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According to this answer, "This made me laugh" would translate literally into Japanese as:


However, the same answer explains that this would be an odd thing to say in Japanese, because the Japanese language tends to avoid using an "inanimate subject".

As far as I know, in English we don't have any preference for whether or not a subject is animate or inanimate, though I could be wrong about that. I don't know how English works, I just think with it, and maybe I make unconscious habitual choices.

In any case, I have no conceptual model for this inanimate/animate subject distinction, and, as far as I can remember in all my years of studying Japanese, this is the first time it's ever come up for me.

How strange is a statement like これが僕{ぼく}を笑{わら}わせた? Are there examples where the animate/inanimate distinction would lead to unparsable statements, or is it just mildly awkward sounding?

"This made me laugh" in English is a perfectly acceptable statement, but are there parallels in English to the Japanese distinction between animate and inanimate subjects that would help me conceptualize what is happening in Japanese?

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I think it's a lot more general than just inanimate/animate : it's because the viewpoint is essential in japanese. Which is why you can easily elude the 1st person subject in affirmations and the 2nd person subject in questions or why verbs like もらう/あげる/くれる exist. It seems to me that the viewpoint of the sentence must be in that order : the speaker or someone from his group, the hearer, someone else, something. Something being what's intelectualy the furthest away from the speaker. –  Alox Apr 21 '14 at 15:32
By that logic, if there is a human being in the sentence, it's strange for something to be the subject. Or if a third person (not the hearer) is the subject, it doesn't make sense for the speaker to be the direct (or indirect) object (the sentence should then be from his point of view, with a verb like くれる for example ; using あげる in the same situation would make a conflict of viewpoint) –  Alox Apr 21 '14 at 15:38
This is a really great question, by the way, and although I don't know enough about it to write an answer, I'm doing some research and coming across all sorts of interesting things. One paper says that when both から and を would normally be possible to mark a location, if the subject is inanimate you need to use から, not を. Also, take a look at examples (6)-(8) in this paper: online.sfsu.edu/icplj/conference/… –  snailboat Apr 21 '14 at 16:47
@snailboat: Did you understand how/why the sentences 7b & 8b represented the speakers property but not 7a & 8a? –  Tim Apr 22 '14 at 8:54
@Tim : Well it seems to me that in 7a and 8a, the past tense means that the action took place : It did make some water boil and it did cut paper. While in 7b and 8b, it can make water boil and it can cut paper which is a general property, like in english : This knife cut my meat like it was butter vs This knife cuts meat like it's butter. –  Alox Apr 22 '14 at 11:35

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

My understanding is that it's a matter of intent. In English, you'd never say "The car went to work" because cars can't do things. People may make the car do things, but the person was the intent behind the action.

Japanese expands this concept so that "this thing made me laugh" is weird since things largely have no intent. Perhaps "this thing is amusing" since that holds no intent or perhaps "the fates amuse me (with this thing)".

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I would think the Shinto connection is in error or at a minimum a misstatement as Shinto is not the religion of Japan (or rather the formal thing Shinto is not identical with the animistic religion it is meant to formalize). Moreover, it seems kind of backwards to say so considering Japanese traditional religion posits millions of gods -- the river, the bathroom, the field, the tree, the wolf, etc... –  virmaior Apr 23 '14 at 1:50
@virmaior - how so? My (admittedly limited) understanding is that since the gods are everywhere, they're the ones with intent. The tree spirit, the field spirit does things, not the tree or the field. –  Telastyn Apr 23 '14 at 12:46
@Telastyn you're assuming that the god and the river are distinct entities with one being transcendent and the other material. I don't think that's true in traditional Japanese religion. –  virmaior Apr 23 '14 at 13:44
@DaveMG - yeah, I can't track anything down that backs it up. My Japanese isn't good enough to research academic work in it. –  Telastyn Apr 24 '14 at 12:41
Just wanted to mention that this answer gave me the clearest parallel to English which helped me understand the issue, but the other answers are full of really helpful supporting information. I'd mark them all correct if I could. –  Questioner Apr 24 '14 at 13:54

Disclaimer: I'm nowhere near being good enough at Japanese to answer questions on this site but since you asked, here we go:

I think the animate/inanimate distinction is only a particular case. The general distinction is based on viewpoints. From A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar (DBJG):

"The speaker usually describes a situation or an event from his own viewpoint rather than from others' when he is involved in the situation or the event."

"It's easier for the speaker to take the viewpoint of a person in the sentence subject position than to take the viewpoint of a person in other positions."

The way I see it, the speaker chooses the viewpoint for his sentence in this order of preference (going from what's closest to him to what's the furthest away): himself, someone from his group (family, school, colleagues...), the hearer, a third person who isn't from his group, something.

This has multiple consequences :

1: The 1st person subject can easily be left out (as it's the default viewpoint).

2: Some verbs (あげる、くれる、もらう) DEFINE the viewpoint of the sentence (of the giver, receiver and receiver respectively):

This makes a sentence like *私が田中さんに本をくれた ungrammatical because of a conflict of viewpoint (choosing the viewpoint of the receiver (くれる) while the speaker is the giver. In order to make the viewpoint coincide, あげる should be used).

This is also why くれる isn't used when the speaker and the hearer are neither the giver nor the receiver. The speaker then tends to take the viewpoint of the subject with either あげる or もらう.

This is also true of auxiliaries like いく and くる:


くる expresses the idea of going towards the speaker's viewpoint.

