The Real Meaning of ている and てある

THE TRUE MEANING OF -ている

-ている is oftentimes translated as the English -ing. It invokes the image of an action that’s continuous. But from how I’ve seen this grammar being used, it doesn’t feel like that’s what’s actually happening here. Instead, it feels like it’s actually describing the idea of something “existing” in the state of having done or doing an action. It might sound like I’m being pedantic. The difference is probably better shown through example.

ドアが閉まっている。
The door is closed.

Notice how the above sentence doesn’t usually mean that the door is in the process of closing. Instead, it usually means that the door is already closed. Here’s another example.

ポケモンがモンスターボールの中に入っている。
There’s a Pokemon in the Pokeball.

The above sentence usually doesn’t mean that the Pokemon is in the process of entering the Pokeball. Instead, it sounds like it’s already contained within the Pokeball. What this leads me to believe is that ている isn’t actually modifying the verb to make it continuous. Rather, we could interpret this as two actions. The Pokemon enters the Pokeball, then exists in that state.

What about these examples?

彼がドアを閉めている。
He’s closing the door.
彼が毎日走っている。
He runs every day.

In these examples, the subject exists in the state of doing the action rather than having completed it. I think it has something to do with whether or not the subject changes after the action is complete. If the action is something that doesn’t permanently change the state of the subject, then it tends to take the continuous meaning.
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*-ている GIVES THE SUBJECT IT’S OWN WILL, WHEREAS -てある DEPRIVES IT OF WILL

If we think about this grammar as being fundamentally about existence, then it explains -てある really well. We can describe the difference between these two by using the same door closing example.

ドアが閉まっている。
The door closed and now exists in that state. Its state was brought about by its own will.
ドアが閉めてある。
The door exists in the state of having been closed by someone else. It has no will of its own.

Essentially, いる means that the subject’s state was brought about by its own will. ある means that the subject has no will of its own. It’s inanimate. If it has no will of its own, then its current state must have been brought about by someone else.

Note how in both cases, the door is the thing that’s marked with が. That’s because we’re fundamentally making an existence argument. Although the second case implies that the door was closed by someone else, the door is the subject of this sentence. It’s doing the action of existing. The door exists in the state of having been closed by something else. Existence is the action here. I believe that this is the correct interpretation.

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The difference comes from using transitive vs intransitive verbs. I’ve copied the below explanation from here: https://japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/41614/ている-vs-てある-in-resultant-states-relating-the-trans-intransitive-verb-and-が-を

~てある always follows transitive verbs, and implies someone has (intentionally) done something. ~ている can follow both intransitive and transitive verbs.

  • 木が倒れている。: “A tree is lying.” (by a wind, etc)
  • 木が倒れてある。: (ungrammatical; 倒れる is intransitive)
  • 木が倒れてない = 木が倒れていない: “A tree is not lying.”
  • 木を倒してある。: I have laid a tree (in advance, for a purpose).
  • 木を倒している。: either “I am (currently) cutting a tree” or “I have (already) laid a tree”
  • 木を倒していない。: either “I am (currently) not cutting a tree” or “I have not laid a tree yet.”

Following that, I would say that ドアが閉めてある。means the door has closed something (not specified here) since 閉める is transitive and requires the direct object to be marked with を.

ドアを閉めてある。 Would mean I (or someone specified by the context) have closed the door.

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Following that, I would say that ドアが閉めてある。means the door has closed something (not specified here) since 閉める is transitive and requires the direct object to be marked with を.

From the examples I’ve seen, it definitely can be used without を. Here’s an example from Pokemon Fire Red.


“A paper is stuck.”

I did a quick google search and found this page which seems to take the “existence” interpretation. I’ll quote the relevant text.

EDIT: For some reason, the link isn’t working when you click on it. However if you type in “tearu” into the search bar it should be there.

For another example, if you wanted to say “A message was written” in Japanese your first instinct might be to say the following:
メッセージが書かれた
A message was written.
This would be grammatically correct, and quite passable Japanese. However, you can use the 〜て+ある form to express this more simply.
メッセージが書いてある。
A message was written.

In all the above examples I have used が before the object, but を can also be used. For example, both of these mean “the seat is reserved”.
予約してある。
予約してある。

I think を is used if you want to specify who placed the paper, and が is used if you don’t want to specify who did it. Using が maybe gives it more of a mysterious feeling. Regardless, I think what’s central to understanding this grammar is that the main action that is being done is existing (いる/ある). I think the main verb is what provides the context.

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Interesting that you can use が with transitive verbs with てある. I guess it makes sense since ある is intransitive. Thanks for the link.

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