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Basic Japanese Sentence Structure (How-to Form a Simple Sentence in Japanese)

Basic Japanese Sentence Structure (How-to Form a Simple Sentence in Japanese)

Let’s learn how-to form a simple sentence in Japanese! This lesson is 100% friendly to complete beginners to the Japanese language.

Here’s a list of vocabulary terms we will be using for this lesson:

私 (watashi) – “I”
ジュース (jyuusu) – “juice”
飲む (nomu) – “to drink”
テレビ (terebi) – “television, T.V.”
子供 (kodomo) – “children, kids”
見る (miru) – “to see, to watch”
彼女 (kanojo) – “girl, she”
家 (uchi) – “home”
帰る (kaeru) – “to return”
幽霊 (yuurei) – “ghost, apparition, spirit”
壁 (kabe) – “wall”
壊る (kowareru) – “to break”
コンピューター (konpyuutaa) – “computer”
買う (kau) – “to buy”

In order to make faster sense of how a Japanese sentence is constructed, we will be comparing the general Japanese sentence structure to that of the English language’s sentence structure.

English:
S-V-O
SUBJECT – VERB – OBJECT
“I drink juice.”

Japanese:
S-O-V  
SUBJECT – OBJECT – VERB
“I juice drink.”
私はジュースを飲む。
(”Watashi wa juice o nomu.”)

*If we included an indirect object as well as a direct object, it would appear before the direct object, just like it generally does in English!

Similarly to the English language however, this structure can get mixed up when we enter realms where creative license can take effect, e.g. characters in books, movies, television shows. However, Japanese has a sort of upper edge to English for when something like this happens because alongside those words, it has something called particles.

Introduction to Particles

The English language doesn’t have as many particles as the Japanese language in terms of simple sentences, but it does have some. We much more commonly refer to them as prepositions, because they denote something about the word they are right before and that something they denote is a relation to another part of the sentence. For example, when we hear the English particle “from,” we automatically have an idea of what the word right after it is going to be. Maybe a place, a time, or a noun. We also know that it definitely isn’t going to be a verb, because that would be grammatically incorrect.

Particles in the Japanese language work in the same way, except they’re indicative of the word right before it instead of right after it. So technically, they’re postpositions instead of prepositions. Also, like I said earlier, they have a wider range of word types they apply to. For example, the word could be a subject, an indirect object, a direct object, a location, etc.

(*Side-note: This is also one of the main reasons why spaces between words are considered unnecessary in the Japanese language, because particles-which are always in kana while the more meaningful words are usually in kanji, already serve that function of making it easy to tell when a word ends and a new one begins.)

Additionally, we have multiple options for particles to choose from for certain word types. For example:

は (wa) – the topic marker (can also be used to mark the subject)
が (ga) – the subject marker
を (o) – the direct object marker
に (ni) and へ (e) – the destination/location (either can be used but not both at the same time)

The word type that most apparently doesn’t have a particle-or particles, associated with it are the verb actions of the sentence; this is probably because the verb action almost always appears at the end of the sentence or clause so there’s not as much a need to distinguish it with a particle.

Introduction to the Concept of a Topic of a Sentence

So, sentences having a topic as well as a subject is something that is 100% unique to the Japanese language, at least if we’re just comparing Japanese to the English language. And what it is is pretty much just that, the topic of the sentence. If we were to literally translate it, it would be something like “Speaking of X,” or “As for X,” and then whatever the rest of the sentence is would come right after that.

The important thing for us to know now is that the topic doesn’t necessarily replace the subject of the sentence. There can be a sentence with a topic, a subject, and an object.

But in some cases it can replace the subject.
Our very first example was an example of this.

“I juice drink.”
TOPIC/SUBJECT – OBJECT – VERB
私はジュースを飲む。
(”Watashi wa juice o nomu.”)
*The topic marker は is used to mark “I,” which makes it not only the subject but also the topic.

The topic can even replace the object of the sentence.

テレビは子供が見る。
(”Terebi wa kodomo ga miru.”)
“Speaking of television, children watch (it).”
TOPIC/OBJECT – SUBJECT – VERB

*The concept of the topic marker は is actually something that we could talk about for hours, but this is where we’ll stop. It will definitely show up again with its complicated nature as you continue your Japanese studies.

Great, so now with what we’ve learned, we are now capable of forming pretty much any simple Japanese sentence with the help of a dictionary for some vocabulary.

彼女は家に帰りました。
Kanojo wa uchi ni kaerimashita.
“She went home.”
[SUBJECT-LOCATION-VERB]

幽霊を見た。
Yuurei o mita.
“(I) saw a ghost.”
[(SUBJECT)-OBJECT-VERB]

壁が壊れた。
Kabe g kowareta.
“The wall broke./The wall gave in.”
[SUBJECT-VERB]

コンピューターを買う。
Computer o kau.
“(I) will buy a computer”
[(SUBJECT)-OBJECT-VERB]

So, you might have noticed that in a decent amount of those examples, we omitted the subject from the entire sentence for some reason, despite that this whole lesson was about where the word types of the sentence should appear! The truth is doing that makes our speech sound a lot more natural and not like it came straight out of a textbook. How Japanese speakers frequently drop not only the subject of their sentences but also other parts such as the objects is a topic we’ll have to save for another lesson!

Awesome! So now that we’ve learned how to form the simplest kind of sentence in Japanese, we’re ready to move onto snazzier kinds of sentences that involve things like adjectives and verbs that just aren’t in the positive form. The following links below are recommendations on which subjects to learn about next to do just this, or, if you’re feeling adventurous you can find an index of every single one of our video lessons on our official website that makes it easy to find whatever thing you’re trying to learn next!

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