The logic behind Japanese sentence structure

I don’t know if anyone else here reads Hacker News [1], but I just came across this article [2]. Showing a diagramatic view of Japanese sentence structure seems extraordinarily insightful.

This doesn’t give a full understanding of Japanese grammar, which is something that is best learned through application, but it provides a strong picture through its simplified representation. It seems to intend to provide you with 80% of the knowledge you will need to understand Japanese grammar. I found it provided me with a similar level of understanding that Koichi provides in TextFugu. Maybe his gradual progression from one stage to the next gives a more solidifying knowledge, however.

Here [3] is a current (as of 2017/03/19) discussion.

  1. Hacker News
  2. Japanese Sentence Structure: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide - 80/20 Japanese
  3. The Logic Behind Japanese Sentence Structure | Hacker News

[Edit] This is also a textbook [4] I have not heard mentioned before.

I moved this topic from Japanese Language Grammar to Japanese Language Resources, as I feel it’s more appropriate, considering the focus of discussion in the replies.

For those looking to purchase this textbook, an audiobook version is available.
A comment about the audio is available below:


Here it mentions 「紀子を太郎は見ました。」as a correct sentence, and while I am pretty sure that 「紀子を太郎が見ました。」 is correct, I’ve never seen the 「~は」- term leave the beginning of the sentence. For context the article [2] in OP’s post, states that the first mentioned sentence is a valid reordering of 「太郎は紀子を見ました。」.

Can the topic leave the beginning of the sentence? Anyone know, or better can cite a native resource that uses this structure (i.e. a topic not at the beginning of the sentence)?

Strictly speaking, I think it’s possible to have the object before the topic, particularly if you wanted to put emphasis on the object. But I don’t think it’s a particularly natural way to do it. It would be a case of using the oddness of it for emphasis. For that reason, it’s probably a bit odd to teach it in a beginner’s lesson.


Eh, he goes on to explain that it might be a valid reordering of a sentence, but it’s also an unnatural sounding one. I’m inclined to say you can do it, but it’ll get you looked at funny and corrected because it sounds wrong? (Unless you have a reason to be ordering your sentence so weird, but that sounds like a very advanced topic.) Pretty much everything I’ve found explaining the topic in Japanese uses the phrase “usually” and “almost always” and “normally” when saying it goes at the beginning of the sentence.

I think he’s just trying to make a point about particles. Each time he introduces a new example, he writes three or four sentences where he cycles the particle positioning, following it up by explaining they’re all understandable sentences, but not necessarily correct ones. He doesn’t explain that sometimes information is left out of a sentence if context provides it, probably because that’s not what he’s trying to teach.

EDIT: Ah, @Leebo got here first. What they said.

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Ah so the article did mention it, whops. I somehow managed to miss that part.

Still feel like it’s a valid question. It’s always good to double check when you see something weird. The writer of the article might be wrong, who knows.

(I would also be interested to see native speaker examples of using the topic later in the sentence, if they exist. What would they be conveying by doing that?)

I asked my girlfriend before responding. She basically confirmed what I thought, that it’s weird but technically not breaking a rule.

As was mentioned, if you wanted to emphasize the object, you could put it there.


Hmmm, my thoughts are that if you’re emphasizing the object you’d make it the topic. As in 「紀子は太郎が見ました。」. Right? Or 「紀子は太郎に見られた。」 in passive. Similar to how in English you’d say “Noriko was seen by Tarou.” to emphasize the object, or introduce a new subject.

Plus assuming your gf is a native speaker, if she thinks it’s weird, that’s pretty much the same as it being grammatically incorrect, from a descriptive standpoint.

Those are ways to emphasize the object, yes.

Something being grammatically incorrect and being unnatural are two entirely different things. The important thing is if you want to do something unnatural, you need to have a good reason for doing it.


Yeah, true. I can see a difference now that I think about it. What I meant though was that if used in a standard situation there might be more grammatical ways of formulating it. It does preserve meaning though so that’s why it’s probably just strange.

He has a [separate article] about は and が.
I have his book. I like the way he teaches (though the article I linked is new, and I think could be refined a little)…

Hm, seems to be broken now. Too bad, heh.

