When you have Trouble Understanding a J-E Sentence

I was asked a great question recently by alliance member Nayr about what to do when you just quite don’t understand why a sentence is the way it is. You understand all the parts of the sentence, but just can’t grasp the whole. I’ve been asked similar questions like this before, so I thought this answer might provide some guidance to all those who may feel the same way sometimes.

What to do When you Just Dont Understand

Question
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What do you do in situations where you can read every word in a given sentence, you can even understand the grammar as it has been used in previous cards, but for some reason the sentence meaning just doesn’t make sense to you? For example:

僕は1個しか貰えませんでした。

Now I have already learned that しか when following a number gives the sense of “only that many”.

And I already knew 貰える is a potential verb, giving the sense of “can do” “the ability to do” “possible” etc.

So when I looked at this sentence and saw “貰えませんでした” I read  “Could not get”. And then I look “1個しか”  I read “as few as one” or “only one”.

So when I read the complete sentence, I struggle to see how this sentence does not mean “I could not even get one.”

The only reason I know it doesn’t say this is because of the English in the textbook says “I could only get one.” The textbook doesn’t give anymore explanation about it.

How can someone progress from here? Do you just remember what it says without understanding why?

I know you say not to ask why, and always ask how or what, but there will always be a voice inside my head saying “WHY??”

To me “I could only get one.” should be ”僕は1個しか貰えました。” Of course I know this is wrong… but I don’t know why it is wrong…

When this happens in J-J, how will I even know when I am wrong to start with?


Answer

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What happens with grammar like this, is that when you first see it and its explanation, it may not make full sense. It’s kind of like you are missing a small piece in the puzzle. So sometimes in some Anki cards, you may misinterpret a meaning.

This is completely common. It has happened to me in the past many times.

Let’s assume you learned the above sentence and you didn’t have the English translated sentence. You read the sentence, and learned it as “I could not even get one” incorrectly. Remember, when you get to J-J, you won’t have an English translation to check it on.

Sounds bad? Well what do you think will happen the first time you hear it in immersion? And a kid on some TV show says 一個しか貰えませんでした while he is holding only one piece of candy. Then you see it again in a different context with the same situation.

You would quickly and naturally realize that you were wrong. It doesn’t mean “I could not even get one,” but means “I could only get one.” Otherwise it doesn’t make sense in the situations you’ve seen it in.

Immersion cures all misunderstandings. Check out this piece for reference.

しか is always used with the negative form of verb. It can’t be used with the positive form.

Why? It doesn’t matter.

And let’s say you didn’t know this rule? You would pick it up after hearing it 5 or 10 different ways in various TV shows or movies or anime.



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.

Comments

When you have Trouble Understanding a J-E Sentence — 30 Comments

  1. I have sort of experienced the same thing many times with Anki cards, especially when it’s not Anki cards I’ve made myself, like cards from The One Deck. But in time the understanding always gets there and I’ve even ‘corrected'(made an alteration to the explanation) very old cards when I’ve understood them fully.

    It’s nice to get verification on how to deal with it though!

  2. Great advice, and pretty much how I’ve been dealing with this issue.

    The only thing I’d point out is that I find the example a bit unnatural, since I would expect any textbook to explain that しか always goes with ない (and if not this is really a problem on the part the textbook).

    So let me contribute my favorite example of something somewhat similar happening to me:
    Amongst my first J-J anki cards was the following sentence (from Twitter):
    女子高生がよく見える位置に椅子を移動した。
    with the following definitions on the back:
    女子高生: 女子高校生。
    位置: ものがある所。ものがあるべき場所。また、ある場所を占めること。
    移動: ある場所から他の場所へ移ること。
    Looking at these definitions NOW they look super obvious and easy, but they were not that super easy at the time. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had to look up the Heisig keywords to even guess what 位置 and 移動 meant. Anyway, after a little of keyword checking/comparing guesses with definitions, I roughly came up with the correct understanding:
    女子高生: high school girl
    位置: position/location/something of the sort
    移動: to move/reposition/something of the sort
    Putting it all together I came up with the following interpretation:
    “High school girls can often be seen moving chairs around”
    Sound a bit funny, to be sure, but I guess that’s precisely why someone would comment about it on twitter…, right?
    Now, I wouldn’t be writing this comment if that interpretation was correct, so here’s the correct one:
    “The high school girl moved (her) chair to a position (where she) could see better”
    The main culprit for the misinterpretation, then, would be that innocent looking よく, which can roughly mean both “better” and “often”.

