How to know the subject of this sentence?

This WK example sentence:

学院では主に科学と数学の科目を教えています。

is translated as:

The academy mainly teaches science and mathematics.

I thought it would mean:

I teach mainly science and mathematics at the academy.

The reason I assumed this is because 学院 is marked with で, so it’s not the subject, and 科学と数学の科目 is marked with を, so it’s not the subject either. So where’s the が then? It must be missing, so the sentence must be about me! :smiling_imp:

Where’s the flaw in my reasoning? If it’s the academy that teaches, then why doesn’t the sentence say 学院は?

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I think both the provided translation and your translation are possible, depending on the context.

I’d translate the sentence as “In the academy, they mainly teach science and mathematics”, where “they” could mean the speaker as well

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I think the subject is actually marked with では here, which is a combination of で and は, where the は highlights some contrast (for example, it could teach other things as well, but it mainly teaches science and mathmatics). I am not the best at grammar, so I might be wrong, but this is just my assumption :sweat_smile:

If that is the case, my translation would be the same as trunky’s

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Got you. So if I understand correctly, the subject is missing, and whether the missing subject is filled by “I” or not depends on the context. Because so often the missing subject is “I”, I assumed this is the case by default, but I shouldn’t assume it.

I know there are different approaches to interpreting particles, but so far I’ve found Cure Dolly’s approach of logical particles (the subject is always が) the most useful for my understanding, even if the method is imperfect.

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I’m not an expert anyway, so you should always be sceptical about my explanations :joy:

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The sentence does say 学院は it’s 学院では which is a conjugation of で and は and is used to distinguish a place from other places “As for in this academy they mainly teaches…”
Human Japanese has a very good explanation of では.

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Yeah; it could also be “we” (eg if the academy principal is showing prospective students around), or in the right context “he” or “she”, if we’re already talking about some specific teacher who e.g. does two days at this academy teaching maths and science and two days at a university teaching engineering. And so on. Standalone sentences are tricky sometimes because you have to make a guess based on experience about what the most plausible context and subject is.

I think what tips this one away from “I/he/she” and towards “they/we/the academy” is the では, which implies a contrast. For the “the academy/we/they” subject the contrast is between “us, as a science focused school” and “other schools which teach a broader curriculum or focus on arts subjects”. For “I/he/she” where the subject is an individual teacher, the contrast would be more between “what I do at this school” and “what I do at some other school” or “what I taught at my previous job” – which is fine, but it needs more context to set it up, so it doesn’t come so readily to mind for a standalone sentence.

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I’m a bit confused by my lack of confusion. Isn’t では just a composition of で (instrumental/locative) and は (topic marker)? To me the sentence makes intuitive sense when parsed that way, but maybe it’s more than the sum of these parts and I’m missing a nuance?

For me it’s 学院 [academy] + で [we’re going to talk about what takes place there] + は [and it’s the topic of this sentence].

Is there more to it than than?

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I would say it is the “place” で, not the “instrumental” で, but otherwise, yes, it’s particle で plus topic/contrast marker は.

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Ah yeah, I tend to conflate the two in my mind, like 学院で勉強する is “using the academy I study” but that’s just because I always try to regularize the grammar as much as possible in my head.

I think we had a similar discussion a few months ago regarding を meaning “over a distance” which I still considered to be the object marker and no a special case.

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[Note: For ease of reading, I’m going to drop the use of ‘spoiler’ tags. Consider this a general spoiler for this following comment. :sweat_smile: ]

This is a good example of a sentence where the idea of the ‘zero pronoun’, ∅, and the ‘null subject’, ∅が, as popularized by Cure Dolly as ‘zero ga’, can be especially useful. So, the sentence could be augmented as so:

学院では (∅が) 主に科学と数学の科目を教えています。

Now, often the ‘default’ subject in a sentence with a null subject will be ‘I’, or 私 in Japanese. But keep in mind that the zero pronoun – the ∅ in ∅が – is really a placeholder for any noun, and 私 is just a typical ‘default value’ for it. But really, the ∅ depends heavily on context. In other words, the surrounding information that has already been established and understood between the speaker and the listener.

Therefore, the sentence could be translated in different ways, depending on the context. And it is useful to note that English can also use the zero pronoun, as is often done in colloquial conversational speech. (For reference, check out Zero (linguistics) - Wikipedia) So, with that in mind, we could construct an English sentence that also uses a zero pronoun in place of the subject, like so:

At the academy, ∅ mainly teach science and mathematics.

You could substitute ‘I’, but you could also just as easily substitue ‘they’, as in a very generic ‘they’, as in ‘whoever it is who teaches at the academy’, rather than necessarily some specific ‘they’, as in ‘those specific teachers that you can see over there’. This generic ‘they’ could even be so generic as to include the possibility of ‘they’ meaning (or at least including) ‘I’. In that sense, this ‘they’ could take the place of the ∅ pronoun, serving essentially the same purpose, and the sentence could be made less colloquial/casual and more ‘correct’/formal:

At the academy, they mainly teach science and mathematics.

So, I would say this is the most ‘accurate’ translation, as @trunklayer has already answered. (I’m basically just elaborating on some possible reasoning behind why I agree with trunklayer’s answer.)

Now, as for natural sounding English, I think that’s the motivation for the WK translation:

The academy mainly teaches science and mathematics.

In this sentence, you can make it ‘match’ the Japanese sentence by interpreting ‘The academy’ as meaning ‘The teachers at the academy’. Such use of a whole to refer to a part, or a part to refer to a whole, is called synecdoche (a form of metonymy). Following this synecdoche, some straightforward transformations lead to the use of a ∅ pronoun as a null subject, and this null subject naturally transforms into ∅が in Japanses, as so:

The academy
→ The teachers at the academy
→ Those who teach at the academy
→ At the academy, those who teach
→ At the academy, they
→ At the academy, ∅
→ 学院では ∅が

Hence how

学院では (∅が) 主に科学と数学の科目を教えています。

can be ‘naturally’ translated (via synecdoche to finesse the null subject ∅が) as

The academy mainly teaches science and mathematics.

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It is で for the place where things are happening and the topic marker は, however it’s referred to as では and it has a particular nuance to it. The nuance here is (as been mentioned by @pm215 ) that this conjugation implies a contrast, something that is special/unique/distinguishable to/about the place you’re talking about compared to other places (which aren’t being mentioned, hence the nuance, it’s subtle but it’s there).

I don’t think of that as a nuance of では – it’s は doing the same thing it always does, being a topic/contrast marker; here it’s attached to the で for place, so it’s a contrast of places.

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I see. Makes sense.

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