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Why can -たて attach to some verbs and not others? What is a more precise definition of how to use it?

I had been aware of the suffix -たて as meaning 'an action just/newly completed/occurred' for a while but I covered it in my textbook more formally today. It attaches in the form of 連用形+たて. For example,
焼きたて = freshly baked
とりたて = freshly picked
ペンキ塗りたて = newly painted

However, my book also stated that you can't say the following.
読みたて
寝たて
食べたて

If the definition above was correct, I should be able to use it for those words. That definition is also supported by the dictionaries I've looked it up in:
Yahoo! Jisho "動詞の連用形に付いて、その動作が終わったばかりであることを表す"
Jisho.org "indicates activity only just occurred; just (done)"

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My books are all packed up, so I can't check to see if they say anything relevant... but I found a paper titled 「∼たて」に関する一考察 : 「∼たばかり」との比較を通して, which looks like it might be interesting. (I've only just started to read it. There's an English abstract on the final page, by the way.) –  snailboat Jul 2 '13 at 13:39
    
My feeling is that it's only used for things "produced" or "brought about". –  dainichi Jul 4 '13 at 2:18
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3 Answers 3

This is only my own gut feeling, but I'm fairly certain the distinction involves whether or not the verb produces an object (not grammatical object!) in a time-dependent state. 焼きたて, for example, refers to baked goods that are fresh out of the oven and thus still quite warm - they haven't cooled yet. ペンキ塗りたて refers to something that's been very recently painted and probably still wet - it hasn't dried yet. とりたて refers to fruit (and such things) that has recently been picked and is thus still very fresh - it hasn't had any of the decomposition processes associated with being removed from its tree begin in earnest yet.

The impossible phrases don't produce objects in clear time-dependent states. For *読みたて, while there is a state of 'recently having read a book and thus remembering its contents well', this applies to the reader, not the book itself. *寝たて doesn't even have any objects associated with it closely enough. For *食べたて, like *読みたて, the state of 'having recently eaten and now being full / no longer hungry' applies to the eater, not the food; and the food's state of having been eaten is not in any way time-dependent.

-たて may also require that the item being referred to would be the verb's grammatical object (ruling *寝たて out), but I'm not sure. I can't think of any counterexamples, but there might be some.

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One of a few aspects of the term that I learned from my own question on 立{た}つ is that it can contain a concept of "emergence", in the sense of "to become evident". Not necessarily a deliberate creation, but in some sense that there is a result after a process.

Thus, in the examples you give, you can see in the correct usages that something comes of the action:

  • 焼{や}きたて = the cooked thing becomes different in that it's now an edible thing

  • とりたて = you how have the thing that you picked

  • ペンキ塗{ぬ}りたて = something is now a painted thing, a different appearance

Whereas in the incorrect usages you provide, it's hard to see that anything would have emerged as a result:

  • × 読{よ}みたて - Nothing is made from reading (putting aside deep philosophical arguments about creating a better person... nothing is literally made)

  • × 寝{ね}てたて - Sleep is a state bestowed upon you, and nothing is there after that wasn't there before

  • × 食{た}べたて - Quite the opposite of emergence, things are essentially destroyed by consumption

Hope that helps.

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There is some children's game, where one player positions his hand in front of the other players face, pointing into the four directions up, down, left, right, according to a rhythm. The second player has to look into one direction. If he looks into the direction the finger points in, he loses.

The rhythm is given by saying the following:

生まれたて, 一才, 二才, 三才, …

The longer you last without looking into the same direction, the older you "are". Being declared 生まれたて, is particularly funny, not only because that means you are a baby, but also because 生まれたて sounds like 焼きたて, i.e. an unnatural use of the suffix ~たて. I think Sjiveru's answer already explains quite well the nuance of ~たて. I would think that 食べたて might be appropriate in some programme which follows the food through the digestive system. A 食べたて food would be food that has been swallowed, but hasn't started to be digested.

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「あっち向いてホイ」みたいなゲーム・・・? –  Choko Jul 4 '13 at 22:51
    
@Chocolate そうです。「あっち向いてホイ」のアドバンストバージョンですね。 –  Earthliŋ Jul 4 '13 at 23:16
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