Please help me create Japanese _sentence_ diagrams for beginners

Not chocobits, but personally they look like something like this in my mind. It’s a diagram of what qualify what. The higher you go, the closer to the main clause you get, with the main verb at the top.







それが決して難しくは無いんです (variant)




故郷の駅で外した鼻ピアス (variant)


One thing I miss in your sentence diagram is that they don’t show the head-final left branching nature of Japanese. It’s was a big epiphany for me when I realized at some point that a word can never ever qualify what’s before it (with some caveat, like inversion in casual speech). But I’m not a beginner anymore, so it’s hard to know what’s the most useful for them.

Ans also, yeah in the end there are always a tons of difficult details at the tactical level, like how to treat topics marked by は, should we try to always explicit invisible が, how to deal with stuff like 難しはない or んです… This is hard and I’m not sure what’s best.


If I understand you correctly, I’m afraid I disagree. Please review the examples in the top post after my most recent edit to see if it makes more sense. I still need to create the step-by-step diagrams to make it clearer (vs. the current wall of text) but hopefully it’s still reasonably clear.

What you’re calling the “head-final” I’m calling the “core” of the sentence. It’s possible to have extremely complex sentences with multiple clauses, but only one can be “core”. I do agree that the diagrams need to make the “core” obvious, and everything else should branch from it.

I’d also call what you’ve drawn sentence diagrams, not tree diagrams with noun-phrases and verb-phrases indicated. I thought tree diagrams looked like what was discussed in this thread. I find these difficult to understand because of the additional grammar jargon.

I should probably stop harping about how much of a beginner I am. This point, for example, I think I learned in 1977. I still consider myself very much a beginner with Japanese and grammar in general, but everything is relative. (I know a lot more than most of my relatives on the US side.)

That’s a bit of a tall order for me yet. I have gotten a much better perspective on describing and using parts of English speech since I began studying Japanese, but I’m not at a level where I can deconstruct Japanese sentences (although the examples you gave aren’t too crazy). It doesn’t help that grammar wise I’m still a bit below comfortably passing N4. I’ll defer to others more experienced, as any attempts I make will betray my novice :slight_smile:

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Hey, this was cool!

Diagrams just helped me explain a pretty nuanced point from this senryu:


Please see this post in the daily senryu thread for details (twirl open the grammatical discussion).

All of that would have been much harder to describe without the visuals, I think.

I’d love it if folks here that have corrected me so much in the past would review to see if I’m off base. I think I’ve got it right, though: the difference between の and は at the end is quite interesting.

I’m on the train and I don’t want to type a full response on my phone, but to get things rolling, how would you translate the full sentence with the の instead of は?

Feel free to do a more natural translation, i wanna understand how you interpret the two the meanings

[Edit. Forgot to escape the angle brackets, darn it!]

With の I was reading it as “wanting-to-lend-a-cat-a-hand-level now-boredom”. That is, an entire noun phrase where everything modifies the final noun, (ひま).

With a sentence fragment like this, I was interpreting it as effectively saying “<adjectival modifiers> boredom [exists]”.

But I think the core sentence is actually a copula. It’s coupling “now” and “<adjectival modifiers> boredom”.

Very hard to express without the diagrams!

With diagrams: The の version in my head, the subject was “boredom” and looked like this:

While the actual は version had a subject of [@] (standing in for “now”) and uses a copula:

Since it’s just a fragment, the 今の暇 version could also have been a copula like:

◯ [が] 暇 [だ]

Since it’s just a fragment, we have to supply something to turn it into a sentence. My brain wanted to add “exists” (an “action”, an “A does B” sentence), though, rather than the copula version above (an “A is B” sentence). I think a Japanese native would tend to assume the だ version even without the explicit topic (though I’ve no proof of this).

With は, it has to be a copula, and making 今 the explicit topic emphasizes now over boredom (imo).


Interestingly, I don’t think there’s any way to capture this difference in natural-sounding English. You have to use the stilted “transliteration” forms in the diagrams.

