[NOTE: This top post was completely rewritten on
9/13/2022 10/1/2022! Early replies in the thread probably make little sense any more.]
Americans of a certain age might remember diagramming sentences while learning English grammar in elementary and middle-school. (I was one of those annoying nerds who loved it!)
This thread aims to develop a set of rules for how to diagram Japanese sentences. As far as I know, this has never been attempted before.
While still far from complete, we’ve made good progress. I’ve certainly learned a lot in the process, and I’m more convinced than ever that:
Diagrams like these are helpful for discussing and analyzing the syntax and structure of Japanese grammar.
We will eventually work out all the complexities and come up with a system that should work for pretty much any Japanese sentence.
Please use this thread for any comments or suggestions.
I’m currently driving everyone nuts in the daily senryu thread by trying to create Japanese sentence diagrams to illustrate how my brain parses recent poems (mostly incorrectly!).
This thread aims to develop a set of rules for how to diagram Japanese sentences. As far as I know, this has never been attempted before. We are still learning as we go, so any and all help is still very much appreciated, but we’ve made much progress.
It’s already very clear that sentence diagrams aid in explaining Japanese grammatical concepts to beginners (including “beginners” like myself who have been speaking Japanese for years).
Sentence diagrams are completely jargon free. They only contain the individual words from the original Japanese sentence, as well as lines and various visual symbols to show how the various parts of a sentence relate to each other.
Just as in primary school, creating a sentence diagram can help you to parse a sentence as an aid to understanding. The also make it easier to communicate to others anything that might be confusing. Comparing and contrasting different diagrams can be particularly useful.
Let’s start with a very simple example for the sentence, 本を読みました (“[I] read a book”).
We’d diagram it this way:
We put the original Japanese at the top of the diagram, followed (optionally) by an English transliteration and any notes regarding special nuances.
By transliteration, we mean attempting to mimic the structure of the original while still keeping it somewhat readable (if awkward) in English. We mimic the structure, but not the order (both languages order things differently).
In this case, we’d normally “translate” the Japanese as “I read a book”, but this isn’t precisely correct.
The sentence might be about what the author just did, but it could also be talking about someone else. Maybe their spouse (“He read a book” or “She read a book”). Maybe a neighbor (“They read a book”). It might even mean “It read a book” (perhaps it’s in a story about a pet chimpanzee learning to read). It depends on context.
Japanese frequently uses a so-called “zero pronoun”. We’ve indicated the zero pronoun as
@ in the transliteration.
The zero pronoun acts like “I”, “he”, “she”, “they”, “it”, etc. all rolled into one magic pronoun. Which one it means depends on context.
Further, and even more strangely for Westerners, the zero pronoun is never pronounced out loud nor written down at all! It’s only conceptually there. Magic.
The reason is that, just like English, every sentence must have a subject. It’s just that Japanese often “implies” the subject using the zero pronoun.
In Japanese, “something else goes here” would usually be written as ◯ , as in ◯が読んだ . We’ve used
@ to make typing a little easier. Anything can go in the circle. We surround the
@ in square brackets to indicate that it isn’t literally present in the original sentence, but this isn’t necessary if you are able to type ◯ .
By the way, it’s helpful to actually say まる out loud rather than “zero pronoun” if you need to read a transliteration aloud! In other words, I’d read this transliteration out loud as “‘Maru’ read a book”.
So how do we know whether it was the author or somebody (or something else) that did the reading? It depends on the topic at hand (the surrounding context).
Unfortunately, like many sentences, this example doesn’t explicitly provide a topic for us. The meaning depends entirely on what other sentences came before, or what else is going when the sentence was spoken/written.
Topics provide context. They aren’t always explicitly stated. We will show how to diagram a sentence with an explicitly stated topic later, but this example sentence simply doesn’t have one: we are forced to guess who was doing the reading.
It’s reasonable to guess the author without any further context, so guessing “I” or “me” as the subject is perfectly reasonable. If you want to be accurate, though, the subject is ◯ (the zero pronoun).
Every complete sentence has a subject and a predicate, though. EVERY SENTENCE HAS A SUBJECT AND A PREDICATE.
The subject states who or what performed an action, and a predicate indicates what action is occurring.
In this first example, the subject isn’t stated, so it must be ◯, the zero pronoun. Again, think of it as “I/he/she/it/they” all rolled into one. The subject is a stand-in to represent something, or “Maru” the magic all-in-one-bucket pronoun.
The predicate tells us what action is occurring. In this case, Maru is reading. The predicate for this sentence is the 動詞 (“verb” in English)「読みました」.
Finally we can discuss the actual diagram!
First we must decide the “core” of the sentence: What is the core subject and what is the core predicate?
