Yoda Word Order

Word Order in Japanese

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 Sentences

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?!)

Shark Eating a Seal

We say “Sharks eat seals.”  We don’t say “Sharks seals eat.”  That would be crazy.  That would be Japanese.

Japanese Sentences

Japanese is a SOV (subject-object-verb) language (so is Korean!… and Mongolian).

Examples:

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).

私は学生です。

(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.

Yoda Word Order

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!

Example:

“Every day sharks study a lot of Japanese at school.”

  • さめは毎日学校で日本語をたくさん勉強します。
  • 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…

  • 毎日さめは日本語を学校でたくさん勉強します。
  • 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?”)

Japanese Word Order

“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

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:


A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns

I’ve never read it, though. So I can’t officially recommend it!

Good luck with your studies, everyone.

Keep swimming!

Niko

Niko Profile Photo NihongoShark.com

p.s. Here’s my free course, bundled with awesomeness (and love):

Japanese Course Awesomeness.

Niko

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I'm also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Thailand! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is a betch. But we're in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. The best way to get in touch with me is probably via the (free) NihongoShark Chat Community (signup link)... which is also a sweet place for meeting other motivated students of Japanese.

Niko

Yo! I’m Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I’m also a Japanese translator, writer, and all-around language nerd.

I created this site to help as many people master Japanese (any language, really) as possible.

Uh, what else? Well… I live in Tokyo, Bangkok, Sapporo, Saigon, San Diego, Tokyo, Chiang Mai, Thailand! So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I’m probably down for that. Or a coffee. Learning Japanese is a betch. But we’re in this together. ファイト!

Good luck with your studies!

Niko

p.s. The best way to get in touch with me is probably via the (free) NihongoShark Chat Community (signup link)… which is also a sweet place for meeting other motivated students of Japanese.

  • My native language is Turkish, which is in the same language family as Mongolian and, according to some scholars, Japanese. (Yes, it’s intriguing that we’re in westernmost Asia and partially in Europe but our language is most related to Mongolian and Japanese.) The word order in Turkish is very very similar to what you describe above. Even the detail about one-word sentences is the same and so is the fact that the only fixed rule is that the verb has to come at the end of a sentence. Well, in fast speech, we sometimes say the verb right at the beginning or in the middle, but in normal speech and writing the rule is that the verb has to come at the end while the other elements of the sentence can be arranged in many different ways.

  • Wow, I have just realized that even the post-positions in Japanese are similar to Turkish! The post-position meaning “at” in Turkish is -de or -da. In the above translations I see that de means at in Japanese too! I also remember that the post-position in Japanese which means “to” is “a”. In Turkish, similarly, it is either -e or -a! The words are usually not similar at all, but you see, these “deeper” grammatical connections are there.

  • Nana

    Don’t a lot of Japanese speaker say certain sentences without adding any type of “I”, like 私, 僕, 僕 then what do you do?

  • Yeah, that is common. Pretty much any time a subject is understood from context, it’s OK to leave it out.

    Hope that answers you question ^^

  • Jacks

    “English (along with French, German, Spanish, and Italian) are subject-object-verb languages.”

    perhaps you need to rewrite this sentence in your article

  • Karen Leanne Sandberg

    LANGUAGE’S COUNTRY GOVERNMENT WAS STUDIES VERY WELL ON EACH OTHER GRAMMAR SUBJECT?