In English, we’d say “I’m so bored right now I could lend a cat a hand”. We would automatically add an explicit subject and create a complete sentence.

After further thought, I guess we’d change the emphasis purely with word order, “I’m so bored right now …” vs. “Right now I’m so bored”. This has a similar nuanced difference to me between the の and は Japanese versions.

right. first up some pedantry: 暇 means “free” or “having nothing to do” not boredom. I agree that it’s expressing boredom in this case though, so I’ll use that when it makes the english more convenient.

on to the の case:

I think you’ve got the overall meaning, and as you’ve pointed out, it’s a sentence fragment that is a noun phrase. if you want to make it a complete sentence and you don’t have further context, the natural assumption is that there’s an implicit だ, but I don’t necessarily think you need to.

basically, other than trying to force がある into the picture, I broadly agree with your analysis.

and the は case:

this I disagree with (here we go again :stuck_out_tongue:) because it has an entire unrelated clause infront of it (and 猫に手を貸したいくらい今 doesn’t function as a clause).

compare with 今は猫に手を貸したいくらい暇(だ). in this case you’re emphasising the 今 by putting it first (and therefore making it the topic).

this I also disagree with. if we take the sentence 暇(だ), it’s a “I am free” (私が暇だ). the implied subject is “I” not “now”. 今 is an adverb here.

oither than those two points, I think I agree with what you’ve said.

nothing subtle about it. one’s a noun phrase describing the boredom of the moment, the other is a sentence describing how bored you are right now.

one of them describes the concept, the other one describes your current state.

if you don’t have context telling you what the verb is, だ is always the safe assumption since with anything else you’re effectively making half the sentence up.

“the (my?) current boredom” vs “I am bored right now” is the best I can think of at the moment. it’s a bit harder once you add the bit about the cat…

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Are you reading the senryu as three stanzas?

I was interpreting the final stanza (今は暇) as standing on its own.

Trying to use an English word in place of a Japanese word is difficult at best, but I do believe “boredom” most closely captures the meaning of 暇 in this context.

it’s still a single sentence, and should be interpreted as such

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I’m not so sure. Though I now realize that I should diagram it as two sentences with my interpretation (the first two stanzas being one sentence, and the last stanza being the second)

why? the haiku format is generally single sentences, and I don’t know how you’d make 猫の手を貸したいくらい a standalone sentence.

given how well 今は暇 completes the sentence both grammatically and semantically, I don’t see any reason to assume it’s separate.

I’ve no idea if that’s actually true. Sometimes they seem to contain independent thoughts, other times not. Just like any poetry, I’m not sure it’s so clear cut.

Regardless, your reply confused me into thinking something like the following, but I now think it’s a complete distraction, and I withdraw the thought.

My withdrawn thought for completeness

I was thinking something like this:

But is くらい a 形容詞 (can it end a sentence)?

I’m still trying to understand your reply, regardless.

I don’t understand how the は could possibly be anything but a topic marker here.

Right. Total agreement: the cat-hand-lending-level modifier has to be modifying “boredom”, not “now”.

This is precisely how I was interpreting the sentence originally (and precisely how I diagrammed it). You’ve just moved the 今は to the front rather than just prior to 暇. The は is still a topic marker in either location, no?

Is there a grammatical rule that the は topic identifier has to be at the beginning of the entire sentence? I thought like any particle-identified modifier it just needs to come before the thing it’s acting on.

Is there any syntactic, semantic, or grammatical difference at all between





the topic has to be part of the main clause and is almost always at the very start (with some exceptions). I can’t really demonstrate it, but I can point you to linguistics papers. it’s actually at the start in most languages, even ones that don’t have topic markers.

I guess a relevant question here is where would you put the subject? is it 今は私が暇 or 私が今は暇

syntactically, clearly yes - the order of the words is different.
semantically, no - but then the topic isn’t really a semantic thing anyway.
grammatically, yes because the syntax is different.

in terms of nuance and emphasis though, can you not feel a difference?

