Learning Grammar from Casual Conversation

Instead of saying, “Excuse me, where is the toilet?” by only saying the keyword “toilet?” many people can divine that you are looking for a toilet.

If you say “coffee,” in a tea room, the waiter/ waitress might ask you hot, or ice.

Thus, casual conversation is commonly conduced via essential words only. If you say “hot coffee” combining “hot” and “coffee” from the start, you could convey more detailed information in advance.

In short, a combination of two or more words is a basic sentence pattern. We will call this “casual sentence patterns” in this lesson. You can learn many different sentence patterns, from casual conversation, to textbook, to honorific (more formal) sentence structures, by only adjusting the basic pattern of “nani kore?” (What this?).

Casual sentence patterns

<nani patterns>

The following is a conversation about purchasing a rice cooker, and contains basic sentence patterns that can be used in many different situations, such as in a restaurant, by just changing some of the words.

nani kore?
何 これ?
(What this?)

This expression is often used in everyday life, and is a basic sentence pattern from which you can understand the structure of Japanese grammar. Please be aware that English and Japanese logic is different. In other words, becoming accustomed to it can be compared to using a different operating system on your PC.

  • The word order in Japanese sentences is flexible
    In English people might say “What this?” but not “This what?” However, in Japanese you can say the reverse: “kore nani?”
    In Japanese, except for action words (verbs) placed at the end of sentences, the word order is flexible. The speaker might place words anywhere to emphasize a word at the beginning or for ease of pronunciation.

Textbook sentence patterns

A slightly more polite expression for “kore nani?” in English would be “What is this?” In Japanese it would be “kore nann desu ka.”

This textbook description would be “kore ha nann desu ka,” adding “ha” after “kore.”

In this lesson, to distinguish them from “casual sentence patterns,” we will call polite expressions “textbook sentence patterns.”

If you picture this sentence structure as a house, it would be as follows. You can express yourself in many different ways by simply changing the words in the squares.

The ground floor section (IF and 2F) is the main thing you want to say, while the basement section (B1) shows its motion or state.

  • In Japanese there are function words
    “ha” after “kore” works as a sign to inform the listener “I’ll speak about ‘this.’” Though “ha” is used in writing, it is pronounced “wa.” We call “function words” for those words (sounds) that follow “name words” (nouns) or “action words” (verbs) which represent a function (this is completely different from the “function word” used for grammatical terms).
  • Words are changed so that they are easier to pronounce
    When “desu” follows “nani,” the reading is changed to “nann.” This is because “nann desu” is easier to pronounce than “nani desu.”
  • “desu” is used for is, am and are
    “desu” is used similarly to is, am and are, but it doesn’t change depending on the subject of the sentence as in English, i.e. “He is / I am / You are….” “desu” is used in all cases. “Is, am, are, was and were” are called auxiliary verbs. In this lesson we refer to them as “action words,” and this includes words classed in grammatical terms as ordinary verbs.
  • Action words come at the end of a sentence
    Action words represent actions, such as running and eating, but we classify “desu” in the action word category, as it represents a conclusion that follows other words. The English action word “is” comes between words, as in, “This is a rice cooker,” but “desu” comes at the end of the sentence.
  • “ka” is added at the end of an interrogative sentence
    In English, when you turn a statement, i.e. “This is a rice cooker,” into a question, “This” and “is” are swapped, and the question mark is added at the end of the sentence. In Japanese you only have to add “ka,” a function word representing a question, at the end of a normal statement. If “ka” is omitted, a “?” is added in writing.
  • The size of the character is not changed
    In English, the first letter at the beginning of a sentence or a name (proper nouns) is a capital letter. In Japanese, no changes are made to the character’s size.
  • You can omit what you know
    If you are pointing to an electric appliance, you don’t have to say “kore ha” since the context is understood without saying it.

    In English a subject (I, you and suchlike) is required in a sentence, but in Japanese it is rather odd to say words that others can understand from the situation.

    If you switch “nani” in 1F for rice cooker, it becomes an interrogative sentence “kore ha suihannki desu ka.” This is used to ask whether the word following “kore ha” is correct.