If you’re a native English speaker, word order in Japanese is going to seem crazy, especially if it’s your first time studying a foreign language.
When I first learned about Japanese sentence structure, I felt like someone was spinning me in circles. But I wasn’t studying for long before it just started to feel perfectly natural the way a sentence was ordered. The info in this page should serve as a background for why and how a Japanese sentence is structured differently than an English one, but don’t get too caught up in it when you’re actually practicing Japanese.
As you practice, if you’re sitting there trying to reorder every sentence in your head, then you’re kind of setting yourself up for a lot of confusion. What I mean is that doing that means training your brain to think of Japanese as English with Japanese words, reordered.
The problem with this is that Japanese–even basic Japanese–does not translate word-for-word.
This is actually a really good thing, because it will discourage you from trying to think in English when you’re learning Japanese. I actually had a much harder time getting past thinking of Spanish sentences in English when I was learning Spanish than when I was learning Japanese.
All that aside, you should maybe probably I’m guessing want to learn what’s going on with Japanese word order and sentence structure.
English (along with French, German, Spanish, and Italian) are subject-verb-object languages.
What that means is that the average English sentence (a statement, not a question) starts with a subject, then has a verb, then has an object. As such, it is referred to as an SVO language (subject-verb-object).
Here are some examples:
Subject / verb / object
- Sharks / eat / seals
- I / like / sharks
- The shark / has / indigestion
This is how we order sentences in English, whether you noticed yet or not (why should you ever have to notice that, right?!)
We say “Sharks eat seals.” We don’t say “Sharks seals eat.” That would be crazy. That would be Japanese.
Japanese is a SOV (subject-object-verb) language (so is Korean!… and Mongolian).
Subject / object / verb
- Sharks / seals / eat
- I / sharks / like
- The shark / indigestion / has
So, you don’t say “I am a student.”
You say “I a student am.”
Watashi wa (I) – gakusei (student) – desu (am).
(Don’t freak out if you can’t read that, just download rikaichan.)
Rather than break down all the sentences you encounter or try to form, I have a much easier trick for you:
All that matters for Japanese word order is that the verb comes last.
The rest of the sentence, for the most part, can be ordered just about any way you’d like. You might sound a little strange with simpler sentences. Your teacher might give you shark about it. But seriously, just make sure the verb is the last word and you’ll be fine.
The first time I heard this myself was from a fellow resident of the Japanese dorm I lived at my first months ever in Japan. I didn’t believe him. At all. No way. Because no teacher I’d had would acknowledge that this was ok to do. I get it now: they wanted me to learn proper, textbook Japanese. Which is probably a good thing, I suppose. But I don’t like the number of things kept from me in my initial learning stages just to “protect” me from confusion. Which is why, in the next few lines, I’ll do my very best to confuse you…
(Note: You also need to make sure that your particles immediately follow the words they are marking, but that,when the time comes, will feel super natural, so it’s not something to fret over.)
Just make the verb the last word!
“Every day sharks study a lot of Japanese at school.”
- same – wa – mainichi – gakkou de – nihongo – o – takusan – benkyou shimasu.
- sharks – [topic marker / particle] – every day – school at – Japanese – [object marker / particle] – a lot – study.
This could be ordered quite a few different ways and not be incorrect. Such as…
- mainichi – same – wa – nihongo – o – gakkou de – takusan – benkyou shimasu.
- every day – sharks – [topic marker] – Japanese – [object marker] – school at – a lot – study.
Stuff is moved all over the place, but… The verb is at the end!
That sentence is probably confusing, sorry. But the concept is all that matters for now.
Are questions different?
No! Just add ‘ka’ （か） to the end of a sentence and it magically becomes a question. No different punctuation. No different word order.
私は学生です。 (watashi wa gakusei desu, “I am a student.”) becomes simply:
私は学生ですか。 (watashi wa gakusei desu ka, “Am I a student?”)
“I heard Japanese has lots of incomplete sentences…”
Yikes. This is a whole other post topic where I will go on for a thousand words about why this is simultaneously true and not true.
Still, for the sake of beginning studies, let’s just say that, Yes, you can leave out some things in a Japanese sentence if they can be understood or implied.
The best examples for this are with questions.
Q: “What is that?”
A: “That is a notebook.”
This, somewhat like in English, can be answered with just “a notebook.” (in Japanese, “notebook is”)
Q: それは何ですか。 （sore wa nan desu ka / それはなんですか）
A: ノートです。 (nouto desu)
Both the full sentence and just the answer “notebook is” (ノートです) are completely valid in both languages. However, in Japanese it is highly preferential to leave out unnecessary words. In this case, they are leaving out “sore wa” before “nouto desu.”
This will become very convenient as you continue to learn Japanese. They are a lot better at saying one-word sentences than we are in English!
Conclusion: I hope I didn’t confuse you.
If I did, ask questions in the comment section, and I’ll do my best to clarify. When I first started studying Japanese I found that topics like this made a lot more sense one I’d gotten some initial studies done and could come back to them with a little more understanding.
Maybe that will work for you?
Or you could always just buy a book to help teach you. Maybe this one:
I’ve never read it, though. So I can’t officially recommend it!
Good luck with your studies, everyone.
p.s. Here’s my free course, bundled with awesomeness (and love):