More on だけ

Quick follow-up on my newsletter from last month about the particle だけ (dake).

I mostly discussed the non-“only” meaning of the word, which can be replaced with くらい (kurai) or ほど (hodo), but I do want to mention an aspect of the “only” だけ that I think is subtle and takes a while to fully digest.

And that point is this: だけ does not imply any value judgement or evaluation. I think in effect this means that, on its own, だけ doesn’t inherently express “merely X”/“no more than X.” It’s a more objective delineater…perhaps closer to “exclusively.”

There isn’t much out there about this particular aspect. The closest I can find is this JLPT website, which compares the usages of だけ and にすぎない (ni suginai, no more than/merely). Take a look:

– 「~にすぎない」と置き換え可能。(例)ちょっと手伝った(〇だけだ 〇にすぎない)よ。

– 名詞の場合は、置き換え不可。(例)アルバイトの給料は、ほんの3万円(×だけだ 〇にすぎない)。

– 「~にすぎない」との違いは、「~だけだ」は話者のつまらない・価値が低いという気持ちを含まない。

But let’s look at the example sentences provided in the first point; I think there’s a slight difference:

ちょっと手伝っただけだよ。 (I only helped a little.)

ちょっと手伝ったにすぎないよ。(I did nothing more than help a little.)

The second point is really critical. This is an unnatural sentence: アルバイトの給料は、ほんの3万円だけだ —> You can’t use だけ to say “I only earn 30,000 yen at my job.” Because it has that evaluation/value judgement aspect, you have to use すぎない.

This is made clear in the third point, the critical part of which I bolded above.

So it’s worth being careful with your だけs. I’ll report back if I can think up any other examples. For now, I think it’s worth mentally substituting “exclusively” for “only” to test the implication of a sentence.

文末 Nuggets

My March Japan Times Bilingual piece is up: “Avoiding the subject isn’t such a bad idea in Japanese.”

Inspired by a question on Twitter, I take a look at how to avoid using subjects in Japanese. (Hint: Just ignore them mostly.) Besides just leaving them out, there are a ton of phrases in the language that promote concision, notably a few handy 文末 phrases. I address そうだ and ようだ in the piece, but らしい and みたい are also very effective in similar roles.

They all have subtly different usages, so it can be helpful to look at Japanese definitions. These are all from the wonderful 日本語文型辞典.

2015-03-03 09.44.21

Do your best to ignore my awful translation.


…ようだ 〈推量〉




Expresses a speaker’s impression or estimation-like judgment about something. Presents the impression or external appearance (of something) according to the external appearance (of the thing) or the speaker’s senses and suggests “It kind of seems that way/It looks that way.” Used when a speaker gives an impression or condition (of something) taken from the speaker’s sense of touch, sight, hearing, smell, etc. and when making other observations like that to give the speaker’s general, estimation-like judgment.

The following patterns are used when responding to things that have already been mentioned: 「そのようだ」 and 「そんなようだ」



文末に付いて、話し手がその内容をかなり確実度の高いことがらであると思っていることを表す。その判断の根拠は外部からの情報や観察可能なことがらなど客観的なものであり、単なる想像ではない。 (632)


Appended to the end of sentences to express that the speaker believes the content has a very high level of certainty. The basis for that judgment is objective, such as outside information or something that is observable, not simply imagination.





Added on to 普通体 (direct style) clauses to express that (the clause) is not something you received directly but reported information that came from somewhere else. Does not form negative or past tense constructions.


…みたいだ 〈推量〉


これに対して、他の人から聞いた話など間接的な情報にもとづいた話し手の推量を表すときには「らしい」が使われ、聞いたことをそのまま報告する場合には「そうだ」が使われる。 (562)


Expresses a speaker’s estimation. Means “I can’t tell for certain, but that’s what I believe.” An expression used to give an estimation based on something the speaker directly experienced, such as they saw something, heard something, or smelled something.

Conversely, 「らしい」 is used when expressing the speaker’s estimation based on indirect information, such as something heard from another person. 「そうだ」 is used when reporting something exactly as it was heard.

I’ve been wanting to post something like this for a while. I actually drafted it way back in 2009 (typed out the sections from the 文型辞典) but lost the post to a hard-drive crash and have been too lazy to get it together since.

I think it’s helpful to look at things like this explained in Japanese. The book also has a ton of great example sentences. Definitely a must-own for any students of Japanese who make it beyond the intermediate level.

Still, it’s one thing to know the dictionary definition of these patterns and another thing entirely to put them into practice. The occasional reminder from texts like the 文型辞典 can help us be mindful of the usages. Now get out there and get reporting indirectly and judging subjectively!

Japanese Adverb POWER RANKINGS


I have a new column up on the Japan Times: “Particles create the chemistry of adjectives and adverbs.”

I actually drafted a blog post along these lines (with the whole chemistry analogy) way, way, waaay back in the day (when I was posting thrice weekly) but lost it to a hard drive crash. I remembered it recently because I was thinking about おいしく.

I loved the way that my roommate used the word—I don’t think I’d ever heard it used that way before. A quick Google search shows 4 million plus hits for おいしそうに and only 618,000 for おいしく, so it is somewhat odd/infrequently used. Each of those could technically be translated as “deliciously,” depending on the context.

This all inspired me to put together a quick power rankings of Japanese adverbs. Here you have it:

5. 悔しく
4. 適当に
3. 早く
2. おいしく
1. ちょっと

I assume that 悔しく gets used? It’s one of my favorite adjectives, so I put it on the list. 適当に is another fave, and I’ve written about it in the past. 早く takes third mostly because I was imagining a whiny kid saying 母ーさん、早く〜(HAyaKUUUU). おいしく is wonderful, as I previously mentioned.

I think the reason why おいしく and perhaps 悔しく are so interesting as adverbs is that as adjectives they are more “performative” rather than “descriptive.” 悔しい is what someone says when something sucked. おいしい is what someone says when something is delicious. They are connected equally (if not more so) with the state of the partaker as with that of which is partaken; in other words, how the partaker feels having partaken (in something delicious or a shitty experience).

Other adjectives such as 暑い, 遅い, 静か, etc. are more objective and relate to the object only. Adjectives don’t always work this way in English: Saying “that was delicious,” while equally subjective, feels closer to my bowl of ramen than うまい or おいしい does. …if that makes any sense.

Of course, only ちょっと can be the number one. I love it because of its frequency and variety of use and because it is one exception to the beautiful uniformity of く and に adverbs.

Are there any others that I’m missing?


I don’t even like baseball, but I couldn’t help but follow Yu Darvish’s near-perfect game the other night. Thanks to the ESPN app on my phone, I was notified after six perfect innings, and because I live in the south, not far from Houston, FOX Sports Southwest was showing the game. So I was able to watch the eighth and ninth innings live. At some point I posted on Facebook: “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh – Yu.”

As an isolated post this might have looked like I was quoting Yu or something, so immediately underneath it I provided an explanation: “Nobody. Say. Anything.” When the perfect game was destroyed, I added 残念!

Later on, well after that, one of my former students (a kid I taught when he was in second through fifth grades of elementary school!) commented on the post, and I had a chance to use one of my favorite grammar patterns:



He almost threw a perfect game!

The pattern always reminds me of the time when I nearly finished beating a tanuki to death on the rural roads of Fukushima Prefecture. This is such a fundamental misunderstanding of the word ほとんど that it’s almost embarrassing (my continued misuse of the word “tense” is also embarrassing), and to this day always makes me remember that there is no such thing as perfect translation. Those two phrases above are the best ways to express how close Darvish came to perfection, but they don’t equal each other. They are, however, pretty damn good equivalents.