Point of interest: ambiguous subjects and missing pronouns

ambiguous subjects and missing pronouns
620 words
An aspect of Japanese that can initially be hard for learners is that subjects of sentences are often implied, not stated. The most common example is the absence of personal pronouns - typically if 'I' do something in Japanese, there is no need to actually begin the sentence with
. In other words, the normal way to say 'I am going' is simply
きます - there is no need to say
An English illustration
Although this is sometimes used to suggest Japanese is more 'vague' than English, it is simply that if the subject of a sentence is implied by the broader context, explicit references to the subject can be left out. Consider the following English:
Fred went shopping for dinner. He put his bag down on the floor while he reached for a high shelf, but he had a lot on his mind, and without thinking, he left the store without his bag.
In the second sentence, every occurrence of 'he' and 'his' refers to Fred - we know that from the first sentence. Once we know that, Japanese simply allows the personal pronouns to be left out:
Put bag down on the floor while reached for a high shelf, but had a lot on mind, and without thinking, left the store without bag.
Multiple subjects and unexpected particles
However, things can get a little more muddy in situations where multiple people are involved or implied. The typical English subject and object often don't exactly map to the Japanese equivalent, which can lead you to using incorrect particles if you're not careful. Sometimes it is easiest to remember the set expressions used in Japanese. For example, consider the following:

Did you get your hair cut?
In this Japanese sentence, the subject is missing, and even more confusingly, the implication seems to be that you cut your own hair!
In English, somebody is doing the hair cutting, and somebody is having their hair cut, and we would have to use extra words to make it clear who is doing what: 'Did the hairdresser cut your hair?'. To simplify things, we would typically use a different phrase such as 'get a haircut'.
Now consider this book title:
title of book, album etc.
An English guide to Japanese food.
This book title demonstrates a similar ambiguity. In English, we have to make it clear that it is the presentation of the recipes that is done in English. In Japanese, there is no such requirement.
Personal pronouns in example sentences in Kanshudo
When you are learning Japanese, of course you regularly encounter sentences that don't provide context. When a sentence is considered in isolation and it is not clear what the subject is, it is not 'wrong' to include a personal pronoun that would be omitted in a normal conversation. In other words, in textbooks (and Kanshudo) you will regularly encounter sentences that begin with
etc. However, it is important to remember that if you were using those same sentences in normal everyday speech, where the subject is obvious from context, you would omit those words.
What if you include a personal pronoun?
For example, what if you say
きます instead of
きます? Since the pronoun is not required, the fact that it is being used implies that you are making a point with it: I am going (instead of someone else going). For example, if a pizza arrives at the door, it would be reasonable to say 'I will go' to imply that you will be the one to go and get it. In a situation where that implication is not intended, it would just sound a little stilted - rather like saying 'I will be the one to go' instead of saying 'I will go'.

Kanji used in this point of interest

シ   わたくし    わたし I, myself   
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コウ   ギョウ   アン   ゆ    い to go   おこな to take place   
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ボク    me, I   
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ヒ   かれ he   
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ジョ   ニョ   ニョウ   woman; female   おんな woman   め woman   
ハツ   かみ hair (of the head)   
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セツ   サイ   き to cut   きれる to break, to snap   
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エイ    England; hero; flower   
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ゴ   かた to talk, relate   かたらう to talk together, chat   
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サク   サ   つく to make   
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ワ   オ    peace, harmony   なご to be calmed down   なごやか calm, gentle   やわらぐ to be softened   やわらげる to soften; to alleviate   
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ショク   ジキ    food   たべる to eat   く to eat   
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