Why does Tom annoy me?

IMO, This has less to do with the verb being used per sé, and more to do with the contrasting of the ideas presented.

This sentence has an explicit subject and an implied agent (someone / something other than the subject that initiates the verbs present), which is a phenomena not unique to Japanese. A similar sentence in English would be:

No matter how much Tom is warned, he never listens, and it’s troubling.

Our English brains interpret this as something like this:

No matter how much Tom is warned [by someone], he never listens, and it’s troubling [to someone].

Could Tom be warning himself, never listening to himself, and thus troubling himself? Sure, but this is not how we usually communicate such an idea. Since the verbs contrast with one another (warn and trouble, vs. not listen), it’s easier to believe that there is another agent, rather than understanding Tom as the sole actor.

In this sentence, it is easier to believe that Tom is the sole actor and agent, since there is nothing to contrast him against.

Other contributing factors to this interpretation:

  1. As mentioned before, native Japanese speakers tend to refrain from speaking matter-of-factly about someone’s emotional or psychologically state unless there is a strong basis for it (personal experience with the individual, being informed by the individual, etc.)

  2. 「S1 ので S2」is often used in place of「S1 から S2」when the speaker believes the outcome in S2 caused by S1 is fairly obvious and acceptable to the listener (DoBJG pg. 329). It is not obvious that Tom is troubled because he doesn’t listen to people’s warnings. It is, however, fairly reasonable to believe that whomever whoever warned him and was subsequently ignored would be troubled / bothered by his actions.

In my experience so far, a lot of the troubles one has with learning Japanese has less to do with the structure of the language itself, and more to do with the tricky semantics present in almost all human communication that we take for granted in our mother tongue.

Another thing that might help is remembering that pauses / breaks in languages can be quite meaningful. In the example sentence there is a break at the comma, and I usually hear a break after 「ので」when listening to natives speak. These can be clues to help separate the phrases and understand the intended meaning.


I think the problem with this sentence is that it’s unnatural because of the トムさんは at the beginning. Tom is already the topic and the implied subject of at least some of the verbs in the sentence. More importantly, I just can’t imagine a sentence that goes トムさんは彼が… with トムさん=彼. That’s what makes it strange.

My guess is that because of the lack of a specified subject or a subject made clear by context, you have to assume that the subjects of 注意しても and 困っています are one and the same. (How exactly I get this idea: uh… structurally speaking, because of the て-form and the punctuation, the two verbs are at the same level of the verb hierarchy in the sentence.) That leaves us with two options:

  1. ‘No matter how much Tom pays attention/warns people, because he/they don’t listen to what’s said, he’s in a fix.’ I think this is a possible interpretation, but it would require context suggesting that Tom is the one doing the warning. More importantly, it doesn’t make much sense because the subject of the verb in a condition followed by ので・から usually takes が, so the sentence would have to become something like トムさん いくら注意しても、言うことを聞かないので トムさんが 困っています。As for ‘Tom pays attention/is careful but doesn’t listen to what’s said so he’s in a fix’… it sounds a little incoherent, I think. Why would a careful person refuse to listen?
  2. ‘As for Tom, no matter how much I warn him, I’m in a fix because he doesn’t listen to what I say.’ I think this set of subjects for the verbs concerned makes a lot more sense.

To get this sort of interpretation, you’d need the sentence your wife suggested:


Otherwise, I see no reason for the subjects of 注意しても and 困っています to be different, which is what happens with your translation.


Though, when I first read this sentence to my wife and asked who was 困ってる, she said トム.
Then I read it againn and she was like, “Hmm… I’m not really sure. The speaker? Could be Tom though.”

My conclusion is that it’s just a poorly written, ambiguous sentence that could be taken either way.


I guess it would make more sense in a given context, but I agree that I don’t understand what that sentence is doing in a grammar lesson. As I said in my analysis, it seems like there might be an interpretation in which Tom would be the person ‘in a fix’, even if it might make a little less sense. Whoever wrote the lesson ought to have been aware of the limited amount of contextual information available to the reader…


I think you did a very good job breaking the sentence down, and I really like the idea of explicit subject and implied agent as a way to explain what’s going on. In English we expect and nearly always use pronouns (or actual names) to mark subjects and agents, and we intuitively keep track of who the pronouns are marking both when speaking and when listening. I find this can trip up native Japanese speakers because they are used to interpreting or describing sentences using different clues.

