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As Derek mentioned in his postscript, both こと and の are nominalizers that can turn a verb into a noun.

ピアノを弾く【ひく】。 I play the piano.

ピアノを弾く【ひく】のが好き【すき】です。 I like playing the piano.

ピアノを弾く【ひく】ことが好き【すき】だ。 I like playing the piano.

I had always thought こと was just a more formal version of の, but it seems that's not the case:

As a quick rule, の is generally used when the outer action happens at the same place or time as the inner action, while こと is generally used when the two can be considered from a removed standpoint lacking immediacy.

Can someone elaborate more on the distinction between こと and の?

Which version is more appropriate when the outer verb is an emotion verb such as 好き【すき】、思う【おもう】、考える【かんがえる】, etc?

Is こと generally more preferred in formal writing?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 38 down vote accepted

(This question had to show up eventually… :) For my answer, I'll be borrowing most example sentences and categorizations from pages 176-179 of 初級【しょきゅう】を教【おし】える人【ひと】のための日本語【にほんご】文法【ぶんぽう】ハンドブック and from this PDF.

Cases where only の is allowed

  1. When the following verb deals with one of the senses: 聞く【きく】, 聞こえる【きこえる】, 見る【みる】, 見える【みえる】, 感じる【かんじる】, and so on.

    隣【となり】の家【いえ】でだれかが叫ぶ【さけぶ】が聞こえた【きこえた】。 I could hear someone shouting in the house next door.

    船【ふね】の中【なか】から、魚【さかな】が泳いでいる【およいでいる】が見えます【みえます】。 From inside the boat, I can see fish swimming.

  2. When the following clause occurs in concert with the preceding clause: 待つ【まつ】, 手伝う【てつだう】, じゃまする, and so on.

    テニスコートが乾く【かわく】を待っています【まっています】。 I'm waiting for the tennis court to dry.

    このパソコンを運ぶ【はこぶ】を手伝ってください【てつだってください】。 Please help me carry this computer.

  3. When the following verb is one of 止める【とめる】, やめる, and so on.

    彼【かれ】が出て【でて】行こう【いこう】とするを止めました【とめました】。 I stopped him trying to leave.

    タバコを吸う【すう】をやめましょう。 Stop smoking.

As you can see, the common thread running through these cases is that there is an immediacy of time and/or location. That is, the outer clause necessarily occurs at the same time and/or same location as the inner clause.

Cases where only こと is allowed

  1. When the following verb deals with communication or internal thoughts: 話す【はなす】, 伝える【つたえる】, 約束する【やくそくする】, 祈る【いのる】, 希望する【きぼうする】, and so on.

    ゼミに出られない【でられない】ことを先生【せんせい】に伝えてください【つたえてください】。 Please tell the teacher I can't make it to the seminar.

    復興【ふっこう】が速く【はやく】進む【すすむ】ことを祈っています【いのっています】。 I'm praying that the recovery proceeds quickly.

  2. When the following clause is one of だ, です, or である.

    私【わたし】の趣味【しゅみ】は映画【えいが】を見る【みる】ことです。 My hobby is watching movies.

    (This is because if の were used, it would be confused with the ~のだ pattern.)

  3. When the こと is part of a set pattern such as ことができる, ことがある, ことにする, ことになる, and so on.

    私【わたし】は外国【がいこく】で暮らした【くらした】ことがあります。 I've lived in a foreign country before.

    あれを見なかった【みなかった】ことにする。 I'm going to pretend I didn't see that.

With こと, the immediacy expressed by の is lost, and matters are considered from a more abstract, removed standpoint.

Cases where both are allowed

In general, for any cases not covered in the above lists, you can use either こと or の, but there are some times when you might choose one over the other. For example, consider this pair of sentences from a page in the 日本語Q&A at ALC:

僕【ぼく】はこうしてのんびり映画【えいが】を観る【みる】ことが好きだ【すきだ】。 I like relaxing with a movie like this.

僕【ぼく】はこうしてのんびり映画【えいが】を観る【みる】が好きだ【すきだ】。 I like relaxing with a movie like this.

The key here is the こうして ("like this"), which indicates the speaker is making a statement about something happening right now. Thus the statement has the immediacy of time and place that の is best for. Using こと here isn't technically incorrect, but it sounds a little unnatural, so の is the better option.

Non-nominalizing uses of の

As a side note, there was one example sentence in the PDF I linked which doesn't belong, in my opinion:

毎月【まいつき】おこづかいを貯金している【ちょきんしている】は、新しい【あたらしい】スケートボードを買いたい【かいたい】からです。 The reason I'm saving my allowance every month is because I want to buy a new skateboard.

This use of の is the "unspecific noun" pattern (I cannot seem to find the proper grammatical term at the moment). In this sentence, の could be replaced with the more specific 理由【りゆう】. Another example:

日本【にほん】にはじめて行った【いった】は5年【ねん】前【まえ】です。 The first time I went to Japan was five years ago.

の could be replaced with 時【とき】 here.

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4  
Great job trying to tackle a really difficult question. I'm not sure it's all there is to that, but detailing everything would probably take half a book. Anyway, I don't think the の in the end is a not a nominalizer. Since it's still turns the entire clause into a noun, it's still one. It shouldn't be thought of as meaning 理由 or 時, since you can translate the sentence as: "As for not saving my allowance every month, that's because I want to buy a new skateboard". So it's still nominalizer, but a very generic one. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 21 '11 at 22:54
    
Wow, I never knew any of this. Now I want to backtrack in my head through all the conversations I've had and get an idea if I had picked it up implicitly or if I'm just using it wrong. –  makdad Jun 22 '11 at 11:03
    
@Boaz: I can see how you'd look at both uses the same way. I actually spent a lot of time thinking about that part of my answer after I wrote it, and the more I think about it, the blurrier the line gets. It feels like a slightly different use, but I'm not sure if it's because it actually is or if it's because I was taught that way a long time ago. –  Derek Schaab Jun 22 '11 at 12:35
1  
Hey, I've got that book. A great book! –  crunchyt Jun 23 '11 at 4:08
2  
@DerekSchaab, This answer is really useful (and I upvoted it), so I feel sorry for being a nitpicker: I do not agree with the replacements that you suggest. ~理由は、~からだ sounds slightly ungrammatical to me, similar to English "The reason is because...". But then again, maybe it's because I know it's wrong in English that I don't like it in Japanese. I'd be interested in other people's opinions. If using 理由, I would prefer ~理由は、~ことだ. ~時は、五年前だ sounds even more ungrammatical to me. After 時は, I expect an explanation about what went on/happened at that time, not when it was. –  dainichi Jan 24 '12 at 4:55

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