Edit: Page seems to be up again now!

Good article. I’ve emailed the author asking where the book goes to in relation to Genki, and how you obtain the free chapter advertised.

Perhaps you can tell me how the book compares to the two Genki volumes in level, as I am doing those anyway. Does it go as far as they do?

This is fascinating and awesome! As someone who learned both languages growing up (I mean my Japanese sucks, but the grammar does just “make sense” to me in terms of sentence structure) I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me “Japanese is so weird and completely backwards!” and I sit there like “It is, but it isn’t totally…and and and”. That graphic helps make things actually make sense haha.

Also, cough @Leebo are you Syphus in disguise after he disappeared? I keep seeing you popping up trolling in some threads and being helpful in others.

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    The 80/20 Approach
    Deconstructing Japanese
    How To Learn A Language
    Creating Opportunities To Practice
    Speeding Up Learning
    Keeping Motivated
    The 80/20 Japanese Road Map

Chapter 1: The Sounds Of Japanese

Chapter 2: Introduction to Japanese Grammar
    2.1 Basic Japanese sentence structure
    2.2 Introduction to particles
    2.3 Particles in more depth
Chapter 3: General characteristics of Japanese
    3.1 Politeness
    3.2 Unaffected by person or gender
    3.3 Addressing and referring to people
    3.4 No articles
    3.5 No plurals
    3.6 Highly dependent on context
    3.7 Particle omission
    3.8 Loanwords
Chapter 4: The essentials
    4.1 More useful particles
    4.2 Polite verb tenses and expressions
    4.3 A couple of useful verbs
    4.4 Liking and wanting things
    4.5 Questions
    4.6 Other sentence-ending particles
    4.7 This, that and other variations
    4.8 Relative locations
    4.9 Other generally useful words
Chapter 5: Numbers
    5.1 Number formation and pronunciation
    5.2 Counters
    5.3 Using numbers in a sentence
Chapter 6: Expressing time
    6.1 Timing
    6.2 Period
    6.3 Frequency
    6.4 Using expressions of time with nouns
Chapter 7: Adjectives, nouns and adverbs
    7.1 Adjective types
    7.2 Using adjectives before nouns
    7.3 Adjectives at the end of informal sentences
    7.4 Adjectives in the past tense
    7.5 Negatives of adjectives
    7.6 Informal questions using adjectives
    7.7 Adjective usage summary
    7.8 Using nouns in “to be” sentences
    7.9 Adverbs
Chapter 8: Verbs
    8.1 Verb types
    8.2 The present/future tense
    8.3 The past tense
    8. 4 Verb negatives
    8.5 The potential tense
    8.6 Let’s…
    8.7 Transitive and intransitive verbs
Chapter 9: The て-form
    9.1 Converting to the て-form
    9.2 Continuous tenses
    9.3 Commands and requests
    9.4 Linking multiple actions together in a sequence
    9.5 Describing the means by which an action is completed
    9.6 The negative て-form
    9.7 The て-form of adjectives
Chapter 10: The Magic of Noun Phrases
    10.1 What are noun phrases?
    10.2 Forming noun phrases using verbs that add extra information
    10.3 Forming noun phrases that describe the location of something
    10.4 Forming noun phrases based around the action itself
    10.5 Including multiple pieces of information in a noun phrase
    10.6 Differentiating between noun phrases and clauses
Chapter 11: Particles
    11.1 Types of particles
    11.2 Particle/verb combinations
    11.3 The difference between 「は」 and 「が」
    11.4 Combining particles
Chapter 12: Lots and lots of expressions
    12.1 Very useful expressions
    12.1.1 Anything, something, nothing, and other similar words
    12.1.2 Giving and receiving - あげる・くれる・もらう
    12.1.3 Have done - したことがある
    12.1.4 Mine, yours, old ones and new ones - 私わたしの・古ふるいの
    12.2 Conditional expressions
    12.2.1 If/when - ~たら
    12.2.2 If - なら
    12.2.3 If - すれば
    12.2.4 If - すると
    12.2.5 When - ~とき
    12.3 て-form expressions
    12.3.1 The other negative て-form
    12.3.2 I’m glad/It’s a good thing… - ~てよかった
    12.3.3 Doing something for someone - ~てあげる・~てくれる
    12.3.4 Doing something and coming back - ~てくる
    12.3.6 Doing something completely or making a mistake - ~てしまう
    12.3.7 Doing something in preparation - ~ておく
    12.3.8 Apologizing and thanking for specific things - ~てすみません・~てありがとう
    12.3.9 Even if - ~ても
    12.3.10 Giving and asking for permission - ~てもいい
    12.3.11 Forbidding or saying what shouldn’t be done - ~てはいけない/だめ
    12.3.12 Things that haven’t been done - Another use of the present continuous tense
    12.4 The passive voice
    12.5 Other expressions
    12.5.1 Need to, have to
    12.5.2 Already, yet and still - もう・まだ
    12.5.3 About/concerning - ~について
    12.5.4 While doing - しながら
    12.5.5 Go and do, come and do - しに行いく・しに来くる
    12.5.6 It’s easy/difficult to… - しやすい・しにくい
    12.5.8 Should - はず・べき
    12.5.9 Describing an incomplete list of activities - ~たり~たりする
    12.5.10 Discussing plans - つもり
    12.5.11 Expressing uncertainty - ~かもしれません
    12.5.12 How to do things - やり方かた
    12.5.13 Trying - しようとする・してみる
    12.5.14 Negative questions - しませんか・じゃないの?
    12.5.15 Before/after doing… - ~前まえに・~後あとに
    12.5.16 For/in order to - ~ために
    12.5.17 Whether or not - ~かどうか~
    12.5.18 Too… - ~すぎる
    12.5.19 Describing how things look/appear - ~そう
    12.5.20 Apparently, it seems/looks like - そう・らしい・みたい・よう
    12.5.21 Letting or making someone do something - させる
    12.5.22 I have a feeling… - ~気きがする
    12.5.23 No choice but to… - するしかない
    12.5.24 Turning adjectives into nouns - ~さ
Appendix 1: Understanding verb tenses in noun phrases
Appendix 2: Verb dictionary (English - Japanese)
Appendix 3: Verb dictionary (Japanese - English)
Appendix 4: Non-verb dictionary (English - Japanese)
Appendix 5: Non-verb dictionary (Japanese - English)
Appendix 6: Hiragana Chart
Appendix 7: Katakana Chart

