On Grammar

Momoko is really amazing, she only recently started learning Japanese, but she’s had, virtually word-for-word, the same grammatical insights as one of the most respected (if controversial) Japanese writers: HONDA Katsuichi (本多 勝一). Honda discussed his ideas on grammar in his primer on how to write easily understandable Japanese: 日本語の作文技術 (Nihongo no Sakubun Gijutsu, Techniques for Japanese Essay-Writing). Between them, Momoko and Honda have taught me things that I never knew before; they have opened my eyes to new possibilities.

And it makes me sad. Sad because there’s so much that I don’t know; I am so ignorant that it makes me wonder what business I have running a site telling you how to learn Japanese? Why not just shut down?

I really was thinking that. But then it hit me: I am reading Honda’s book in Japanese and I almost never need to use my dictionary — I even know the readings of the special kanji he gives readings for. I am reading books about Japanese grammar and about how to write Japanese in the Japanese language. Something, somewhere must have gone right…

To paraphrase Honda: most people are taught in school, and continue to believe as adults, that grammar has been decided. It’s this list of rules that’s fixed, unchanging, was set down by intellectual superbeings in the ivory tower. And that’s a bunch of bollocks. Grammar is a moving target. As we speak, it is literally in flux, shifting like the desert sands. OK, slower than desert sands, but it is on the move. To see it as a fixed thing is to see it in error.

Which brings me to my first point: you are probably fluent in at least one language: your “native” language. In at least this language, you almost always know when a sentence is right or when it is wrong. And although you can almost never explain why, if you were to just read a well-written grammar book, you would very quickly understand why. That’s the thing about grammar: it’s only useful after-the-fact!

Grammar is like conspiracy theories: good at explaining past events, but lousy at predicting the future: too many exceptions, conditions, procycles and epicycles make it inelegant, much like Ptolemaic cosmology.

Grammar is an ex post facto analytical tool; it’s a tool for talking about language after the language has been written and spoken. But, as for actually learning/using language and knowing what to say before you need to say it, grammar is about as useful as an extra orifice at the tip of your elbow.

Before grammar, learn Japanese. Get fluent at real Japanese first. Learn the how. Afterwards, you can start to look at the why of grammar and be like: “oooooooh that’s why”. When you try to use grammar a priori, you only end up with verbal diarrhea for text and brain farts for thoughts; when you use grammar a posteriori, then you have insight.

Because grammar is a tool for discussing language, you first need some language to be able to discuss. In fact, you need a heckuavalot of language; you need a buttload of reference points in order for grammar to be at all meaningful. Anyone who has learned Latin in school knows this by counterexample: “decline the ablative singular of bellum”, says the teacher. WHAT? Who forking cares?! The ablative singular just doesn’t mean anything to most of us (oh, wait, it means “by/with/from/in/on/at”…yeah, thanks, that really helps: it totally makes sense now :(). The problem isn’t that Latin is dead; the problem is that almost everyone who studies it knows so little of it that a grammatical discussion has no analogue in actual experience and therefore is a form of verbal diarrhea. Make no mistake: humans are concrete beings; we talk of abstract generalisms, but we think in concrete analogies.

Focus on sentences, sentences, sentences. Learning thousands of correct Japanese sentences will build your Japanese senses; it will develop in you that child-like instinct to decide “this is the right way to say X”. And then, after that, when you want to sharpen the saw, you can read all about Japanese grammar in Japanese, written by a Japanese person who knows what the heck she’s talking about.

So that’s the deal with grammar. I know I’ve put some grammatical explanations in the sentence packs and in Dick and Jane, but those are just hand-wavy explanations to soothe your natural desire for a reason, and they come after the sentences because they are less important. What matters is actual Japanese; grammar may be cool for discussion, but it simply won’t help all that much when you’re up Shiitake Creek (a famous Japanese creek made entirely of mushrooms) without a paddle. When you’re alone on the ground in Japan, you don’t need to know whether or not “kuru” is a base 5 verb. You need to know how to open a bank account.

  17 comments for “On Grammar

  1. james
    December 22, 2006 at 09:21

    Hello khatzumoto,

    I have started following your method or the 文章方法 as I am calling it. However I am already an intermediate learner and I finished Heisig Book 1 over a year ago and so I have moved straight on to learning sentences wothout translation. Even in just two weeks of using the sentence method my progress has increased rapidly. I honestly believe thinking in Japanese is getting closer and closer. I read on the antimoon page that using a textbook is not recommended. The textbook I currrently use is ニューアプローチ中上級日本語 (entirely written in Japanese). I am wondering if I should give it up and just concentrate on the sentence method?

    what would your advice be?


  2. khatzumoto
    December 22, 2006 at 11:15

    Hey James!

    Congratulations on finishing Heisig, that’s an outstanding achievement!
    Thanks for your comment (and for the sweet method name).
    Yeah, I’m pretty anti-textbook (http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/how-to-use-a-japanese-textbook), and the folk at AntiMoon are absolutely right: textbooks are often so sanitized that they give you an awkward, unnatural version of a language that’s light years away from the real thing. If you’ve ever seen a textbook for English learners then you’ll know what I mean. It’s like, yeah, it’s English, but who on earth says “how do you do?”.

    Having said that, your textbook is
    1) All in Japanese, and
    2) Has sentences
    If, on top of that, it is
    3) Fun
    Then there’s no need to summarily throw it away. You can certainly mine it for sentences. BUT if it ever bores you, then don’t feel like you have to “plough through” it. Japanese was meant to be fun; you’re sacrificing enough every time you choose something Japanese over something in English, you need not sacrifice joy as well.

