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There were a lot of great answers here. I gave the checkmark to ento's answer because I felt it most completely explained all aspects of this use of こと. But many of the other answers are excellent, so if you're visiting this question for the first time, please take a few moments to read through all answers. Thanks to everyone for your help with this question.


When learning the phrase "I like X", everyone learns "Xが好きだ". But if X is a pronoun, you sometimes see こと:

あなたが好きだ。 → あなたのことが好きだ。

What purpose does こと serve here? I know that in subordinate clauses, こと can eliminate ambiguity:

彼が好きな人 "a person he likes" or "a person who likes him"

彼のことが好きな人 "a person who likes him"

But in a simple statement such as the first example above, it doesn't seem to change the meaning at all.

My own searches on this problem have yielded the following two theories (neither with anything to back them up):

  1. こと adds a layer of indirectness, and is therefore preferred from a Japanese standpoint.
  2. こと encompasses more of the object ("you" versus "all the things about you")

Is either of these correct?

こと also shows up in many other situations, seemingly without any effect on the meaning:

事件を覚えている。 → 事件のことを覚えている。 I remember the incident.

地球を考えて行動する → 地球のことを考えて行動する take action while considering the Earth planet (edited to "the planet" to fulfill the requirement for 考える to be paired with something abstract)

What's going on here?

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地球を考えて行動する and 地球のことを考えて行動する definitely sound differently to me. The latter is usual, but the former is strange: the former would mean “take action thinking about the physical object of the Earth” (probably Galileo did that). But I cannot explain what こと means directly, and the difference is subtle in some of your examples. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 21 '11 at 15:08
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@Tsuyoshi: Would the difference lessen (or disappear) if 地球 was replaced with something intangible, such as 環境? –  Derek Schaab Jul 21 '11 at 15:14
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I think the difference lessens, but I am no longer confident. After considering about these sentences for a while, everything started to look usual…. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 21 '11 at 15:38
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@Tsuyoshi: The linguist's curse... –  rintaun Jul 21 '11 at 15:39
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@Tsuyoshi: Your and sawa's comments show that with the English translation of "the Earth", 地球 refers to something physical, which sounds odd with 考える. I have changed the translation to "the planet", which is commonly used to refer to the abstract concept of our home in the universe, so I think the English now matches the idea behind the many examples in Google of 地球を考える. –  Derek Schaab Jul 21 '11 at 19:25

9 Answers 9

up vote 25 down vote accepted
+100

I've let my subconscious sleep on this for a while, which has a native Japanese language processor built in, and come to the conclusion that のこと does two seemingly opposite things. I'll illustrate them with my inner images for [noun] and [noun]のこと, and later quote a dictionary to further support my views.

Let's take 事件のこと as an example.

A plain "事件" is a simple dot...

add a little blur/halo around the dot and arrows going toward it and you get "事件のこと":

The little blur/halo adds a "universe of variable traits" (quote from Dave M G's answer) around the subject noun and lifts it to an abstract level (because traits are abstract things).

This "abstracting" aspect becomes apparent when the ensuing verb is about a physical action:

あなたを抱きしめたい。 I want to hug you.

あなたのことを抱きしめたい。 I want to hug all the things that is you. (figuratively)

パンのことが好き, is just fine in this light, if it's meant to be "I like everything about breads," and not "I like to eat breads."

Now to the arrows. I'd like to call these the "focusing" feature of "のこと" (as mentioned in Enno's answer). The "focusing" aspect can be seen clearly when the ensuing verb has directivity in itself.

人を見下す。 Look down on someone.

人のことを見下す。Look down on at someone. (I know it's incorrect, but I hope the spirit gets through.)

With the latter example, there's a bit more emphasis on the action of looking down.

At this point, I took up the dictionary and looked if it has anything to say about it. And these two definitions from Daijirin match up with my observation:

  • "abstracting": (2)(ア) ある物事に関連する事柄。 Things related to a particular thing.
  • "focusing": (2)(イ) ある人物が動作・心情の対象であることを示す。 Indicates a person is the object of an action/emotion.