I dunno. I’m less confident with this particular example, but it still feels more contrastive than topic-like to me

I’d say that it would most naturally come after the topic.

But how is that relevant? The subject is the zero pronoun in the original sentence. It’s only conceptual, not explicitly present, so it can still come after the topic and before 暇:

猫に手を貸したいくらい今は (◯が) 暇

Heh. I meant I would draw a syntax diagram identically even though the word order differs.

Honestly, the only difference I feel is the delay of a punchline, with no difference in meaning.

You’ll come around! :laughing:

You convinced me that は between a 動詞 and a suffix like ない that modifies that verb root is solely contrastive. But that isn’t the case here.

Topics are also contrastive: they provide explicit context (ruling out other context).

I don’t understand how は in this sentence is not a topic marker.

Other languages are irrelevant. I only want to diagram Japanese sentences, which have topic markers. I believe that allows them to be moved around (just as the に and を modifiers in this sentence could have their order swapped with no change in meaning).

it’s a question of how you parse it.

if the subject is first, 今 is not a topic. if it comes after, 今 is the topic.

both are natural depending on what you want to express. in the first case 今は is very strongly contrastive (it can’t be the topic since it’s no longer part of the main clause).

in the second, it’s less so and feels more neutral since there’s more room for ambiguity (could be aiming for contrast, probably just the topic).

if the syntax is different why is the syntax diagram the same :stuck_out_tongue:

I’m not talking about overall meaning though. I’m talking about the feel. whether a は marked clause is a topic or not has no effect on the meaning anyway.

probably not. we’re coming at this from different directions. you’re saying “は is the topic marker, it’s は marked, therefore it’s the topic”. I’m saying “does interpreting this as a topic add anything meaningful to the analysis, or does it confuse things”.

I don’t think calling it a topic aids in understanding, and I think it makes the syntax diagrams harder to interpret (really in this case I only think it matters because it changes the diagram so much) :person_shrugging:

topics are not contrastive. は can (and often is) contrastive, irrespective of whether it’s marking a topic. the confusion comes from the fact that は can do both. も can also mark a topic, and it’s explicitly inclusive.

in other words, 今日はかわいい isn’t insulting because the topic is contrastive, it’s insulting because は might be being used contrastively. 今日もかわいい is fine not because 今日 is no longer the topic (it still is), but because も is inclusive.

my point is more along the lines that humans generally tend to put the topic at the start of the sentence irrespective of culture

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Before I get to the rest I’d like to understand what you are saying here. Today is … cute?

Ah! Subject is something like あなたの服

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just あなた (the sentence means today you are cute) ((it could be your clothes are cute depending on context of course))

Today you are cute (but the other days you are not!), it’s the classic faux-pas :smile:
In the senryuu I guess the 今は stresses the fact that the author is really bored now, in their old days, probably compared to their life before retirement or something.


I’m still a bit confused that everyone is giving me examples of は as a topic marker. If the argument is that は is not a topic marker in this sentence, then please provide similar examples where は following a noun didn’t identify a topic.

I understand the difference of this latest as the difference between “today [you] are cute” and “today too [you] are cute”. Today is the topic either way if I understand correctly.

The former is less contrastive but to me is still contrastive in the sense that we are talking about today, not any other day, thing, or person.

今日もかわいい is far more constraining than just かわいい (equivalent to 「(◯が) かわいい (だ)」).

I still don’t get how 今 is not a topic in the senryu sentence or why that seems confusing.

Would it be a topic if the sentence in its entirety was 今は暇?

Put simply, I think word order is far less important in Japanese than in English, expressly because of particles acting as functional markers.

I do agree that modifiers come before what they modify, but feel the topic is modifying the clause 暇だ in this sentence (with a zero pronoun as subject). Seems perfectly reasonable to me.

EDIT: Back on a real keyboard.