“80/20 Japanese” is different from Genki in that he presents layers of usable Japanese. Hmm… how to explain this:

In robust software design, there’s something called ‘graceful fallback’, which means if something doesn’t work, you have a fallback plan that still gets the job done, or at least fails gracefully without crashing the program.

Here’s an example excerpt from the section on ‘Counters’:

While forming numbers in Japanese is quite straightforward, using them can be a little bit trickier. This is because all numbers used to define a quantity need to be used in the form of a counter, and these counters vary according to what is being counted.

For example, to say “I have two dogs” would require the number two to be used with the counter for small animals. Similarly, “I have two cars” would require the number two to be used with the counter for vehicles. There are, in fact, a lot of different counters, some with very specific uses.

Rather than trying to remember each and every one, there are a few that are more general in meaning and can be used more widely. Although there will sometimes be a more appropriate counter that you could use, it’s better to use a counter that is “close enough” than none at all. The ones listed below will be enough to get you through most situations:


Cheers, so probably not even much past half of Genki 1 but maybe still worth a read. His two articles were good anyway, I just posted them on Facebook. I have hundreds of FB friends either learning Japanese or who are Japanese.

It’s not easy to see just from the Table of Contents, but I think it covers all of Genki 1, and most of Genki 2, and maybe a little that’s not covered in either. They’re organized very differently, so you’re getting some Genki 1 and 2 stuff side by side, which isn’t really visible via the ToC.

I kind of prefer 80/20’s way of doing things because it makes it easier to see how the pieces fit together. It’s organized more functionally, whereas Genki is maybe more… situational(?).

I’m working on a project indexing various learning materials. Eventually, I’ll be able to generate a point-by-point comparison of Genki and 80/20. But I’m not quite there yet.