The dictionary makes it seem like these two are mutually exclusive, but I think the two aspects of ..のこと can manifest themselves at the same time, or with one of them more stressed than the other, depending on the abstractedness/directivity/etc. of the verb/noun used in conjunction.

So in summary, のこと in あなたのことが好き serves two purposes: abstracting and focusing.

As for the two theories, theory 2. "こと encompasses more of the object" corresponds to the "abstracting" aspect of こと, which I deem true. Theory 1. "こと adds a layer of indirectness" is also true, because speaking abstractly means indirectness. However, I'm not sure if it's universally "preferred from a Japanese standpoint", perhaps except in the case of expressing emotion (あなたが好きだ!), it's well conceivable that a reserved mode of expression can be preferred by some.

I'll leave the analysis of 地球を考える and 事件を覚えている to sawa's answer =)

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The "focusing" aspect of こと comes through better with your 見下す example than with 好き, I think. Especially with a verb that has a variable degree of focus, such as the simple 見る: 私のことを見る definitely feels like it has more focus (and also extends into the abstract) than 私を見る. –  Derek Schaab Jul 29 '11 at 22:54

So I talked to my co-workers here, and 4 of us (Japanese native) discussed this for a good 30 minutes! lol

Our conclusion is that the difference is very subtle and each of us had a slightly different explanation. The most common ground was that こと somewhat "directs" more attention (or maybe "creates more focus") on the subject.

We also found some examples in which "こと" will definitely sound odd:

  • パンが好き  
  • パンのことが好き

The second example sounds definitely odd. Our conclusion was that パン is not a unique entity and thus isn't suited to focus on. On the other hand, a unique person, the earth etc. would be fine.

  • 動物のことが好き
  • 犬のことが好き

Here, both sound odd, but much better than "パンのことが好き" (Somehow. Perhaps it has something with the fact that animals are more animate than bread?)

  • Fluffyのことが好き
    (Fluffy is the name of the speaker's dog)

This sounds ok.

Obviously these are only some amateur observations though.

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Regarding your last three examples, they seem to be irrelevant to animacy, but can rather be explained by your observation that のこと can be attached only to entities but not to generic nouns. It is expected that, as long as you interpret the noun as an entiry, is becomes okay with のこと, and that seems to be the case: その動物のことが好き, その犬のことが好き sound completely fine. –  user458 Jul 22 '11 at 5:31
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Meanwhile, your first example makes clear the difference with and without のこと mentioned in my answer. パンが好き means 'I like bread (for eating/smelling/seeing/etc.)', and in this meaning, it is the physical object bread that is the object. パンのことが好き, on the other hand, means 'I like (knowing) trivias about bread', and that is due to the fact that のこと changes the meaning to some propositinal-like thing. –  user458 Jul 22 '11 at 5:32
    
The contrast between generic/specific is very intriguing and something I hadn't thought about before. Thank you for your investigation into this. –  Derek Schaab Jul 22 '11 at 12:27
    
I agree, but I think that at least the last line of what Sawa wrote is also very important to note. Adding こと to the object of a sentence with an intransitive verb clarifies the object. It's strange that Japanese sentences can have objects, even though they are intransitive. Because they can, though, you have to take special care to speak clearly, sometimes, or you end up in one of those: "Wait,-did-you-mean-him-or-her?" conversations. –  千里ちゃん Aug 9 '11 at 10:47

My explanation is (along the lines of Dave's explanation) that

のこと will add the meaning 'things about', and that will include some propositions/concerns.

With 考える 'think', the difference is salient. As Tsuyoshi Ito points out, 地球を考えて行動する is ungrammatical to me. I feel that the object of the verb 考える has to be something like proposition, question, prediction, restriction, prohibition, or allowance, but not simply an object. のこと will add the meaning: 'things about', and that will include some propositions/concerns. So, whereas 地球 is just an object, which cannot be the object of 考える, 地球のこと means 'concerns about the earth', which can be the object of 考える. One example that I can think of when 考える takes an object without のこと is in constant/variable settings in mathematics.

半径 r の円 C を考える
'(Let us) consider circle C of radius r.'