As discussed, ◯ must be the subject. There isn’t anything else indicating an action, so 読みました must be the “core” predicate in this sentence. Maru is reading. That’s the core of this sentence.
We start our diagram by creating a horizontal line with the primary subject on the left and the predicate on the right. The subject is separated from the predicate with a vertical line extending above and below the horizontal.
Normally, the particle が identifies a subject, so it’s placed immediately to the right of the vertical line. In this case, the が isn’t explicitly present in the original, so we put it in square brackets. In some sentences, the particle might be も or something else instead of が.
Notice how everything on the horizontal line is completely readable: ◯が読みました. This will always be the case, even with much more complex sentences.
Some sentences will have multiple clauses and thus multiple corresponding horizontal lines. Every clause on a horizontal line must always remain complete, readable, grammatical, and understandable clauses in their own right.
When we studied English grammar in primary school, we learned that the subject performs the action indicated in the predicate, while the action is done to an object.
You may have read that English typically uses SVO (subject verb object) ordering while Japanese is SOV (subject object verb) — “I throw a ball” vs. 「私がボールを投げる」.
This makes life difficult for simultaneous translators, but is almost irrelevant when it comes to diagramming Japanese!
In English, the position within a sentence identifies any object, but Japanese objects are identified by the particle を.
This means that objects do not need to reside on the horizontal line as they would in an English sentence diagram. They “hang below” the predicate instead, with the particle を attached to the “stem”, indicating in this case that it’s a book that’s being read.
Japanese grammar is actually pretty logical for the most part, and the particle system is awesome. Particles usually tell you exactly what a word is doing.
We’ve already covered を in this example. It tells you that 本 is an object (目的語). Since it comes right before the 動詞 「読みました」, we know it’s a book that’s being read.
Other particles and related modifiers work similarly:
で usually indicates something is either a means or a location.
の usually indicates possession.
に usually indicates either time or a destination.
と usually indicates a co-participant.
は usually indicates a topic (we will cover this more later).
から usually indicates a starting point/time/date.
まで indicates indicates an ending point/time/date.
All of these things modify something else. We diagram them by hanging the below what they modify, in the same order as they appear in the original sentence.
Let’s diagram 「私は友達と電車の中で面白い本を読みました」
At first glance that seems a lot more complicated, but the core of the sentence is exactly the same! It’s still our old friend Maru reading!
Let’s examine this piece by piece:
Notice that we still have just one horizontal line, one clause, the core. The subject is still ◯, and the predicate is still 読みました. The core clause is still ◯が読みました. Because we have an explicit topic this time, though, we would read the core clause as 「私はよみました」— skipping over the imaginary zero pronoun and imaginary が. Everything on a left to right line should be read in order. The imaginary stuff is still there conceptually, but we don’t need to read it aloud now because we have the topic to tell us what’s going on.
This time, though, we also have a topic indicated by は. The sentence starts with 私は so we know that unless a new topic is introduced, everything that follows has a context of 私, or “me”. English doesn’t often introduce topics like this so it’s a bit awkward, but the most common way to transliterate 私は is “as for me”.
Note that it’s important to think “me” when you see 私は. Subjects, things performing actions, are indicated by が, so only 私が should be thought of as “I”. Topics only supply context, they don’t perform actions.
Note that while we still have a subject of ◯ on the horizontal, our transliteration reads “[I] read a book” instead of “[@] read a book” . That’s because this time we have context, the explicit topic of “me”. We know the correct pronoun in English this time is “I”.
Next is our first modifier. We know we are reading with a co-participant (a friend) because of the particle と. We could actually legitimately create a simpler version of the sentence that read ◯が友達と読みました and it would still be completely grammatical. The 友達と part just provides more information about the reading.
Next comes something interesting: stacked modifiers. If we look ahead a little bit, we can see we are reading “inside” (of something) because of the particle で. ◯が中で読みました.
What are we inside of? A train! It’s the train’s inside we are talking about. ◯が電車の中で読みました. Note that modifiers always hang below what they are modifying, regardless of where they appear in the original sentence!
Finally our last modifier, the 形容詞 (い-adjective)「面白い」. Note that 形容詞 modify nouns directly, without a particle on the “stem”.
And there you have it! The diagram should make it clear that at it’s heart it’s just about someone reading a book. It also makes it visually clear what parts are modifying more.
- All the interesting bits in this diagram
More “interesting sentence” examples
More verb inflections.
Explain the dictionary dot notation for verbs in the predicate
Explain だ・です as a copula vs “hanging” as a politeness nuance for a sentence ending with a 形容詞.
Most IMEs on a computer allow you to type the ◯ by typing
maruthen scrolling/selecting either the kanji or the particular circle you might want. ↩︎