3: The speaker tends to take the viewpoint of human beings rather than the viewpoint of inanimate things (which are at the end of the list).

4: Some passive sentence feels unnatural (from DBJG):

The viewpoint should be the one of the speaker, but there the subject is his son.

5 The speaker can't express others' feelings with adjectives like 悲しい which express the sadness of the speaker.

He has to use verbs like 悲しがる or 悲しむ "to look sad", or basically any construction that tends to describe the scene from his viewpoint:

彼女は悲しそうだ She looks sad.
彼女は悲しいということだ I heard that she is sad.

And so on.

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I think you're holding yourself to a standard that is higher than it needs to be for contributing to this site. This is extremely helpful information, and adds useful dimension. I think one mistake people make across SE sites is thinking of answering questions as being like a competition to get the green check mark. The green check only represents the asker's particular concerns being resolved, but multiple answers with additional information elevate a question into a resource, that educates both the asker and the broader community. –  Questioner Apr 22 '14 at 11:57
Thanks : ) You're definitely right about the multiple answers. In my case though, I still struggle with basic-intermediate structures so there is a high probability that my answers would be incorrect or at least incomplete. I tried to stay as close to the book as I could in this one. –  Alox Apr 22 '14 at 12:08
You say 悲しい(indicative) expresses sadness of the speaker but it's possible to aply it to the third person in narratives. –  user4092 Apr 24 '14 at 8:11

I agree with Alox that it has to do with viewpoint. I tried to write an answer yesterday, but it quickly became too long, so I didn't post it. I'm trying to make it shorter this time. Some information are already covered by Alox's answer, so I would repeat it again.

In conclusion, in some situations, both Japanese and English tend to avoid choosing human as the subject. But Japanese tends to use passive while English tends to use causative.

Japanese tends to take the viewpoint of human beings. I think it's also true form other languages. It just that different languages use different ways to express it.

笑う is a kind of unintentional emotional activity. In Japanese, there are several patterns that are used to express such kind of things.

  1. [something]が [someone]に [action]される (maybe more literally: that something is done happens to somebody)

    This applies to many verbs, but mainly verbs expressing emotions

  2. [something]が [someone]には [action]しい

  3. [someone]が [reason]に [action]する

    This applies to a limited number of verb, include 笑う, 驚く, etc.

  4. [someone]が[something]を [action]させられる

    This generally works for all verbs

  5. [something]が[action]させられる

  6. [something]を[action]させる[something]

  7. [something]を[action]させられる[something]

  8. [something]が[potential verb]


I'm not good at English, but I also noticed several patterns, which can't be literally translated into Chinese (and Japanese).

It seems that, English tends to say

  1. [something] makes [somebody] [do]

    it makes me think/laugh...
  2. [something] [affects] [somebody]

    it reminds me
  3. [somebody] is [affected by] [something]

    I'm amused
  4. [something] is [affect]-ing

    It's interesting
  5. [something] is [do]-able

    It's questionable
  6. [something] [does] [somebody]

    it sounds good

It becomes clear that, Japanese tends to use passive while English tends to use causative.

I think it's not because of the animate/inanimate distinction, just that Japanese tends to say [for some reason] [something] [is changed] while English tends to say [some reason makes something to change]


I think most people here don't read Chinese, so I won't write much about Chinese.

Chinese is a little similar to English. In Chinese, we tend to say [something] makes me [do]. But we don't use dummy subject. So we will not say something like "it makes laugh", instead, we say "I laugh".

There are also some 可~s in Classical Chinese, e.g. 可笑, 可嘆, etc.

大曽 美恵子(2001)『感情を表わす動詞・形容詞に関する一考察


興味深いことに、Chocolateさんが、無生物を主語とする使役文が好まれないため、あまり使わない(normally you don't say it this way in Japanese, because the Japanese language tends to avoid using 無生物主語(inanimate subject) , especially in verbal/casual communication. )と判断された「物が人を~させる」構文は、この論文によると、まったく問題ない文になります。 なお大曽は、「通常、日本語の使役文の主体は[…]有生物であって、無生物を主語とする使役文[…]は成り立たない」「無生物を主体として取る感情動詞の使役文は日本語では特殊であると言える」などと述べています。








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Oh wow... I was just making a correction, and then I realized what I was correcting was exactly the issue. You originally had "it recalls me" alongside "it reminds me". But, "it recalls me" doesn't make sense, because it's saying that an object has a memory of me. In other words, it's unacceptable English because it attributes animacy to an object... which is exactly the type of thing I was asking about in Japanese! So the act of correcting the English gave me insight into the issue in Japanese. My head is still spinning from all the layers, but I might grasp the concept much better now. –  Questioner Apr 22 '14 at 16:05
@DaveMG, thanks for your correction. I mixed "recall" up with "remind". But in this particular case, it might be unacceptable because it's logically unacceptable, rather than grammatically unacceptable. (e.g. animacy) –  Yang Muye Apr 22 '14 at 16:59
>Chocolateさんがあまりよくないと判断された「物が人を~させる」構文は、この論文によると、まったく問題ない文になります。 >あのドラマは大人を楽しませてくれた >音楽は人を楽しませる >酒は今日も私を悲しくさせる Those are novelistic expression, which I think is what Chocolate said. –  user4092 Apr 24 '14 at 8:06
@user4092, Thanks. I checked the original text and edited my answer. –  Yang Muye Apr 24 '14 at 8:25

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