Rules for when to write that damn ー?

Hey there,

It’s a little embarrassing but … I never took the time to really learn katakana fully. Hiragana was super easy for me and also recognize about 60% of katakana words. But it never really had the appeal for me to say “I wanna study moooore!” - obviously a big mistake cause I never know when ー is needed to write a word. I know it’s supposed to come when the sound is long but I don’t hear it :sweat_smile: usually I’m just guessing.
Soooo… Does anyone have a trick how to remember when to use ー that is not "just listen if the word is long, dummy":sweat_smile::rofl:

I’d be very thankful


Do you have examples of words where you frequently make this mistake?

Just listen if the word is long, dummy. :stuck_out_tongue:

In all seriousness, when we’re talking loanwords from English, it’s as straightforward as a long vowel sound in English generally equates to a long vowel sound in Japanese. Beef → ビーフ, Austria → オーストリア, maker → メーカー, and so forth. アー often replaces “ar” sounds, as in “Martin” becoming マーティン. You get the feel for it after a while.


It’s normal to get them wrong sometimes if you’re taking just the sound as the base.

I always forget if it’s ジュス or ジュース, etc.

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“Juice” has a long vowel sound in English, so it’s got a long vowel sound in Japanese.

ジュス would be like, “jus” or something.


Not sure this is any help to you, but at some point I realized that remembering how to correctly spell katakana english words was absolutely my lowest priority of all the things in Japanese I need to learn, and I stopped worrying about it. I guess if you are in school and will be tested on it, then it matters. Otherwise, that’s what the dictionary is for.


There isn’t a really a “rule” per se on whether a word has ー or not in it. Katakana is mostly based on how Japanese people heard a foreign word and then wrote it. They can be tough. It took me like one whole year of writing emails and texts to finally remember メッセージ (message).

As you listen to Japanese more, you’ll get better at recognizing the long vowels. Maybe there is a resource on the web that tests your listening of long vowels vs short vowels, but I’m not aware of one.

In the meantime, you may just need to remember the spelling of the word if you want to know where the ー is and isn’t. Belthazar mentioned there are a few patterns, which can definitely help to remember. It can also help to remember that some katakana words are from languagues other than English. So their pronounciation, and therefore spelling, is based on that language’s pronounciation of the word.


@Belthazar what’s the pattern here?

Ah, I couldn’t really hope to guess why that’s like that. Maybe it was introduced by a person with an accent that puts more stress on the A. Maybe someone only saw it in writing, and assumed it’s pronounced like “sage”. Or “massage”.

The ol’ golden rule: All Rules Have Exceptions, Including This One.

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I was like that too in the beginning. What made me starting to enjoy katakana is practicing writing the names of people I know in katakana…be it family, friends, co-workers, famous celebrities, etc. It was a fun little exercise for me :joy:

Yup noticing this really helps a lot. I used to think that ‘r’ sounds would be converted to ル…like Martin becomes マルティン which is not correct apparently.

This is even harder if English isn’t your 1st language and you’ve never really paid attention to the long vs short sound. More so for katakana vocabs derived from non-English words :joy:

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The Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar’s appendix “Katakana Word Transcription Rules” lists this as rule 18: “English spellings -age, -ate and -wer are spelled ージ, ート, and ワー respectively”, and it gives as examples イメージ and パーセンテージ . This is one of the rules it classifies as “spelling based”, where the way the English word is written causes it to be transcribed differently from how it would theoretically be just from the sound-based rules that govern most katakana transcription.

(I have to say that personally I didn’t try to learn a load of patterns/rules; I just treated this as one flavour of the “long/short vowel distinctions are hard for English speakers to hear” problem, to which the solution is the same as when it crops up with native Japanese words: practice, and “just” learn the words…)


In my English accent (Southern British) there is no ‘r’ sound in ‘Martin’ in the first place :slight_smile: (That is, it is non-rhotic.)


Depending on how you learn English as a second language, but it makes thing easier for me, because I had to learn phonetics too. (So for English words, I see a double image of phonetic symbols. Also, for Japanese, I am OK with Kana having unwritten phonetic rules.)

In English, at least. In Spanish it can be マルティン.

As far as I remember, I don’t think I’ve learned phonetics formally. It’s more like best effort trying to imititate as close as possible lol.

Oh that’s interesting to know!

There’s one here which also tests other potentially easily-confused sounds: コツ

English loanwords are used a lot in Japanese - so even before I knew much if any Japanese vocabulary, I always tried to read the loanwords when seeing them in Japanese text, and got a feeling for how katakanization works just through exposure like that. That might be a good thing to try if you haven’t.

By the way, I learned hiragana and katakana at basically the same time, as the two first steps of my Japanese studies, but I always see a ton of people online saying they have been putting it off for months or years. Is what I did uncommon?

No. This is how most people do it.

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