Probably, what is the object of 考える is acutally not 'the circle C', but 'the existence of the circle C', something like:

半径 r の円 C の存在を考える
'to consider the existence of the circle C of radius r'

And indeed, if you replace the object with an intangible thing like 環境 as Derek suggests, the sentence improves.

地球の環境を考えて行動する

In this case too, 環境 is interpreted as a proposition/concern related to the environment.

With 覚えている, I see a subtle difference depending on whether you attach のこと.

事件を覚えている

will mean that you remember there was such incident, but may not know anything further about it.

事件のことを覚えている

will mean that you remember some facts related to the incident.

With 好き, I think there should be a difference that parallels the difference seen above, for example, 'liking you' vs. 'liking the facts about you'. But to be honest, the difference is too subtle and I cannot feel it.

You give an interesting restriction regarding the distribution of ...のこと, which I was not aware of. In the example:

彼が好きな人

彼が can be interpreted either as the subject or the object of 'liking' within the relative clause 彼が好きな, and hence the ambiguity arises. Now, since the subject but not the object of liking has to be animate, it would be predicted that you can add のこと to the object but not to the subject because a propositional-like thing cannot be animate. And that is where the disambiguity that you point out comes from:

彼のことが好きな人

In the sentence above, 彼のこと can only be the object.

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地球を考える can indeed sound odd if 地球 refers only to the physical substance of our planet, but 地球 can also be abstract (like 環境) in that it can refer to the concept of our home in the universe. (I pulled the example fragment from an ANA report, which had this sentence: お客様と 地球を考えて行動する ことが全日空の進むべき道と考えています。. The fragment "地球を考え" is also very common in Google.) Perhaps "the planet" is a closer English translation for this use of 地球, so I will edit my question accordingly. The rest of your answer sounds very convincing. –  Derek Schaab Jul 21 '11 at 19:20
    
@Derek I see. Then probably it depends on how much you can expand on that noun. But I think the concept of 'home' is not enough to be allowed in this construction. It has to be propositional-like, such as 'the future direction that we should take regarding the earth', or 'what is good and what is bad for the earth', or something like that. –  user458 Jul 21 '11 at 19:32
    
The explanation you give for the 事件 example makes perfect sense and seems to parallel the "depth of relationship" concept that Dave is developing. –  Derek Schaab Jul 22 '11 at 12:26

Unless someone comes up with a stunning counter proposal, I am firmly in the camp that says こと refers to "all the things about [you or whatever subject]."

In my personal interactions, I can viscerally feel a difference between saying 「あなたが好き」 and 「あなたのことが好き」.

It's a similar distinction as in English between "I love you," and, "I'm in love with you." In one we are referring to what we conceive of as the person, and in the other we are speaking about our bond that exists because of the relationship. However, you can see that the distinction is subtle and could lead to many lover's quarrels over the distincion.

「あなたが好き」 is all about relating my feelings for the person directly.

あなたのことが好き」 is all about relating to the qualities of that person that they share with me.

Taking the concept further, in light of some interesting conversation and in line with Enno's answer, こと is not merely "all the things about [you or whatever subject]." Its presence lets you know that the subject has dimension, or quality. ("Quality" in the neutral sense of having appreciable substance, not in the sense of high value.)

A person, for example, has こと, because each individual is a universe of variable traits.

A slice of bread, however, is just a slice of bread. It has no こと... unless, I suppose, you were some gastronomical baking enthusiast who wanted to convey the depth of your appreciation for all that bread is.

Hope that helps.

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+1 because I think you're definitely on the right track. However, I feel as if this may only be scratching the surface of the issue. –  rintaun Jul 21 '11 at 16:43
    
@rintaun: What aspect of the answer is still missing? –  Dave M G Jul 22 '11 at 1:37
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I can't say for sure, to be entirely honest. It's just a feeling. –  rintaun Jul 22 '11 at 1:41
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It looks like you, sawa, and Enno are all converging on the same target. The "universe of variable traits" concept is a great way to think about it. (But how am I supposed to pick a correct answer out of all this awesomeness? :) –  Derek Schaab Jul 22 '11 at 12:24

事件を覚えている。 → 事件のことを覚えている。

地球を考えて行動する → 地球のことを考えて行動する

What I feel by reading those two is the difference in span, intention, causes or effects. Adding "のこと" extends the proposition's target to contain also things that are related. I think it is similar in concept to what we have with について/に関して where に関して also considers related, often unmentioned, elements.