The only thing I’d add to your explanation is that in the example sentence, the phrase いくら注意しても is active rather than いくら注意されても which would be passive. Thus (and I know your sentence was described as similar and not a translation) we shouldn’t translate it as “No matter how much Tom is warned”. Instead we need to translate it as “No matter how much xxx warns xxx”. So already the person who warns is either Tom himself or the speaker. And since there’s no mention of a different person who is warned, one should assume that it’s Tom. Thus the speaker is the one who warns, and Tom is the “warnee”.

But more to the point, いくら注意しても doesn’t resolve without the いうことを聞かない part. And the person who doesn’t listen (聞かない) is clearly Tom, because Tom is the topic (marked with は of the sentence). So it only makes sense if we understand it as “No matter how much xx warns Tom, he doesn’t listen.” And as I said above, xx can be understood to be the speaker absent any other explanation.

This makes sense.

Funny story about where this came from in the first place. My teacher was making a lesson for me to study いくら~ても. It was really nothing to do with what we’re discussing here. So I think she went to this page:

and copied a few example sentences, one of which is the sentence in question.

And yet, it’s extremely common in grammar lessons to find these sentences with very little context which often leave learners confused about the situation (or at least who is who) but which are quite obvious for native speakers. In this case, I was just trying to determine what made it so obvious here.

You’re spot on, and I figured someone would point out the fact that I modified the sentence from active to passive voice. As you said, English tends to favor pronouns or explicit agents in active voice, so switching to passive voice was the easiest way for me to create a sentence with similar structure and an implied agent.

A side note, it seems that even when Japanese is spoken in the active voice, there still can be an affinity for the passive voice, especially with implied agents. This is nothing more a casual observation though.

One of the fun things about the good JLPT prep materials is that they have a lot of situations like this, where there could be several grammatically correct interpretations / solutions, but only one semantically correct interpretation / solution. Shin Kanzen Master often will instruct you to “choose the best answer out of the available options”, of which several may be grammatically correct. It goes a bit beyond Japanese structure, and takes us to the realm of understanding how ideas / sentiments are communicated in Japanese.

Hm… it seems not all the native speakers consulted by people on this thread think it’s obvious though, so perhaps it’s not perfectly obvious? Also, it seems each of us has come up with a different reason for why a particular interpretation might be more likely. I tried to come up with something based on the grammatical structure of the sentence, but everything I said about ‘coherence’ was an attempt to capture this sort of reasoning:

For me though, part of the problem was that I wasn’t aware that 注意する could mean ‘to warn’ until I looked it up (I’m used to it meaning ‘to pay attention’), so maybe my interpretation isn’t what a native speaker with an awareness of both meanings might come up with. Still, when I’m back home, I speak a high-context dialect of English (Singlish) that uses a mix of English and Chinese grammar, rarely requires complete sentences and doesn’t always include explicit subjects, so I’d like to think that helps me a little?

Maybe another way to examine it is to consider the number of people involved in each interpretation and to go for the simplest explanation/the one with the fewest subjects? ‘The speaker is the subject’ is the default interpretation for verbs in a sentence. If we use that and assume that トムさんは is just a topic indicator and doesn’t also suggest Tom is the subject of most of the verbs, then we get the ‘correct’/most widely accepted interpretation straightaway. 聞かない has to have a different subject from the rest because the sentence doesn’t make sense otherwise. Also, the advantage of the default subject interpretation is that 言う in 言うこと clearly has a candidate subject that makes sense: the speaker.