    There are two really cool quotes attributed to Bruce Lee; I don’t know for sure whether he actually said them or not, but they have some value and bear repeating:

    >> “Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction…”
    >> “Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”
    We probably don’t want to deny textbooks for the sake of denying them. But if they suck, then it’s best to be rid of them.

    Anyway, congratulations on doing all your stuff in Japanese! That’s wonderful. You’re obviously so good and so persistent already that fluency is just a foregone conclusion :).

  3. Jimmy
    December 2, 2007 at 21:18

    I agree that grammar is often a hindrance. I know it from personal experience; when I play the “put together a Japanese sentence game” I take forever to say anything and when I finally do, it comes out unnatural and awkward. I also notice that when I speak English with foreign language learners I can almost hear the clanking of the rusty gears turning in their heads.

    However, how are you supposed to learn some things without some kind of explanation? For example, things like “んです” or “って”? I mean, they’re often not found in dictionaries, and if they are, isn’t the definition itself kind of like a grammatical explanation? I know questions like this must be obnoxious, but I’m really not trying to be annoying; I’m just trying to make sure I get on the right track.

  4. khatzumoto
    December 2, 2007 at 21:29

    There’s nothing wrong with an explanation at all. As long as it doesn’t get in the way, like you said when the gears are clanking, something is wrong.

    >isn’t the definition itself kind of like a grammatical explanation?
    I guess that’s a matter of definition 8) …but, sure. What I understood to be “grammar” was the whole “here is the overall, abstract set of meta-rules, memorize it, and then use it to crank stuff out”. In real life, that doesn’t work, it’s not how humans work, I think…Computers are all about that.

    >I’m just trying to make sure I get on the right track.
    As long as it’s in Japanese…it’s always the right track :). Don’t worry, you’re not walking some tightrope with “certain death and crappy Japanese” on either side. Really. The key is just to keep things in Japanese and have fun doing it.

  5. Jimmy
    December 2, 2007 at 22:36

    Hey, thanks a lot! You know, probably more than anything, your encouragement has done a lot to revamp my Japanese game. Now on to do some sentence reps! 🙂

  6. ~
    August 19, 2008 at 08:58

    Grammar is like my best friend! Even if it sounds right to say “I’m better than her.” I just have to say “I’m better than she.” or “I’m better than she is.” Don’t bully him/her! ;-;

    “here is the overall, abstract set of meta-rules, memorize it, and then use it to crank stuff out”

    Hahaha, that’s so true but I love it anyway. I was actually pretty surprised when I learned the past tense for verbs… it was so… easy. Before whenever I heard about it, it was described as being like the most complex thing on the planet. At the same time, memorizing sentences just kills me. @_@ For me, learning by sentence is just a way to enforce grammar. I guess the learning method just depends on how you learn, and most people don’t think about grammar.

  7. August 19, 2008 at 13:06

    ~>> I’m glad I’m not the only one who actually enjoys grammar. 😀 Seems like we could both use a good grammar book actually written in Japanese, to pursue our common interest the AJATT way.

  8. June 19, 2009 at 04:44

    Well… I don’t think about the grammar in Spanish… I just speak the right way… then again, Spanish is grammatically very simple. English… not so. Japanese– YES. Thank you… *does not think about grammar. must not.*

  9. Serguei
    July 21, 2010 at 23:36

    “you are probably fluent in at least one language: your “native” language. In at least this language, you almost always know when a sentence is right or when it is wrong”

    Almost? How many native English speakers confuse “its and it’s”? How many say “if you would have said” instead of “if you had said”? “I wanna lay down” instead of “I wanna lie down”? Probably a majority, even though they have beeen exposed to correct English since birth. If one of your 10,000 sentences is the Japanese equivalent of “if you would have said” and you do not know that it’s inappropriate in a formal situation you are in trouble.

    • Jason
      February 14, 2011 at 05:42

      Yeah….most Americans are in trouble because they don’t know the difference between “I wanna lay down” and “I wanna lie down”…

      they’re in trouble…they’re in some serious shit…they’ll never make it through Life…

      give me a fucking break.

    • Ben
      June 27, 2017 at 23:40

      This demonstrates the problem with learning grammar right here. You’ve stated that a majority of native English speakers would say “if you would have said”, and they don’t even know it’s wrong. Who said it’s wrong? If the majority of native speakers don’t think it’s wrong, whose business is it to tell them that it is? Nobody’s business, that’s whose. It is not, in fact, wrong to say “if you would have said”, nor is it wrong to say “I wanna lay down”. This is how native English speakers speak, and it is native English speakers that determine what is correct English, not whatever grammar guide you read that told you those sentences are wrong. The purpose of grammar is to describe the rules of how a language is used. If a grammar guide disagrees with how the majority of speakers use the language, then it is the grammar guide that is wrong, not the other way around.

  10. September 7, 2010 at 05:44

    I gotta admit, Serguei, I knew all those grammar rules except “if you would have said”.

    That’s not something I would say, but I didn’t know it was wrong either. 😮

  11. Kimura
    October 19, 2011 at 05:08

    Hmm… So that’s why, when I’m reading through Tae Kim’s Guide in full-on form, I’m *zzzzzzzz*, but when I’m just reading the sentences by themselves in Anki, it’s もう楽しい?
    It also explains why just cracking open Nakama (the textbook we used in my college classes) lately, my first and only thought is “Screw this, I’m gonna watch ChimneySwift fail at Minecraft.”

  12. Insiya
    November 8, 2012 at 10:06

    I love Google Translate because when I enter some phrases in Japanese on the English side, it shows how to say them on the Japanese side (audio and text)

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