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When talking to native speakers, I find that I'm often corrected for picking the wrong prefix when using words from the ko-so-a-do series (as in これ、そちら、あそこ、どんな、etc). My confusion mainly involves ko-so-a (the do prefix being simpler since it indicates a question).

What I've been taught is to choose based on a concrete or abstract idea of proximity, which is simple enough for the following particular series:

  • これ: thing close to in-group
  • それ: thing close to out-group
  • あれ: thing distant from both in and out-group

which also works nicely for the その、この、あの series. But I find the following difficult:

Quotation of oneself or another person:


Talking about location of oneself or another person:


Emphasis of some property:


Those are maybe not the best/most natural example sentence, and the particular choice here is maybe not so relevant. Rather, I am interested in a more general description of how to make these types of choices in an abstract context where proximity is not well-defined.

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There are many papers and books on this topic. I think it's not easy to write a concise answer here. –  Yang Muye Apr 26 '14 at 11:14
そ is often used to refer something previously mentioned, こ is often used to refer something you are going to talking about. あ is less often used, it refers to something that is not clear in the the context, but listener should know. この/こんな sometimes means my, その/そんな sometimes means your, あの/あんな sometimes means his –  Yang Muye Apr 26 '14 at 11:18
A reference to the book/research papers you mention would be great! –  Wenzel Jakob Apr 26 '14 at 12:44
I don't remember any, but 庭三郎's 現代日本語文法概説 is a good start. It's Japanese, but not hard to read. I think all your example sentences are about 文脈提示(discourse deixis) . There are some explanations here and here The website uses EUC-JP encoding. –  Yang Muye Apr 26 '14 at 14:01

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The general rules for ko/so/a words in abstract situations are:

そ-words usually refer to what was said previously
こ-words are often used for matters of emotional importance to speaker
あ-words are used in personal statements to refer to remembered things

These are illustrated in the following examples:




Note: The choice depends on the context (文脈), given in the examples above in the previous sentence. In your examples we cannot say which is the correct choice because you have not given the previous sentence.

Reference: JLPT 新完全マスターN3文法

Additional comment on other rules

I think the above rules are needed for more complicated reading. I have seen the other rules you mention in your comment used for conversations so perhaps these are best looked at in context of spoken Japanese. I find too many rules can be paralysing so my suggestion is to take a few “model examples” such as the following, and then try apply those rules:

A: あれ、持っているの?
B: あれ、あ、もっている

C: 昨日、マークさんに会いました
D: あの人はずいぶんやせましたね

E: 雨がよく降りますね。これは台風の影響ですよ

F: 風邪をひいて、頭が痛いんです
G: それはいけませんね

H: 昨日、車でびわ湖へ行って来たよ
J: その湖に魚がいたかい?

K: いつアメリカへ行ったんですか
M: あれは去年8月でした

Alternative rules [related general rules そ、こ、あ, given above]
(i) Distance can be physical or psychological.
(ii) So-words can be used for things just mentioned by one of the speakers. [そ]
(iii) Ko-words: The speaker feels closest to items described with ko-words [こ] and furthest from a-words [あ]
(iv) A-words can be used to refer to something someone said or did in the past but both speakers must have previous knowledge of it. [あ]

Application to above model conversations:

A&B: (iv)
C&D: (iv) - Both have previous knowledge of Mark
E: (iii) - E uses kore to refer to “this thing that I am talking about”
F&G: (ii)
H&J: (ii) – “J” does not have “previous knowledge” to recall because he was not there.
K&M: (iv)

Note: We have been focused on the application of ko/so/a words. The application of kore/koko/kochira/konna etc may also require practice.

References: Based on explanations and examples in "The Dictionary of Basic Jpse Grammar" and "An Introduction to Advanced Spoken Japanese".

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This answer does provide some correct information, but, respectfully, to me it also seems that this answer dodges the point of the question. Yes, if you specify a context in a previous sentence or elsewhere, then you can easily choose the correlating あ・そ・こ. However, I took the meaning of the question to be about how to select あ・そ・こ when that context is not so easily available. –  Questioner Apr 29 '14 at 3:18
@DaveMG: The OP requested a" general description..to make these ..choices in an abstract context where proximity is not well-defined" and that's what I given, with a respectable reference. 新完全マスター always seems to be cited as the most comprehensive book for JLPT and I think this their last word on ko-so-a. These are simple sentences to demonstrate rules but that does not mean they won't work within the stated caveats in "real writing" - ko/so/a is also tested at JLPT N1, in the 読解. Try them - I'd be surprised if they did not work and I'd open to alternatives, if there are any. –  Tim Apr 29 '14 at 13:46
I think we have different concepts of what "proximity is not well-defined" means, because it seems to me that in the examples you cite, the proximity is explicitly defined. –  Questioner Apr 29 '14 at 14:14
@DaveMG:If I remove the ko/so/a words from those examples, and then ask myself which is most appropriate if I ignore those rules (not the easiest of things to do in hindsight)I don't find it so easy to come with the same answers. I have two other sources which usefully include conversational examples and more slightly different rules (which I might add) but these examples seem to fall under the practical application of the 新完全マスター. –  Tim May 3 '14 at 7:32
@Tim: I tracked down the Kanzen master chapter you cited since I wanted to see the full description with all examples. I noticed that what's written there is a little different from your explanation. Specifically it says: あ vs そ: あ is used to indicate what is known by both the speaker and the listener. In other cases, そ is used (also to refer to something previously said). The entry (114/pg.102) did not mention the "emotional" importance aspect of こ. –  Wenzel Jakob May 3 '14 at 14:07

A million years ago, when I first came to Japan, an American guy, who at that time had been here decades, told me that, "In Japanese, there is no concept of communication separate from the people involved." I think he was overstating the idea, but coming from an English speaking perspective, it does shed light on the issue you're talking about.

