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Grammar detail: Japanese word order

Japanese word order
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English has a fairly well established sentence order -
subject
verb
object
. For example: the boy ran for the bus. Japanese typically follows the pattern
subject
object
verb
. However, Japanese has some flexibility in this pattern, which actually makes things easier.
If a verb is present, it will almost always come at the end of the sentence
  • わたし
    すし
    寿司
    べました I (subject) ate (verb) sushi (object)
The subject and the object of a sentence are always marked with appropriate particles
Japanese particles are short words which come immediately after the item they affect, and specify the item's role in the sentence. This effective and efficient technique means that word order can be somewhat more flexible, and unnecessary terms can be dropped entirely.
  • わたし
    は (subject marker)
    すし
    寿司
    を (object marker)
    べました I ate sushi
  • すし
    寿司
    を (object marker)
    べました I ate sushi
    (the 'I' is implied, and not necessary)
  • べました I (already) ate
    (in this case the 'I' is implied, and the object - what you ate - would be inferred from the context)
With certain constructions that express a state of being, a verb is not necessary
  • すし
    寿司
    きです I like sushi
  • すし
    寿司
    き I like sushi
    (the expression 好き describing the 'state of liking' does not need です in informal use)
Complex sentences are built by combining relative clauses
In Japanese, sentences can be turned into 'subordinate clauses' and joined with other clauses to make more complex sentences. The clauses are linked by - you guessed it - particles, which makes the whole structure very logical and predictable once you are completely familiar with the particles.
  • べたと
    おも
    った I thought he ate
    ('he ate', which could be a completely functional standalone sentence, has been turned into a subordinate clause by the addition of 'thought')
Relative clauses typically follow a predictable order
Ordering is not 100% strict, but sentences combining relative clauses would typically use the following order:
  • Topic clause (the clause ending with the topic marker は)
  • Subject clause (ending with が) if present
  • Direct object clause (ending with を) if present
  • Verb modifying clause (often ending with に) if present
  • Verb
In general, clauses that modify verbs are usually placed immediately prior to the verbs they go with.
ボール
じめん
地面
うえ
わたし
かって
ころがった
The ball rolled on the ground towards me.
ボールは = topic clause ➜ subject clause not present ➜ 地面の上を = direct object clause ➜ 私に向かって = clause modifying the verb ➜ ころがった = verb
A sentence can be turned into a relative clause, and then used as the subject of another sentence
For example, consider the sentence:
  • すし
    寿司
    べる
    ひと
    ふと
    りません the man who eats sushi will not get fat
In English, we modify the original sentence 'the man eats sushi' with the addition of 'who': 'the man who eats sushi ...'. The Japanese approach is similar, but more elegant. Instead of adding any additional words to the original sentence, we simply put all the words that form the sentence before their subject (人), and drop the subject particle entirely:
ひと
すし
寿司
べる ➜
すし
寿司
べる
ひと
.
We can now use this relative clause in exactly the same way as the unmodified noun, 人.
This concept allows 'chaining' of sentences into very complex constructions, and it is one of the most powerful aspects of Japanese grammar. However, it can be difficult for new users of the language. One issue is that the English translation of the whole may not be apparent until the verb at the very end is known. As well as making life difficult for simultaneous interpreters, this means that the whole the sentence needs to be kept in mind before a translation can be formed.
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Kanji used in this grammar

シ   わたくし    わたし I, myself   
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寿
ジュ   ス   ことぶき longevity   
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シ    administer   
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ショク   ジキ    food   たべる to eat   く to eat   
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コウ   この    す to like   
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シ   おも to think   
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チ   ジ    ground   
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メン   おもて mask, features, surface   おも surface   つら face   
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ジョウ   ショウ   うえ above   うわ- above   あげる to raise   あがる to rise   かみ first half, upper part   のぼ to climb   のぼせる to bring up, to raise   のぼ to bring up   
コウ   むかう to confront   む to turn towards   むこう opposite direction   むける to direct towards   
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ジン   ニン   ひと person   
タ   タイ   ふと fat   ふと to get fat, to put on weight   
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