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TYJ Relative clauses in Japanese

This article is in the series Teach Yourself Japanese

7.6.1. Relative clauses and verbs

A relative clause has a principal noun and an explanatory phrase that are combined grammatically, and it has a base structure. For instance, "a picture that the artist drew" is a relative clause, where "picture" is a principal noun and "the artist drew" is an explanation. Its base structure is the sentence "The artist drew a picture." In English, relative pronouns such as that and who are used.

The way to make relative clauses in Japanese is quite easy.

Romanization:Ga ka ga e o ka i ta .
Structure:(noun, artist) (nominative marker) (noun, picture) (accusative marker) (verb, drew)

This sentence means "an artist drew a picture." Now let's create the phrase "the artist who drew the picture" in Japanese. You don't have to care about articles (a / the) here. As you have already learned, Japanese has a head-last rule, so it is clear that the noun がか "gaka" comes last in the relative clause. Just remove the noun and its postposition from the sentence and put the remainder before it, and you will get:

Romanization:e o ka i ta ga ka.
Structure:(noun, picture) (accusative marker) (verb, drew) (noun, artist)

It means "the artist who drew the picture." Since verbs appear at the end of sentences, a verb appearing in the middle of a sentence is always in a relative clause.

There are two essential rules for relative clauses. First, you cannot use the topic marker は "wa" in relative clauses, because topics and focuses are defined in a sentence, not a clause. Do not use the topic marker in a relative clause even when there is a topic word in it. Secondly, you cannot use polite mode in a relative clause, because polite mode affects only the predicator (a verb, a copula, or an adjective) at the end of a sentence. For example, the politeness suffix ます "masu" appears only at the end of sentences.

The following sentence means "the picture that the artist drew":

Romanization:ga ka ga ka i ta e .
Structure:(noun, artist) (nominative marker) (verb, drew) (noun, picture)

As you see, all you have to do is remove え "e" and its accompanying accusative marker and put the remainder before it.

The following sentence means "cherry blossoms bloomed.":

Romanization:Sa ku ra ga sa i ta .
Structure:(noun, cherry blossoms) (nominative marker) (verb, bloomed)

From this sentence, you can easily make "the cherry blossoms that bloomed" like this:

Romanization:sa i ta sa ku ra
Structure:(verb, bloomed) (noun, cherry blossoms)

You can also create a relative clause without removing a word. Here is the Japanese phrase for "the fact that the cherry blossoms bloomed":

And here is the phrase for "the time when the cherry blossoms bloomed":

Romanization:sa ku ra ga sa i ta to ki
Structure:(noun, cherry blossoms) (nominative marker) (verb, bloomed) (noun, time)

7.6.2. Relative clauses and adjectives

This sentence means "kimonos are beautiful.":

Romanization:Ki mo no wa u tu ku si i .
Structure:(noun, kimono) (topic marker) (adjective, is beautiful)

Since Japanese adjectives are similar to verbs, you can create relative clauses in the same way as you do for verbs.

The following sentence means "a kimono that is beautiful":

Romanization:u tu ku si i ki mo no
Structure:(adjective, is beautiful) (noun, kimono)

As you see, the word order of it is the same as that of the English phrase "a beautiful kimono". In fact, there is no difference between relative clauses and nouns with adjectives in Japanese. In English, the grammatical structures of "a beautiful kimono" and "a kimono that is beautiful" are entirely different, even though they have the same meaning.

You can easily create the phrase "a kimono that was beautiful" by using the past form of the adjective like this:

Romanization:u tu ku si ka t ta ki mo no
Structure:(adjective, was beautiful) (noun, kimono)

7.6.3. Relative clauses and copulas

Moving a predicator that is the combination of a noun and a copula to create a relative clause is not as easy as verbs and adjectives. First, you have to distinguish between two kinds of nouns: common nouns and adjectival nouns. The latter is also called na-adjectives, qualitative nouns, and copular nouns. As the name implies, an adjectival noun works like an adjective rather than like a noun.

Here is an example of a adjectival noun:

Romanization:ki re i
Structure:beautiful (adjectival noun)

This noun is not a common noun but an adjectival noun, which works like an adjective, so its translation is not beauty but beautiful. An adjectival noun cannot be a subject or an object; it must be in a predicator, accompanied by a copula.

This is a sentence that means "kimonos are beautiful," the same meaning as the example shown in the previous section:

Romanization:Ki mo no wa ki re i da .
Structure:(noun, kimono) (topic marker) (adjective noun, beautiful) (copula, is)

Its grammatical structure is similar to examples in the copula chapter, but its meaning is similar to the pattern in the adjectives chapter.

When you create a relative clause from the sentence above, you need to change the copula だ "da" to its special form な "na" like this:

Romanization:ki re i na ki mo no
Structure:(adjective noun, beautiful) (copula, is) (noun, kimono)

This means "a kimono that is beautiful", or "a beautiful kimono". You need to change the copula only when it is だ, i.e. when it is a nonpast form of the contracted copula.
Other forms of the copula will not chage, like this:

Romanization:ki re i da t ta ki mo no
Structure:(adjective noun, beautiful) (copula, was) (noun, kimono)

This means "a kimono that was beautiful."

Like copulas after adjectival nouns, you also need to change a nonpast-form copula accompanying a common noun when you create a relative clause from them, but you need to replace it not with な "na" but to の "no", which is the same as the genitive marker you have already learned.

For example, the following sentence means "Leaves are green":

Romanization:Ha p pa wa mi do ri da .
Structure:(noun, leave) (topic marker) (noun, green) (copula, is)

Since みどり "midori" is a common noun, the relative clause "a leaf that is green" becomes like this:

Romanization:mi do ri no ha p pa
Structure:(noun, green) (copula, is) (noun, leaf)

You may think the の "no" is the genitive marker instead of a form of the copula だ "da".

Past-form copulas remain unchanged for common nouns like adjectival nouns. Only the nonpast-form contracted copula matters.
Next article in the series 'Teach Yourself Japanese': Negative forms in Japanese
Previous article in the series 'Teach Yourself Japanese': Japanese adjectives
About author
My name is TAKASUGI Shinji. TAKASUGI is my family name, and Shinji is my given name; a family name is placed before a given name in Japan, as in other Asian nations. My family name is capitalized to avoid misunderstanding.

I have been living in Yokohama since I was born. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, which is just 30 kilometers away from the biggest city Tôkyô. It takes 30 minutes to go by train from home to Shibuya, which is the hottest town now in Tôkyô.

I work as a display engineer.

One of my hobbies is creating things with computers; creating programs, computer graphics and web pages is the thing I spent a lot of time doing. I am also interested in a wide range of sciences, and linguistics is my favorite. I like English and I like using it, but my focus is mainly on Japanese, which is my native language. I'm proud of knowing the language, and the difference between English and Japanese has been fascinating me. I have been thinking whether I can introduce it to people outside of Japan. My attempt of introducing Japanese with some Java applets has had more than 1 million visitors.


A sentence I heard from an anime: 今日から中学生なのわすれてた。
My doubt is relative to use of なの.
の is substituing だ (I understand that I can't use だ directly)?
Why な is being used together?
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