    There’s really not much of a story for how this interpretation got corrected in mind, though: one day the card just came back up in the reviews, I read it and understood it correctly, thought “oh I was wrong about it all along”, and just moved on. What this means is that sometime in between reviews of that card my understanding of grammar developed enough that a previously confusing sentence structure became clear.

    So does this mean that it was useless to include that sentence in an Anku card the first place? Of course not, because it’s also the card from which I learned the meaning of 女子高生, and which helped me grasp the meanings of 位置 and 移動.

    Which leads me to my main rule when creating cards: the most important thing when adding a new card is not that you understand everything about it, rather it is that you understand something NEW that you didn’t before.

    • “The only thing I’d point out is that I find the example a bit unnatural, since I would expect any textbook to explain that しか always goes with ない (and if not this is really a problem on the part the textbook).”

      Well as unrealistic as it might seem, this was a real life example of a problem that I was having at the time with this sentence. Perhaps it is in the Genki textbook somewhere, perhaps I just accidentally skipped it somewhere, who knows, it was a while ago.

      Either way I found Adshap’s advice to be helpful and I am sure it will help others in similar situations.

      • I agree with Alexandre in the sense that obvious grammar is obvious but he completely missed the point of the article.

        When this happens (which of course happened to me a lot):
        “Perhaps it is in the Genki textbook somewhere, perhaps I just accidentally skipped it somewhere, who knows …”

        This is always the best solution:
        “And let’s say you didn’t know this rule? You would pick it up after hearing it 5 or 10 different ways in various TV shows or movies or anime.”

        You could probably jump-start this process by actively seeking out more usages of that grammar, but what’s even more awesome is that once you realize you have a niggle with a form of grammar you brain will start to pick it out all over the place.

        • “I agree with Alexandre in the sense that obvious grammar is obvious but he completely missed the point of the article.”

          I don’t see how you could have read my post and think that.
          I think the advice is great, I just find the example less than compelling. That is to say: If I were back at the earlier levels and I was seeing this example my honest reaction would probably be “how can you miss that しか always goes with ない?, wasn’t that basically the one thing to know about it?” rather than to find the misunderstanding a natural one.

          So to make it clear: all I’m doing is pointing out that “I don’t think I would have been convinced by this example” and providing one I think would have worked better for me at the time I would have needed it.
          You are free to disagree, but the really productive thing to do here would be for you to try to find an actual example of this thing happening to you and posting it. THAT is what would be really helpful since a wealth of examples beats a single one.

      • “Well as unrealistic as it might seem, this was a real life example of a problem”
        Yeah, I realized that afterwards. For disclosure, when I wrote my comment I was actually under the impression that Adshap had been the one “building” the example, and the fact that I found the problem unnatural somehow reinforced that notion.

        Either way, my point was not to demean the misunderstanding (and after all, the example of mine I list sounds pretty silly to me now too) but rather to provide another example.
        I feel that too often this kind of posts end up being too much about generalities: the post will detail a general problem, and point to the general solution, and there will be lots of comments from lots of people affirming that “yes, the problem is very common, and yes the solution really works”, but when it comes to actual practical examples of the general problem you’ll only get one (which is often times chosen to be simpler and more clear cut, rather than actually representative). And, well, it goes without saying that “one” is too little to actually display a general pattern.

    • 女子高校生がよく見える位置に椅子を移動した

      Maybe it could be different depending on the context, but doesn’t this actually mean “(I) moved my chair to a position where (I) could better view the high school girls”?

      • I love you for that translation. yes, you are right. it depends on the context and the person reading it (lol).

        anyways, ill add another problem . When reading manga, have you ever had any problem knowing which one is talking?! that’s another kind of misinterperation.

      • Great catch.

        Now that you mention it I’m actually simply not sure. I just don’t yet have a strong enough grasp on exactly when to use は・が・を to be sure. From my current understanding it sounds like it could be any of i) genuinely ambiguous ii) mildly ambiguous but with one of the options sounding less natural iii) one option clearly right and the other clearly wrong.

