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This question is based on the discussion arising from "Unsolvable Problem"


Start of Excerpt


Relevant discourse extracted from "Unsolvable Problem":

Quoted from Derek Schaab's reply to "Unsolvable Problem":

○ (私は)この問題{もんだい}が解{と}けない。 [I] can't solve this problem.

× この問題は解けられない。 This problem can't solve itself.

The second sentence might sound fine at first (from a grammatical standpoint), but when you think about it, assigning an ability to an inanimate subject doesn't work here. (Even in English, the better way to express the idea behind sentence #2 is, "This problem will not solve itself.")

Because of this, only 解{と}けない問題 is correct.


Also from Derek Schaab's reply to "Unsolvable Problem":

istrasci also mentioned the ~にくい suffix. I was about to agree with this, but then I saw sawa's edit which reminded me that 解く can be read as both and ほど, and 解ける can be read as both ける and ほどける. (The meanings differ between readings.) ~にくい can be attached to both ほどく and ほどける, such as in this way:

ほどきにくいくつひも a shoelace that is difficult to untie

ほどけにくいくつひも a shoelace that won't come undone easily

…and to とく, but not to とける:

○ ときにくい問題 a problem that's difficult to solve

× とけにくい問題


End of Excerpt


(Question 1) Why is ほどけにくい acceptable while とけにくい unacceptable? Following the logic of "I cannot assign ability to an inanimate subject", it should cause both to be unacceptable since both are intransitive and by extension force the existence of the "inanimate subject"

(Question 2) If it is true that there are cases for which Intransitive+にくい are acceptable, does it imply that there are cases for which Intransitive+られる (Potential form) are acceptable?

(EXTRA Question 2.1) If there are cases for which Intransitive+られる (Potential form) are acceptable, how do we decide if we can assign ability/potential to an inanimate subject?


Appendix: Other points taken from the comments in "Unsolvable Problem" for your consideration

From Derek Schaab:

Could it be related to whether the verb expresses a continuous or discrete change? ~にくい, when it means なかなか~しない, seems to imply that the verb may happen only gradually over a period of time, but never quickly and easily. Because of the gradual transition, a continuous-change verb (such as ほどける or 燃{も}える) is required. But 解{と}ける expresses a discrete change: a problem is either solved or it isn't, and the change from unsolved to solved takes place instantly. Perhaps this is why 解{と}けにくい sounds odd, but other combinations, such as 溶{と}けにくい, work.

From Matt:

But you can say 割{わ}れにくい, and that is instantaneous. Perhaps 〜eにくい has some sort of restriction relating to concrete vs abstract subjects?

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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

1 When you're walking and your shoelaces come undone, they appear to do that on their own. 靴ひもがほどける does not mean that someone unties them, but that they "untie themselves". The meaning is closer to an intransitive active than to a passive; therefore にくい is appropriate. On the other hand, 問題が解ける means that the problem is solved by someone, not that it solves itself somehow; and the way to say that it is hard for someone to solve it is 解き難い. Compare to English: "this problem is difficult to be solved" is unnatural, and you would say instead "this problem is difficult to solve".

EDIT: as Matt and Derek pointed out, examples like 割れ難い suggest that the problem is not agency. Matt suggests, in the other thread, that the distinction may have to do with concrete vs abstract subjects, but I think this is unlikely, considering things like 言い難い (although maybe the reasoning could be restricted to intransitive verbs).

I think agency still comes into play, but in a more subtle way, involving purpose. Consider 割り難い and 割れ難い: it seems to me that the former is used when you want to break something, eg この木が割り難いから大きい斧を使う, while the latter is more likely to be used when you're concerned about the possibility of something breaking, eg この皿が割れ難いから心配しないで (compare with この皿が割れやすいから気をつけて; please excuse the silly examples).

Similarly, when we want to untie the shoelaces, but we have trouble with it, we use ほどき難い; when we want them to stay tied, we use ほどけ難い. For problems, we use 解き難い when we want to solve them; 解け難い is not used because it would be strange to wish for a problem to stay unsolved (otherwise it wouldn't be considered a problem in the first place).

Is this more convincing?

2 Sure. For example, いられない, the potential form of the verb 居る, is quite common.

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The reasoning you have here for (1) was shot down by Matt's example of 割れにくい: an external force is still implied with 割れる, just as it is with ほどける or とける (or 壊れる, to add another example). The premise that "問題が解ける means that the problem is solved by someone" is also false; a problem could be resolved without human intervention simply by a natural course of events. I think this question runs deeper than what you have here. –  Derek Schaab Aug 1 '11 at 12:34
    
You're right! I had not read that part. Allow me to fire a second salvo, then... –  LaC Aug 1 '11 at 13:34
    
OK, I think we're getting much closer with your edit. The idea of the desirability of the result definitely seems to factor into the distinction. By the way, is there any particular reason you're using ~難い for ~にくい? I've only seen the kanjified ~難い used when ~がたい is meant (such as in 有り難う). –  Derek Schaab Aug 1 '11 at 14:51
    
No particular reason, I just let the IME choose. –  LaC Aug 1 '11 at 15:13
    
IMEs often have non-standard conversions, which can be confusing in cases like this, since ~にくい and ~がたい aren't equivalent. It's probably best to use hiragana here. Back on topic, I've found many "neutral" examples of ~にくい with 無意思自動詞, such as 「水と油は混ざりにくい。」 or 「この地方は冬にも雪が降りにくい。」. Neither of these necessarily imply that the speaker considers the actions (混ざる, 降る) undesirable. (In fact, if you were making a vinaigrette, 混ざる would be very desirable.) Now I'm wondering if it has more to do with whether the quality marked by ~にくい can be empirically or objectively tested. –  Derek Schaab Aug 1 '11 at 15:28
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I will go in conjecture mode here, as I do not have the knowledge of the validity in question.

(Question 1) Why is ほどけにくい acceptable while とけにくい unacceptable?

I guess that it's related to the subject. A shoelace, in English too, gets loose and unties itself. The shoelace can do the action of untying itself, with ease or not, hence the (claimed) validity of ほどけにくい. However, the problem cannot solve itself, it needs an external intervention, an external agent for whom it will be hard. So, you couldn't say とけにくい since there is no notion of ease for the problem itself which cannot do anything.

Following the logic of "I cannot assign ability to an inanimate subject", it should cause both to be unacceptable since both are intransitive and by extension force the existence of the "inanimate subject"

I think that the shoelace is active as I tried to explain, and that it then does not fit the "inanimate" constraint.

(Question 2) If it is true that there are cases for which Intransitive+にくい are acceptable, does it imply that there are cases for which Intransitive+られる (Potential form) are acceptable?

I think that

  • as I just said, some intransitive+にくい are possible, and
  • sentences like ドアが開かれない are perfectly valid in contexts like "once locked, the door can't open itself."

(EXTRA Question 2.1) If there are cases for which Intransitive+られる (Potential form) are acceptable, how do we decide if we can assign ability/potential to an inanimate subject?

Well, I think I gave a constructive proof of intransitive+rareru potential form. I reckon you have to simply think about the meaning of the verb, who/what does the action (or even wonder "is it an action?") and then, it should be obvious if I'm right.

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