beginner/intermediate students, including myself long ago; while it is part of the self-introduction routine here, it’s more important when asking someone to do something for you. Once you understand its role there, you are more likely to understand what it means during a self-introduction.