        Of course, when reading it in real life it really doesn’t matter since you’re bound to have enough context to automatically get the right meaning.

        Which actually connects to something I’ve been doing with my Anki cards for quite awhile now: if available I always include the sentences before and after to the one I’m trying to learn.

      • That would be my interpretation of the sentence as well. Especially considering it’s from Twitter and Twitter looks for that kind of humor.

        Otherwise, to get the translation “The high school girl moved (her) chair to a position (where she) could see better”, I would have written:
        女子高校生が、よく見えるように椅子の位置を移動した。

        Either way, having a guy say he moved his chair to see high school girls better is a lot more Twitter-esque than the comment about how a high school girl simply moved her chair to see better.

        • Well, for anyone interested, “I moved my chair” is the right interpretation. I went and tracked down the post, to get the context, here are the adjacent posts:

          試験監督のアルバイトをしてるんですが、目の前でたくさんの可愛い女子高生が苦悶の表情で数学の問題を解いてて、なんというか、もう、たまりませんね!

          試験監督やって生きていくか

          女子高生がよく見える位置に椅子を移動した

          自分で作った問題なので、より一層興奮しますね!

          I’m literally speechless right now… Let’s just say that I’m expecting to spend sometime this weekend preparing a math test for the class I’m currently teaching. Though I guess there are no 女子高生s here since the students are undergrads, and there’s no lecturers chair in the room either… Goodness… Did I come back from the future to write that?

        • And I just realized I was off my knockers after looking at the original sentence again. The girls are doing the moving because of the particle が. If the guy was watching them move, then the particle would be を. Wish we could delete our comments sometimes..

          • Great example haha! And it shows why with context and exposure things will make more sense.

            必勝, you are correct (and Kure you were originally correct until you decided to change your mind!)

            In the full context that was finally provided, it 100% means as 必勝 pointed out:

            (I) moved my chair to a position where (I) could better view the high school girls.

            It shows the slightly perverted nature of the test examiner enjoying the squirming around of the high school girls as they struggle with math problems.

            私は could be added at the beginning (before the 女子高生が) to clarify the subject of the sentence and who is doing the moving.

            However, the original sentence without the context has ambiguity because there is no 主語 (subject).

            女子高生がよく見える位置に椅子を移動した

            This could mean that it was the high school girls who were actually moving. However, if you interpreted it this way, you are adding an additional ambiguity because the speaker of this wouldn’t be including what it is they are trying to see which resulted in their move.

            However, Japanese sentences are often filled with ambiguity, so this interpretation without context is very possible. This is why even among Japanese people speaking with each other you will occasionally here “主語は?” what is the subject of this sentence?

            • Yes, I see that the が was referring to the potential form of 見える which goes with my original thought. I should have just stopped there. This is why I tend to not look at the interpretations/translations/Jpn of non-native people as I tend to get influenced by mistakes. No matter what language it is. (Kind of like when you keep seeing the their/there/they’re mistakes on forums to a point where you slip in the mistake as well just via passive osmosis. Despite your best efforts!) Going to shut up now. >_>

            • No worries. It happens to the best of us. As you said, it can be easy to doubt yourself due to outside influence, even in your native language

            • “This could mean that it was the high school girls who were actually moving. However, if you interpreted it this way, you are adding an additional ambiguity because the speaker of this wouldn’t be including what it is they are trying to see which resulted in their move.”

              Definitely. But I wasn’t worried about this because
              i) I knew I was missing the context (in fact, I seem to remember that I found this line by doing a search on twitter by the word “女子高生”. Not that I would have been able to handle the context back then) , so the author might have just explained that before
              ii) the sentence fits so perfectly the stereotype that teenage girls are always looking for gossip that I sort of filled it under that. My mental image was something like this: suppose something unusual is happening in the courtyard of the school (maybe they can hear some loud voices, but anything will do really). Can’t you just imagine the girls all immediately shifting they chairs to get a peek?

