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Pronoun-free Phrases

One of the keys to making the transition to intermediate Japanese is to get used to dropping the pronouns in your speech.

By 3 min read

Like most foreign people who came to Japan to teach, わたし教師きょうしです (I am a teacher) was one of the first phrases that I learned. The problem with this phrase is that it is a phrase that has been chosen as it is as grammatically similar as possible to English. Unfortunately, this style is much too similar to the English grammar style to sound natural to a Japanese person.

Most Japanese people would consider the 私は (I) in this sentence to be pretty redundant, as it is pretty obvious that ‘I’ am the one speaking, and simply omit it. Instead of this longer phrase, most Japanese people would simply shorten it to simply 教師です.

The Japanese habit of dropping the pronoun as much as possible is one of the fascinating things about the language. Unless it is really important to understanding who is speaking, Japanese people almost never use pronouns. Even in basic sentences such as ‘This is a pen’, most Japanese people prefer to simply say ‘鉛筆えんぴつです’ and leave out the demonstrative pronouns such as this, that, these or those.

So how do Japanese people indicate that the subject hasn’t changed between sentences if the pronoun has been omitted? One of the words that you will frequently see used to denote this is の. の is often used to refer to something that has been mentioned before.

An example of this that I recently heard was めっちゃ大きいだね。もうちょっと小さいのあるん? (These shoes are freaking huge, do you have any smaller ones?). Again, here there are huge differences between the English and the Japanese. If we were to write the Japanese translation literally, it would read something like ‘Freaking big, right? A little smaller one have?’ with both ‘these’ and ‘you’ missing.

Another way that Japanese people get rid of the pronoun is by replacing it with the name of the person that they are talking to. If you ever meet someone in a business situation in Japan, expect to hear something like 山田やまださんはどうおもいますか (What does Mr. Yamada think?) being used instead of あなたはどう思いますか (What do you think?).

Remembering all these names can, of course, be tricky. Japanese people love addressing people by their names so much that many offices require their staff to wear name tags to save the customer having to remember all the names needed for a typical meeting.

Interestingly when you talk about things, you will often hear 内 used as a way to talk about something belonging to the speaker. うち家族かぞく, for example is a simple way to make it clear that I am talking about my own family instead of someone else’s.

In addition, some words like あに (Elder brother), あね (Elder sister), ちち (Father) and はは (Mother) even have a built-in implication that you are referring to one’s own family. If you want to talk about someone else’s family membersお兄さん, お姉さん, お父さん and お母さん are used instead.

So why do the Japanese like to use pronouns sparingly? One of the reasons is that whenever a personal pronoun is used in Japan, the status between the speaker and the listener must be considered. Whether you are a わたし, ぼく, あんた or おれ and whether the listener is an あなた, きみ or おまえ tells the listener a lot about how you view their status relative to yours.

So while 私 and あなた may be suitable for business; friends may prefer 僕 and あなた. The stronger casual words 俺 and お前 are suitable for times when you want to lord your status over someone, but inappropriate in any kind of formal situation.

With such a minefield of potential misunderstand to navigate through. It is perhaps not surprising that Japanese people choose to omit the pronoun!

  • T Haruo El says:

    Incorrect – だ is simply a shortened version of です and is perfectly acceptable after an (i) adjective. ^^ eg. 美味しいですね

  • Dave Carlson says:

    Could you please include Phrases in English next to the written Japanese Pharses? I would understand your blog better if you would do this. Thanks, Dave Carlson, Two Harbors, Minnesota, U.S.A.

  • Lukas says:

    Your 私, 僕, 俺 part is just right if it uses the horrible gaijin school book theory. But in real life it is fundamentally wrong and why did you just address the male fraction in your post either way?

    First of all you don’t use わたし but わたくし in real formal situations. You could have said something about the two readings. Further, between good friends and good colleagues for males 僕 and 俺 do NOT make any difference. To be honest, NO ONE would ever use something else beside 俺 once they became 社会人 or are in their 20s (again, if not a formal situation or not around important people).

    And yeah… as I mentioned before. For a real good read about the topic, you did not address the female language at all. Booh.

    • أبا الحكم says:

      Yeah especially the part of “you want to lord your status over someone” is particularly weird. Actually using 私 with close people as a man makes you sound cold while for girls it is always used normally.
      There is also the fact that addressing yourself too much in the far Eastern cultures and even partly in the Middle Eastern cultures is considered too narcissist.

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