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I got started on the letter, but I haven't finished writing it yet.

The ending かける indicates that an action has been started but has not been brought to a finish or an end. However in this example I am puzzled by the second half of the sentence.

If I break it down literally, this is the way I comprehend it:

手紙を書きかけたんですが、I started (but did not finish the letter), but...

まだ書いていません。 still am not writing (the letter).

Assuming the highlighted translation is correct, what am I misreading in the second half of the sentence? I am puzzled by the use of the negative in the second half, as I would have assumed まだ書いています would make more sense to correspond with the desired meaning of the translation. I guess in this example using 書いています would have expressed a completed action, so 書いていません means "not finished writing" rather than "not writing"?

Let me try making another example:


I started to make food, but I still haven't finished yet.

Compare the latter example to this:

A  ごはん作った?

B  まだ作っていません。

A  Did you make food?

B Not yet.

(perhaps implying that food preparation has not yet started?)

If one writes the original sentence in the positive how does the meaning change? Would the following translation be correct?


I got started on the letter, but I'm still writing it.

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まだ書いていません (I have not finished writing yet) is fine here, but I am not sure how to explain this…. まだ書いています (I am still writing) is also fine and has almost the same meaning (with a different focus). So if someone asks whether this person has finished writing, both まだ書いています and まだ書いていません mean almost the same thing. Interesting. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 3 '13 at 18:06
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1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

You might want to have a look at

When is Vている the continuation of action and when is it the continuation of state?

To summarize quickly, Japanese has "action verbs", for which ている expresses progressiveness

食べている is eating

and "change-of-state verbs" for which ている expresses completeness

落ちている has fallen (or maybe "is lying on the floor")

but the separation of verbs is not clear-cut. It highly depends on context, and also speaker preference, to some degree, it seems. See Does Vて+いる always mean an action already completed? for more discussion.

So in 書いている meaning "is writing", 書く is acting as an action verb, and when meaning "has written", it is acting as a change-of-state verb.

For what it's worth, the use of the ている form to indicate completion for action verbs is commonly discussed, but it seems to be a common observation that it's more common in the negative than the positive, i.e.

書いている most likely to mean "is writing", but might mean "has written"
書いていない ambiguous between "is not writing" and "has not written"

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Thank you. I was using "Japanese verbs at a glance" by Naoko Chino, which sometimes has quirky or unwieldy examples, it seems. –  yadokari Feb 4 '13 at 6:26
I agree that 書き終えていません is probably prescriptively more correct, but I do not think that there is anything wrong or ambiguous about saying まだ書いていません in OP’s example. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 4 '13 at 6:45
@TsuyoshiIto I agree that using ている as perfective aspect for action verbs is very common and correct in speech. And it might well be in (formal) writing as well, so maybe I shouldn't have added the last paragraph. There is definitely something fishy going on with the combination of tense-aspect and negative, too. The negative of 書いた is generally 書かなかった, but the negative of もう書いた is not まだ書かなかった, but rather まだ書いていない (or まだ書き終えていない). –  dainichi Feb 4 '13 at 7:52
@TsuyoshiIto, the example has context, so it's unambiguous, you're right. But 書いていない in isolation is ambiguous between "is not writing" and "has not written". –  dainichi Feb 4 '13 at 7:54
Well, I know that 書いていない in isolation can mean both “is not writing” and “has not written,” but I do not think that textbooks are expected to use sentences whose individual parts would be unambiguous even when used in isolation. The sentence “手紙を書きかけたんですが、まだ書いていません” as a whole sounds perfectly fine for me, and I find nothing wrong with including this sentence in textbooks. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 4 '13 at 16:44
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