              Well, as it turns out I was totally right about it being a stereotype, though the joke is really on me, as it is the stereotype that guys will take a peek at cute girls anytime they can… Somehow stereotypes aren’t nearly as fun when you fit into them… :(

              And there’s definitely no way I’ll be forgetting this sentence anytime soon now… In fact, I’m sure that when I give my class my test and any of the cute girls is looking thoughtful while trying to solve one of the problems I made, THIS little sequence of twitter posts will be the thing on my mind.

  3. “Well what do you think will happen the first time you hear it in immersion? And a kid on some TV show says 一個しか貰えませんでした while he is holding only one piece of candy. Then you see it again in a different context with the same situation.”

    With sentences that I don’t understand and haven’t yet heard them in immersion can’t I just go to my Japanese aunt and ask her to say these in context. Like you said the kid on tv and candy, instead of the kid cant she just “act” the sentences so it’s like I am hearing them in immersion, but at the same time she doesn’t tell me the translation? Sorry I can’t really explain it that well.

    • Check out World 9 of the walkthrough on this site.

      Also if you really want a very concise and step by step guide, you might want to get the branch annihilator.

  4. ここで最も続きが読みたい漫画を決定する!
    Here – most – continuing – want to read Manga – decide
    Here decide the most continuing Manga that you want to read

    I don’t understand this at all. Have I misunderstood the components? With no context it is very hard to figure this out.

    I’ve got the idea of a geographical location ‘here’, the idea of what I guess is ‘the most long-running Manga’, ‘wanting to read’ and ‘decide’.
    Is it deciding you want to read the longest-running Manga? Then why ‘here’?

    Can someone help me here, and even better – what process could I use to figure this out myself? This is a card I’ve been looking at for some time. I generally ignore light confusion for a while, but this is one that isn’t clearing up for me.

    • 続きis actually a noun that means something like “continuation” or perhaps “sequel”

      So the whole phrase 最も続きが読みたい漫画 would mean “Manga whose continuation I want to read the most”

      What ここ actually refers to should be apparent in the context, but it doesn’t necessarily HAVE to refer to a concrete location. It could be a point in time, or a non-physical location, like a forum post, etc.

      • Thanks! And it makes much more sense if 最も applies to the 読みたい rather than the 続き. This is the sort of problem I have – how the different bits of a sentence relate to each other rather than what each piece means in isolation.
        I thought that 続き meant ‘continuation’ but I couldn’t see how something could be the /most/ continuation.

  5. I just started doing sentences. Sometimes the order the words are in make no sense. Can the words be in any order as long as it has the right particle behind it?

    If there is a place on this website that is good for asking random questions could someone point me to it, please? I posed this here because it seemed relevant to the post.

    • There isn’t really an open Q&A section per se, but asking questions where it’s relevant should be fine. Also, if you bought any of Adam’s sentence decks, you can email him directly with questions. His explanations have always been great in my experience.

      Anyway, the answer to your question here is complicated. Japanese is a lot more flexible than English in terms of sentence structure, BUT there are still some rules to be mindful of. If you can provide an example of a sentence that’s throwing you, and what specifically is confusing, I’d be happy to take a crack at explaining it =)

    • The only strict rule is: “Verb must come at the end of the sentence” (excluding sentence particles like ね、よ). Rest is all flexible.

      For example(I am using a mix of Japanese/English):
      English:I go to market with friend.

      There are many correct ways to write this. I’ll show two of them.:
      僕は  Marketに  Friendと  行く。(Correct)
      僕は  Friendと  Marketに  行く。(Correct)

      僕は  行く  Marketに  Friendと。 (Incorrect, because verb is not at the end)
      ———————-
      Further Reading: http://www.guidetojapanese.org/blog/2005/02/16/debunking-the-japanese-sentence-order-myth/

      • Although there is a difference (very very minor) in the nuances of both correct statements (first one emphasizes “with a friend”, while the second one emphasizes “to market”, in other words the distance from the verb matters), I wouldn’t worry about it :D

      • Even the verb at the end isn’t a hard rule (at least colloquially).

        Though I imagine he’s struggling with something more complicated, like nested sentences. Hard to say without seeing an example.

    • As you said, for the most part the order is fairly free as long as the particles are attached in the right places. The nuance, formality, eloquence, etc. will vary, but a major feature in Japanese is being able to mix and match your sentences and completely reverse the order.

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