A funny anecdote that I have heard dozens of times in Japan is about a foreigner who makes a faux pas about a dog looking longingly at some sausages. Most learners know that adding ~tai to the end of taberu makes 食べたいtabetai・want to eat. Therefore as the dog clearly wants to eat the sausages, the foreigner says 犬が食べたいinu ga tabetai. The result is that all the Japanese people present erupt in laughter.
Why is that phrase so amusing to Japanese people? The simple answer is that the ~tai ending usually indicates the speaker’s desires. In this story, the foreign speaker literally said, ‘I want to eat the dog’!
The correct thing to say is the trickier 食べたがるtabetagaru. The ~garu ending to verbs can be quite a tricky one as it indicates that the speaker is talking about what another animal or person probably feels. A good example is combining hoshii (desired) and garu to make ほしがる. This allows the speaker to guess what the dog secretly desires, such as the sentence, 子供の食事を欲しがる犬kodomo-no-shokuji wo hoshigaru inu・the dog that wants the child’s food.
Here is a quick guide to some of the interesting uses of this tricky grammar:
Describing what people typically like.
As well as talking about what an animal wants, this grammar is often used to talk about what people generally want to do. Common examples include 女が見たがる映画onna ga mitagaru eiga・a movie women want to watch and 聞きたがるkikitagaru・something someone wants to hear about.
A similar grammar point is found in the business phrase 誰も責任を持ちたがらないだれもせきにんをもちたがらない ・dare-mo sekinin wo mochitagaranai. In this sentence, the negative garanai ending is being used to talk about what someone doesn’t want to do – in this case to be responsible 責任を持つsekinin wo motsu for something. The meaning of this phrase is something similar to ‘There is nobody that wants to take the responsibility for this’.
To talk about feelings.
As well as saying what people want to do, this grammar can also be used to say what you expect people or animals will feel in certain situations. An example of this is 犬は僕がいないと寂しがるInu ha boku ni inai to sabishigaru・the dog, when I’m not there, feels lonely.
In this case, we are saying that we think the dog feels lonely when it is left by itself and the –garu ending is to make it clear that we are talking about the dog, not ourselves.
Telling someone not to feel something.
Have you ever had a person come to your house and for some reason your beloved pooch takes an instant dislike to them? The dog begins to growl so much that you may want to use the same grammar to say 犬を怖がらないでいぬをこわがらないで ・inu wo kowagaranai de. This is similar to the garanai usage that we saw in the business example, but in this case it has a meaning of ‘don’t let my dog scare you.’
As you get better at Japanese, you will find the use of pronouns less or even stop using them at all. Therefore being able to use the ~garu ending becomes an even more important tool to help the listener understand who or what you are talking about. Effectively using it is the first step towards getting rid of those pesky pronouns and sounding more like a native speaker.