Question from the book "Unlocking Japanese" and the treatment of grammatical subjects


#1

The book I’m reading through Unlocking Japanese has a fairly interesting take on the mechanics of Japanese subjects. It takes direct contrast of the Tae Kim “there is no subject” approach with a “there is always a subject, but it might not be explicitly stated approach”. Basically, the theory goes X が is in every sentence, but it might be invisible.

私はアメリカ人です => 私は(私が)アメリカ人です would be a redundant but more specific way to state I am American. Additionally, it maps more directly to the super literal translation of “as for me, I am American”.

With that context given, the book brings up this old Tae Kim example

クレープが食べたい

The book implies that I is ostensibly the subject of that sentence, which leads to the common “I want to eat crepes” translation. The book then implies that this is a mistake, as が always marks the subject. If that’s the case, then what translation is the author foreseeing for the above sentence? “Crepes want to eat”? I skimmed ahead to see if this is resolved later, but it seems like the author did a great job setting up a point here, but the omitted the conclusion.

At any rate, does anyone have insight into this? Thanks!


#2

Actually, I think the question might get answered after all! I was skimming for a match of that exact sentence, but found one that was close enough. I’ll attempt to explain it.

Basically, in “クレープが食べたい” the tai form of a verb makes it behave like an i adjective. Hence, the direct translation of this is The crepe is (make me want to eat it able).


#3

I’m sure the more advanced folks will have a far more accurate response, but I would read that as:

(私は)クレープが食べたい. Crepes are the subject, it’s the topic that was left unstated.

Alternately, from my Japanese teacher, が is used as a way to be more explicit.
“I want to each something, and particularly crepes”. This still falls neatly into the above example where the topic is what was left unstated.


#4

I think Tae Kim’s approach makes more sense linguistically.

The “Unlocking Japanese” way of explaining it looks like it’s intended to make it easier to grasp for beginners.

If that’s the case, then what translation is the author foreseeing for the above sentence?

In English, the translation would still be “I want to eat Crepes.”

Just because the subject is implied in Japanese doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and doesn’t need to be translated. :slight_smile:

Crepes want to eat

By contrast, the Japanese for this would be クレープは食べたい。Scary crepes!

ETA: Just to be explicit, if you want to use subject/objects in your approach to grammar, “Crepes” is the object of the original sentence when it’s translated into English. I (the subject) is unstated. Crepes are absolutely not the subject, because they are the recipient of the action (in this case, a desire to eat), and not the thing doing it.

ETA2: It can be useful to look at Tae Kim’s blog post on this, too. http://www.guidetojapanese.org/blog/2007/09/03/repeat-after-me-there-is-no-such-thing-as-the-subject/


#5

I wonder if it has something to do with desire itself…

Such as with ほしい you generally learn to say クレープが欲しい

This article mentions at the bottom that を OR が can be used with たい forms but generally が is used.

Interesting question, though.


#6

I’m not going to pretend to be an grammar expert here, but in my experience I’ve found that trying to shoehorn certain Japanese constructs into English grammar just makes it worse when you start seeing it used a lot more loosely than you would expect. は and が is definitely one of those.

As @Amejanai mentioned above, が adds emphasis to what came just before it, and that’s how I look at it too. On the other hand, は is more like bringing up something you want to talk about, but the emphasis is on what you say about it.

I’d also be aware that this sentence is ambiguous without context and does not singularly mean that the crepes want to eat:
クレープは食べたい

For one thing, you would find the たい form used when you are speaking for yourself, so I’m not even sure people would ever parse that sentence as “crepes want to eat”. 「EDIT: Well unless you are casually asking someone else if they want to eat it クレープは食べたい?] However you could find it in a conversation like this:
A: アイスクリームが食べたいの?
B: ううん、でもクレープは食べたい。


#7

As @feanor said, shoehorning into English can end up confusing things. There’s not always a direct english equivalent, especially one that can be used consistently.

食べたい isn’t a verb (“want to eat”).
It’s an adjective (roughly, “wanted for eating”).

クレップが食べたいです。 "Crepe is wanted (for eating)."
私はクレップが食べたいです。 “Regarding me, crepes are wanted (for eating).”

So yes, クレップ is the subject.

Technically, を should not be used with -たい form, because を is for marking the object of a verb, and -たい form isn’t a verb. Nonetheless, people do sometimes use を instead of が.

This is from 80/20 Japanese:
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#8

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