Resources for super grammar nerds

Just wanted to share two really amazing resources I got recently:
(please respond if you have some serious grammar resources you’d like to share…)

“The Structure of the Japanese Language” Current Studies in Linguistics vol. 3,
Kuno, 1973, MIT Press

This is the bible of Japanese linguistics in English. So much so that every current paper, PhD dissertation, etc i have seen still has this in the bibliography. Linguists are still discussing the theories and examples in this text. Written by Prof. Kuno who (i think) was at MIT with Chomsky.

The stated goal of this book is a deep discussion of the syntax and semantics of Japanese with a focus on elements that contrast with English (so doesn’t spend time talking about stuff that works the way you would expect as an English speaker). And also, as stated by the author (and i’m paraphrasing), “Many textbooks tell you when you can use a certain grammar construction. I want to tell you when you can’t, and why.”

Pros: Generally really next level shit. A much deeper and nuanced discussion of many of the grammar points covered by most textbooks. For example, the chapter in this book on は vs が is the clearest I have encountered. Also many things are discussed that aren’t even touched on in most texts, i.e. what clauses can be relativized out of, trans-clausal reordering, scope of anaphora, particle drop, dual が vs に constructions etc. All with very clear explanations and tons of examples. This book really is the source text for almost all current Japanese textbooks, so if there has ever been anything in a textbook that you felt wasn’t explained well or was being glossed over, the “real” discussion of it is in here.

Cons: This book is written at a maybe upper-undergraduate level so some (younger…teenage, etc) learners of Japanese might find the presentation style intimidating.
So first, I don’t really know if this book will help you speak better Japanese. Learning about a language is different that knowing how to speak a language or understand a language of course. It’s more for if there has been something that has always driven you crazy about how Japanese works, this can help you understand it in a clearer way. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, this book was written for an audience of English speaking learners and teachers of Japanese and English speaking linguists so it DOESN"T present Japanese grammar as it is naturally taught and understood in Japan.

But that’s where the second book comes in:

“The History of the Japanese Language”, Frellesvig, 2011, Cambridge Univ Press

This book begins with a complete description of Old Japanese (Nara period) from the oldest extent written sources. Full phonology, morphology, grammar, etc. It then traces all of the changes that took place through Early Middle Japanese to Late Middle Japanese to Modern Japanese.

Pros: If you wanna really be able to answer the question “Is the で particle a form of です?” this book will tell you. (pro tip: yes, all the particles were either originally derived from nouns, i.e. から, or are inflected forms of the copula, with the exceptions of を and は being of unknown origin). It will also give you a lot of insight into a more “native” Japanese understanding of the language which differs substantially from the version of Japanese grammar that has been filtered through a western, latinate, lens. Plus there is just tons of cool stuff in this book. It tells you how kanji developed and the sound changes that have taken place… just lots of fun facts and information about a language that we have all devoted a ton of time to learning.

Cons: If the last book didn’t help your Japanese comprehension than this one will even less. This is a much more “academic” text. Still very readable, but written for students of historical linguistics. I think of this book as a good jumping off point for people who “really” want to understand Japanese. Not a grammar resource so much as a book that will allow you to frame your thoughts in a productive way that when you read a Japanese language book on historical Japanese grammar. (aside: Japanese school kids read a lot of historic texts in their school life: genjimonogatari, 100 poems, etc. There are textbooks for Japanese middle school kids that teach them the grammar used in these texts since it differs so much from contemporary grammar. And eventually if our Japanese gets good enough, and we want to play Karuta, we might want to read one of these Japanese language grammar books of Old/Middle Japanese grammar…).

And even if you don’t get much out of it you can at least express that as:


I would add that, along with the example of “younger…teenage, etc” this book might be a bit daunting for some of us who do not have English as our first language.

Trans-clausal reordering and anaphora for example are terms I do not yet know. I often struggle with English grammar explanations, just because there are so many of these terms that are unknown to me in English. It’s like I have a Japanese concept, explained in English and simultaneously try to translate the English explanation into Swedish. It’s… slow and mentally taxing :sweat_smile:

Of course there are lots of people who master these kinds of things even in their second languages, just saying I’m not really one of them, and I’m sure there are others as well.

Nevertheless, thanks for sharing!


Good point.
I should have been more clear and said that both these books are written at the level of an English speaking college level… And to be fair, until I started studying and reading about linguistics (for my Japanese studies) I didn’t know what anaphora was either. I first encountered that term in “Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar”.

1 Like

I have a degree in Applied Linguistics from an English-language uni, including courses such as ‘Advanced English Grammar’ and only came across ‘anaphora’ a couple of times in 4 years - the term ‘antecedent’ was used much more often.

I have the second book mentioned on my wishlist - I may just have to add the first :wink:.

The second sounds particularly interesting to me. I’ve long suspected some relationships between various particles and forms that are buried below the surface and not exposed by any typical textbooks. It’s the sort of knowledge that makes the seemingly illogical stuff suddenly make sense. (Same with English etymology)


Super cool! I like nerding out but also realise I never studied English grammar formally (or any other language for that matter, we learnt mostly contextually) so I wonder if I would need to catch up on that first!


It could be a hands on (face first?) introduction to formal grammar :slight_smile:
Then, you could go back and use that newfound knowledge on English and other languages :slight_smile:

1 Like

Yeah, I plan on binging on English grammar one of these days. It doesn’t hurt reviewing! And you never know, it might not help you directly, but it might be useful to explain things to your language partners.

Anyway, good suggestions! Saved in my endless list of saved books to buy.

1 Like

Great idea!
wondering how to get my hands on them while I’m away from home for 3 weeks…


Having just looked at the preview available via the link, I think it would be better to have a solid grounding of basic grammatical terminology before digging in…

Here’s an example of some of the terminology:

P.S. If you’re good with the basic ‘noun, verb, adjective, adverb’ stuff but the above example is a bit challenging, I would recommend an ‘introduction to linguistics’ type book over an English grammar book to help you access this text.




Too bad I don’t know antecedent either :smile:

…yet :sunglasses::eyes:

1 Like

Ew, the romaji looks annoying.


Whenever I read si as romaji for し I can’t help but pronounce it with a bad lisp in my head. I know it’s just another way of writing it, I’m just not used to it.


Sorry, my understanding of Swedish is limited to knowing you have A LOT of vowels, and that I was not very good at telling them apart :flushed:. I though you may also use some words from Latin (ante- means before).


I looked it up and it is a word in Swedish too! I’ve just never encountered it. Cool!

And thanks for bothering with educating me.

1 Like

Ok, romaji is definitely a big no x)


In a (not so) related note: Another word for antecedent in Swedish is “Försats” according to Wikipedia.

“Försats” also happens to be another word for “precum”. Sorry. :grimacing:


Well, it turns out you also have Greek words (of course) - anaphora → anafor. This whole linguistics thing may be easier than first thought! :blush:

I’ve recently started reading an interesting book that discusses Japanese grammar in an approachable style.

The most recent version of the book was re-titled to “Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks don’t Tell You”, perhaps because Gone Fishin’ does not seem related to an indepth look at Japanese with a focus on common sticking points for second-language learners.

If you want a better understanding of Japanese, but the grammar books listed above sound too intimidating and academic, you might want to check out this book. It is relatively short and the author has an amusing sense of humor. More importantly, he has many years of experience as a Japanese teacher, watching English-speaking students struggle to understand Japanese as it is presented by many textbooks. I’m finding it quite useful and easy to read.