On the other hand, if Tom is the subject of 注意して, then the subject of 聞かない has to be a third or even fourth party (if we decide to count the listener), because it would be strange for the speaker to express their nonchalance towards what Tom says so candidly. I suppose 言う’s subject could be Tom. However, regardless (and I can’t really explain why), I feel like the subject of 困っています would be unclear in this case. Both of the sentences suggested by native speakers on this thread in which Tom would be in trouble have a tendency to clarify the link between Tom and 困っています, either by bringing トムさんは close to the verb or by making it clear that Tom is the only subject in the sentence (not counting the subject for the verb 言う since it plays a fairly minor role in this sentence). The lack of clarity could be due to a tendency not to discuss other’s feelings in a direct/presumptuous fashion, or simply a matter of distance between the verb and the candidate subject. Whatever the reason, this interpretation is much more complicated and requires assuming the existence of other contextual factors (e.g. third parties who don’t listen), and probably is less intuitive than the default interpretation.

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That may be. I wasn’t sure if @noxxxxxious was referring to the original sentence or to my wife’s suggested Tom-is-困っている sentence when he reported that his own wife wasn’t sure who was 困っている. (I could see my wife’s sentence as still leaving room for doubt.)

In either case, I’m willing to believe that it’s at least a little grammatically ambiguous who the 困っている人 is (in the original sentence). And perhaps instead, it’s just such a common pattern: “Frustrating-situation-described ので、困っている” where the 困っている人 is the speaker. So it has become something of a set phrase where it’s obvious to (nearly?) everyone who is who here.

Indeed it often does mean “pay attention” usually when you are commanding or suggesting that someone else (the listener) 注意してください or 注意しなさい, or 注意したくてはいけない. But if you think about it, that command or suggestion is itself a warning. So when you recount how you told someone else to be careful, you are saying that you warned them. (Obviously we think of this a bit differently in English, but I think that’s the sense in Japanese.)

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DeepL really really recently added japanese and imo its not good at all yet. It does seem that have become better the last couple month though.

regardless it fails without further context, but it you tell it that it got the subject wrong (by clicking on tom in the translation and instead select I), it gets the sentence right

Also i do think that the sentence can have some other interpretations depending on the context. I would say this is also fine english

regardless, while i to got the sentence wrong - but completely different to you guys; I thought that tom was careful, not being warned - i think that many of these troubles stem from that we are treating japanese thought english

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I just thought of something else as I was writing out the English translation yet again: It’s all written in the present tense, and so these are all simultaneous actions: the speaker warning Tom, him not listening, the speaker being put out/at wits end/generally frustrated. I couldn’t say for sure, but perhaps that in itself is a clue as to how it should be interpreted, since in the situation where Tom is in trouble because he doesn’t listen no matter how much the speaker warns him, it’s more of a sequence, which maybe wouldn’t use the present tense all the way through. Though again, I’m not sure.

Well, except that in English “whomever warned him” doesn’t make sense.

In this context, you need to use ‘whoever warned him’.

‘Who’ is a subject pronoun:
He warned him.
Who warned him?
–> Whoever warned him (would be troubled).

‘Whom’ is an object pronoun:
He warned him.
Whom did he warn?
–> Whomever he warned (didn’t listen to what he said).

Of course, these days it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘who’ or ‘whoever’ for either subject or object, even in writing, but ‘whom’ is not interchangeable in the same way.

Sorry to go off topic, but people who enjoy grammar may find this interesting.


I mean, not to pick on you, but it’s always entertaining when pedantic corrections have their own mistakes.


Thanks for pointing that out!


Being that I typed this on my cellphone after a few drinks, I’m happy if this is the only mistake I made. :slight_smile:


Ah, it’s pretty good. Certainly much better than Google Translate.

It just tends to favour natural-sounding translations over accurate ones, meaning it can sometimes be a case of garbage in, perfectly reasonable-looking sentence which misses the subtleties of the original out.


Surely novelists do this, though?

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Are you talking about an omniscient POV? Or when a character speaks in dialog.


Yes, narrators are allowed to describe their character’s feelings directly.


I discussed this further with my teacher, who is very good at explaining the finer points of Japanese. I think she arrived at an answer I really do understand, which is that a person who is 困っている is a person who is in trouble, knows he/she is in trouble, and wants to find a solution.

That is why Tom not listening to my many warnings means that he is not someone who is paying sufficient attention to the situation. I am the one who sees what’s going on, thus I am 困っている.

She further gives an example sentence if we wanted to say that Tom is 困っている:
トムさんはいくら注意しても言う事を聞かないので、 問題をよく起こして困っています。