Confusion on a WK example sentence


The doctor told me that I have advanced cancer.

I’m puzzled as to why the particle に is used here to mean “the doctor told me” and not “the doctor was told”. Can someone help me out? I’m sure it’s probably me that’s wrong, not the sentence. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

For passive verbs, に marks the doer


The key here is the conjugation of the verb 言う: it’s in the passive form. Passive verb tense means that whatever action is happening, it’s happening to the subject, and not by it. Here’s a link with some more details:

Basically, the subject in this sentence is unspoken but implied by context, and the doctor is acting on the subject by telling them they have advanced cancer, and that’s why に is used.

(also, oops, got leebo’d)


@rmizuno, @fiertia thank you so much!!! I haven’t studied passive verbs yet, mostly because they terrify me.

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This is also a case of a natural translation over a literal one. We just don’t say “it was said by the doctor that…” all that often.


In English, that is. In Japanese, the reverse is true - saying お医者さんは私に(何々)と言った would be downright odd, if not ungrammatical. In Japanese, you construct sentences from the viewpoint of the person you empathise with more - in this sentence, it’s constructed from the doctor’s viewpoint, which is odd given that the recipient of the action is “me”, the person who, by definition, you empathise with the most.


Yeah, I would wager they don’t break out long English sentences about their doctor when speaking Japanese ever :wink:


Whoa! Wait, really? How have I studied Japanese for freaking years and no one has ever mentioned that? Can you explain more or a share a link?

I minored in Japanese without realizing this, and didn’t have a grasp on it until I came to the country this year.

In Japanese, situations where a passive sentence is more natural, and situations where an active sentence is more natural, are often reversed from English. (Correspondingly, situations where a transitive or intransitive verb would be used are also switched.)

It’s something you’ll just pick up from reading and listening, as well as being familiar with passive constructs (conjugations and particles), but keep your eyes/ears open for it. When translating, it often makes more sense to swap the passive and active according to what would be most natural in the same situation in English.

Hence the grammatically literal meaning of “I was told by the doctor …” becoming “The doctor told me…” in the sentence above.

The empathetic angle to when to use each makes a lot of sense. Above, you don’t really want to stress the doctor’s role in the situation, as it’s personally affecting news.

There are some other strange examples that fit along with this, though. Ex. 見える, 聞こえる, and わかる all being intransitive, even though English would render the same thoughts as “I can see it,” “I can hear it,” and “I understand it.” (Active and transitive.)

And yet, a phrase like よく使った英語表現 (frequently-used English phrases), uses the active voice to emphasize the people using it, rather than the phrases themselves. If you transliterated the natural, passive English phrase “frequently-used,” it would become よく使われた instead, but that’s very unnatural Japanese.

The two languages just don’t really share logic about when a subject or object should be emphasized, or when active vs. passive voice is used.

Edit – Or how about 届く? In English, we’d say, “Did you get a notice from your bank?” But in Japanese, the same question would be 「銀行からお知らせが届いた?」, literally “Did a statement from your bank get delivered?” Technically this is still active in Japanese (since 届く has a meaning of “to be delivered” or “to arrive” and doesn’t take its passive form), but the choices between transitive vs. intransitive and subject vs. object are reversed. Regardless, if I were to translate it, I’d probably go with “Did you get a notice …” to reflect the more natural wording in each language.


Google’s not throwing up any results that go into great detail, but this Wikipedia article does give a brief outline. However, the grammar dictionary frequently highlights cases where the use of a specific subject or object would be weird for a given verb or structure.

I think you’ll most frequently coming accross the idea when comparing uses of 行く/来る versus the uses of go/come. For example in English, you’d call someone on the phone and say “Do you mind if I come around to your place?”, but in Japanese, the use of 来る there would be ungrammatical - you are talking about yourself moving from your current location to their location, so you need to say 行く.


I think you’ll most frequently coming accross the idea when comparing uses of 行く/来る versus the uses of go/come.

Gosh, yes, that makes so much sense now! I have often gotten confused by those two and how they are used, but I never knew WHY it confused me.

@IanD Thank you for a detailed but not confusing explanation, which is not always an easy thing to pull off!

Really, I just appreciate everyone on the WK forums and how even minor questions like this are answered with warmth and support. :heart:


Thank you for linking that Linguistic Empathy article! I didn’t know that linguistic empathy was a term different from the common usage of the word “empathy”, so it made your previous statement and @IanD’s explanation a lot more understandable.

From the article:

“I” is an omitted subject in the example sentence, right? And the subject is the most important part of the sentence (even if it’s omitted), so that’s why it’s not “お医者さんは言いました。” ? Weird, but I think I get it.

@KinakoHime thanks for asking this question; passive verbs are something I need to work on a lot!


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