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Since my recent question about 〜く+ある, I've been trying to learn more about the differences between 形容詞「無い」 and 助動詞「〜ない」. In other words, I'm trying to learn how the independent adjective nai and the negative verb suffix -(a)nai are different.

We have a question about whether verbs ending in 〜ない are adjectives already, and in one answer, a user writes that the negative verb 食べない can't take the suffix -さ, so *食べなさ is unacceptable. I was curious whether that was true of all verbs, so I decided to search for なさ in the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese (BCCWJ). Unfortunately, this had a lot of false positives due to forms like 〜なさい, 〜なさそう, 〜なさすぎる, and verbs like なさる, and so on.

To filter out false positives, I decided that I needed to search for a more specific example. The form I chose was 分からなさ, because regardless of whether it's correct or not, it made sense to me. I was able to find only one example in BCCWJ, and it was taken from the web portion of the corpus:

泣きました・・・。もうダメだ・・・。 意味の分からなさで言えばきっとハウルなんかと大差ないんだろうけど・・・。ヤバい・・・。

This example seems very informal, and I suppose the author wasn't worrying about writing "properly". I was able to find more examples on Google by searching for 意味の分からなさ, some of which seemed a little bit less informal:

もはやその言葉の意味の分からなさは、僕らの常識をはるかに上回っております。 (link)
しかし、この、石の意味の分からなさこそが、最も素晴らしい点だと思います。 (link)
ここから、「意味の分からなさ」ということを考えた。 (link)

I'm not sure if I can draw any conclusions from these examples. My guess is that using -さ like this is only acceptable informally, judging by how I can find results online but not in published books. But I suppose it's also possible that the results I've found are very unusual, or that I've misunderstood what -さ is doing in these examples.

So, is 意味の分からなさ strange?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

I am no longer sure about the reason why 食べなさ sounds strange. In the answer below, I argued that 食べなさ “the degree of not eating” would be grammatically fine but semantically not useful in any context. However, as dainichi commented, this explanation is questionable. For example, different people have different “degrees of not eating vegetables”; some may not eat certain raw vegetables while others may refuse to eat any vegetables whatsoever. So this does not seem to explain why we can say 学生はレポート課題の意味のわからなさに頭を抱えた but not *田中さんは子供の野菜の食べなさに頭を抱えた.

In the meanwhile, I will keep the answer I posted in the hope that it may be useful to consider the current question.

No, I do not find anything strange with 意味のわからなさ. I do not even think that the construct -なさ is informal.

[Edit: In an earlier revision, I stated that I did not think 意味のわからなさ was informal, but I take this word back. I agree with Tokyo Nagoya that 意味のわからなさ is an informal expression. I think that it is because expression 意味がわからない itself is informal, not because -なさ is informal.]

As I understand it, there is no grammatical reason to prevent suffix -さ from attaching after suffix -ない. (Aside: Are both 接尾辞 and 助動詞 called “suffix” when people talk about the Japanese grammar in English?)

食べなさ indeed sounds strange to me, but I think that the reason for this is semantic rather than grammatical. Its meaning would be “the degree of not eating,” but I cannot come up with a context where this notion would make sense.

In contrast, 意味のわからなさ, “the degree of not making sense,” well, makes sense. Some thing does not make sense, but it is possible for some other thing to be even more nonsense.

Here are some other examples in BCCWJ where a verb is followed by -なさ:

  • 割り切れなさ (5 occurrences)
  • 落ち着かなさ (3 occurrences)
  • 至らなさ (13 occurrences) — But: we may argue that 至らない is an adjective which is derived from the negation of verb 至る because, although we say 注意が至らない, we rarely say 注意が至る/至っている.
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“the degree of not making sense,” well, makes sense. wwww わざとそう書いたん? – istrasci Nov 4 '13 at 1:42
I beg to disagree with the informality bit. I do think that the phrase 意味のわからなさ sounds fairly informal and I would opt for 意味不明さ or 意味の不明さ in more formal speech. – l'électeur Nov 4 '13 at 7:29
@Tokyo Nagoya: Thank you for pointing it out. I agree that expression 意味のわからなさ is informal, and I corrected that part. – Tsuyoshi Ito Nov 4 '13 at 12:07
I think I need a bit more convincing about the "semantic rather than grammatical" part. Semantically, I don't see anything wrong with "彼はまったく怒らない人だ。*すごい怒らなさだ。", but 怒らなさ still seems quite strange to me, although the meaning is obvious. – dainichi Nov 5 '13 at 23:31
@dainichi: Thank you for the comment. That is a very good point, and I was wondering the same thing for a while. I am no longer sure why 食べなさ and 怒らなさ sound strange. I edited the answer to state that the explanation was questionable. – Tsuyoshi Ito Nov 9 '13 at 1:53

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