In English, we can say, "I've never had a fish as delicious as that!" Taken in complete isolation from any other context, this sentence contains no concept of the type of dialogue where it might be taking place. The word "that" does not contain that information. And, in English, we don't really care. It's all about the fish.

However, in Japanese, it's not cool to just leave out an assumption of who the speaker and audience are. You have to have some model when speaking of the kind of dialogue that is taking place. When speaking of the "deliciousness" of the fish, even though it's an ethereal aspect of the fish, it's still in relation to people. Maybe it's bound to an physical fish, or to someone's opinion of a fish, but the concept nonetheless will always have a position relative to two entities that are communicating about it.

So, I think the issue you're having is trying to see how 「こ・そ・あ」words point to things, without considering where they're pointing from. You're asking which of the three forms applies to a particular target, like the taste of a fish, but there is no one form like there is in English. In Japanese, maybe always, whether it's known, proposed, assumed, guessed, or however else you get there, you have to have a conceptual model of both sides of the communication taking place.

(In addressing concerns in the comments, I'm going to take a rather avant-garde route to explaining what I'm talking about, and I am up front about the fact that I am using the attempt to answer this question as a way of helping boost my own understanding, so if someone thinks this is wrong in some way, please do be constructive in your criticism.)

Image you're an author writing a book. You write a scene where your main character, Betty Hughenot, enters a room where all the guests of a party are gathered and having a lively discussion. Just as she enters, the last sentence that happens to be spoken is Joshua McDougal exclaiming, "... I've never had a fish as delicious as that!" As soon as Betty enters, though, the crowd turns to greet her, forgetting about Joshua, because she is a renown wit and everyone wants to hear what she's going to talk about. The story continues on, Joshua's remark is never referenced again, it was just something he happened to be saying when Betty opened the door.

Now, your book goes on to be a huge success, and it will be translated into many languages, including Japanese. When the Japanese translator has to translate Joshua McDougal's line of dialogue, she will go with:


This is the ambiguity I think you're talking about. While Tim's very informative answer is correct about some factors that help you select こんな, そんな, or あんな, the choice is always predicated on knowing enough about the overall context that the choice is pretty much decided for you. However, in this case, we don't have that extra context to work with.

The translator must select one, but which one? The determining factors that would ordinarily tell us which to choose have happened before Betty entered the room, and are outside of the narrative. Maybe Joshua McDougal had just taken a bite of a fish present in the room, in which case こんな would work. Maybe someone else in the room just finished eating a fish and was crying because it was so good, and Joshua, seeing that person's expression, remarked on it, thus そんな would be right. Or, maybe in the room there is a painting on the wall depicting a fish being handed down to a chef from an angel descended from heaven, and, looking at the painting and commenting on it wryly, あんな could fit.

My point is just that you, as an author in English, didn't have to wrangle with an exact decision on how it is that Joshua came to be saying that when Betty entered the room, because in English, "as that" stands alone as being a universal designation pointing at the deliciousness of the fish. Some fish, somewhere.

A translator almost certainly would avoid the problem altogether with an entirely different sentence structure. But, in keeping with the spirit of the question, let's assume the Japanese translator has to use one of the あ・そ・こ words, like the sentence you provide. In doing so, that translator has to choose some model of where delineations are of in-group, out-group, and external to both, for the context of the sentence.

Let's say that the translator asks her publisher boss to contact the author about what exactly Joshua meant, but you've never thought about it that much, because your story is about Betty, and that statement was just filler. So, you say it's okay for the translator to pick whichever one she likes. The translator rolls a dice and goes with そんな. Now, every Japanese person reading that translated book will think that Betty walked in on Joshua observing someone else eating fish, or something like that. An impression people didn't necessarily get with the English book.

It's a subtle, but extant, difference. In Japanese, everything(?) is assumed to have some relationship to a speaker and a listener, and that is built into the language.

I hope that helps make clear what I mean, and if someone thinks I've got some part of this wrong, please do join in the discussion, I just ask that you do so in the spirit of helping educate, not merely disagreement. Thanks!

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Thanks, SAD, for yet again downvoting with absolutely no helpful feedback whatsoever. –  Questioner Apr 28 '14 at 7:22
I did not downvote. That said, I feel that your answer is interesting, but it's not clear how one would apply the "pointing from" idea to specific sentences such as the examples listed in the question. Can you show how this narrows it down to a specific one of こ・そ・あ? –  Wenzel Jakob Apr 28 '14 at 16:12
It sounds to me like he's applying the same basic principles as you would use for any other words in the series. What he's saying is that while in English it's fine to just talk about a hypothetical anything as "that", from a Japanese perspective you have to imagine its presence for sake of the conversation. At which point the normal pointing rules would apply. –  Kaji Apr 29 '14 at 0:25
@WenzelJakob, I'm sorry my answer is not as clear as it could be. I actually wrote out a longer answer with examples, but I felt it was too unweildy, so I opted for more brevity. I still think there is a point to be made here that how you choose あ・そ・こ words relates to how the Japanese language necessarily requires certain assumptions that are not necessary in English. I'll have to think on how to express it better, though, so please give me a little time, and I'll try to provide more clarity. –  Questioner Apr 29 '14 at 3:22
I'd give you an extra upvote if I could for the update. It's a great example, and I love your point about the subtexts behind it at the end. –  Kaji Apr 30 '14 at 6:46

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