I know you understand this, but for completeness, the sentence does not mean that.

The concept “you” is not present anywhere in the sentence. It can only be implied by context. The sentence could be about a dog or about a lamp.

The subject in this sentence is the zero pronoun.

Yes, exactly. The senryu relates to a common expression about being so busy you could use a hand from the cat.

I believe the use of は subtly emphasizes 今 more than 暇 (compared to replacing は with の, for example) — expressly because 今 becomes the topic!

This is a contrastive/constraining/specifying usage of は (the author is bored right now, not some other time) but that doesn’t make “now” any less of a topic to my way of thinking.

What is the disagreement?

Does the disagreement come down to “the topic must always be the first thing in a sentence”? If so, that should be possible to disprove with an example if I’m correct (this puts the onus on me, but I’d like to ensure this is the disagreement).

Or is it that a は-identified topic marker must always follow a complete clause? Again, the onus would be on me to disprove this.

Or is it that は after a noun (or something nominalized) doesn’t always identify a topic. If that’s the case, the onus is on others to provide a counter-example.

Another example of a non-topic word before は?

I just came across this sentence on Kitsun’s website (apparently from an anime or manga):

これで少しは もつでしょう
That should hold for a while

(I’m not certain, but there appeared to be a space after the は so I included it. I don’t guess it matters).

The core sentence is 持つでしょう (“[that] should hold”). 少し qualifies the core sentence (basically adding “[for] a little while”). I’d interpret これで as meaning: “this as a means”. The は seems to emphasize the constraining “for a little while”.

The question is whether this は introduces a topic or is purely a “contrasting は”.

In my opinion, this does appear to be an example of は solely performing a contrasting/clarifying/qualifying function. I’d agree that it doesn’t introduce a topic.

I think 少し is 副詞(ふくし) (an adverb) in this sentence, not 名詞(めいし), though, so I don’t think it invalidates my “は-marked nouns are always topics” theory, though.

Note that this sentence “works” without the は: 少しもつでしょう is still grammatical (just like 難しくない vs. 難しくはない did before). The adverb 少し modifies the verb 持つ.

But in the original sentence, 今暇 doesn’t work at all without a particle between the two nouns (は was used in the original, and my mind went to の). That’s part of the reason why I think it must be a topic.

Again, let’s stick to evidence based reasoning. Can we put the core of the disagreement into words?

My argument synopsized

I believe that は following a noun (or something nominalized to act as a noun) always identifies a topic. I can be convinced otherwise if shown a counter-example, but this has been my interpretation for the examples thus far.

In conversation, modifiers don’t always precede what they affect (we sometime utter less than complete thoughts):

A: 投げた

B: <confused look>

A: ボールを

The complete sentence was (◯が)ボールを()げた (Maru threw a ball), but A-san left too much out initially, confusing his audience, so he fleshed out the sentence. Note that the actual subject is still implied.

I believe this is similar to the senryu

貸したいくらい <pause>

I’ve added an explicit pause, but this is precisely how I interpret this poem. The topic marker comes late, which is unusual, but it’s still before the clause it’s affecting: 「(◯が) (ひま) (だ)」.

Further thought

Re-reading the recent debate, I’m trying to isolate the disagreement.

We seem to agree that (ひま) is the core sentence fragment. I initially “filled in the blanks” as:「暇(がある)」, but agree that 「(ひま) (だ)」is perhaps even simpler and more likely.

Is the disagreement coming down to the difference between these two diagrams?




If so, this seems a small difference visually or semantically. It comes down to whether the topic affects the entire clause or just the one half of the things being coupled in the copula (the B in an “A is B” clause).

Is there even a difference? I can see both sides:

In one sense, 今 is only modifying 暇 and nothing else.

On the other hand, nothing else is actually present in that clause. The zero-pronoun subject and copula are implied.

It seems the difference between “Now, it is boring” and “It is now boring” (which makes me want to take a nap!)