事件を覚えている。 I remember the car hitting the pedestrian. It's stored somewhere in my brain, yes.
事件のことを覚えている。 And also the weather, the ambulances, the shivers, how everything unfolded…

地球を考えて行動する。"it is round, isn't it? Now, let's dig a bigger hole!"
地球のことを考えて行動する。 "But what if I cause harm to the planet, leading to the death of all Lapp penguins? What will happen to procrastinating students who studied them? How dare I dig a bigger hole?!"

So, by saying

あなたが好き

All I mean it that I like your body. By saying

あなたのことが好き

I mean that I also like your presence, your being next to me, your charm, and so on. I like this thing that makes you different from the others. (Let's not debate the degrees of fondness of "好き" which are irrelevant here.)

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のこと just means 'something about' or 'something from'. Like: 彼のことを好き means, 'I like something about him.' I guess if you said , you could mean either 'something about him likes,' or 'something about him is liked', but because of nuance only it's 'something about him is liked.' In a more idiomatic sense, when you talk about your sweetheart and say, "something", it's more like "that special something". So, when you say, 君のこと, you're saying: "that something special about you, sweetheart". That's why you have some people saying: "I love everything about you," instead of, "I love something about you," when they translate こと in conjunction with sentiments about human relationships.

The other sentences just mean: "I remember the incident," vs. "I remember some things about the incident," and, "Take action in consideration of the planet Earth," vs. "Take action in consideration of earthly things." In the sooner of these two comparisons, "I remember some things about the incident," sounds less arrogant. So, Japanese people might prefer that. In the latter of the two comparisons, "Take action in consideration of the Planet Earth" may be preferred because it's more slogan-like. It's like saying: "Consider that we might lose the entire planet Earth if we don't act," versus, "We might lose some things, here on Earth, if we don't act." The earlier sentence sounds much stronger and, therefore, less out-of-place in this kind of discussion.

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I think it's related to the culture of Yamato.

when I was learning Japanese. my teacher told us that Traditional Japanese is modest,euphemism.

for example:when the Japanese chatting with each other about the weather,or even if the weather forecast. they often says"あしたわ 雨が降りそです(tomorrow looks like rain)" instead of "明日雨が降ります(it is going to rain tomorrow)".because of the uncertainty,couldn't guarantee to make sure that tomorrow it will be rain.

another example:"愛してる(loving)". they will never say"私はあなたを愛しる(I love you)"in common.

so as 彼のことを好き. use "彼のこと(something about him/her)" instead of "彼(him/her)" sounds more euphemistic,smooth and natural. just like William said.in my opinion " XX のこと" of this topic is just a substitute of " XX ", and dose not have the real meaning.

I'm pretty new for both English and Japanese.hope you all could understand.and also hope it's helpful.

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I wasn't entire sure, so I asked one of my language partners, who speaks Japanese natively. Her answer:

"Both are same,[sic] and there are no differences between them. Howerver,[sic] for me あなたのことが好きだ sounds more natural!"

So there you have it.

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If one sounds more natural than the other, then they are by definition not the same. –  rintaun Jul 21 '11 at 16:15
    
She doesn't speak English fluently, so let's cut her some slack. She means the meaning is the same, but one sounds more fluent. That's all. –  William Jul 21 '11 at 16:19
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But that doesn't change the fact that you will hear both 君が好きだ and 君のことが好きだ. That she senses one being "better" than another in a situation suggests that there are deeper differences. –  rintaun Jul 21 '11 at 16:24

Please allow me to address practicality. Colloquially, we use ~の事 often. It makes a good padding in conversation and it sounds natural. I dunno what others think, but, in writing, I find using ~の事 frequently makes you sound a little inarticulate. As we can overuse the term, if you write like how you speak, you could be littering with the terms in your letters, email, documents, making them look rather messy. I advise using ~の事 in writing when you think it addresses your point better by deploying it. Read newspapers, blogs, business documents, etc. you can see this very clearly.

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