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Consider the following sentence.

彼{かれ}が来{こ}ないことを知{し}りませんでした。

I really get confused in determining the subject. Which is the correct translation?

  1. I did not know that he will not come.

  2. He did not know about the absence.

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1  
The only situation (as far as I know) #2 is allowed in this sentence is when you put stress on 彼: が来ないことを知りませんでした。 "He (It's he that) didn't know about the absense." – broccoli forest Jan 25 at 16:56
    
@broccoliforest: So I have to bold the 彼 in writing or stressed it in speaking? – Yasashii Eirian Jan 25 at 23:24
    
In speaking. Bolded just for clarification, not meant to be a standard typography corresponds to italicization in English. – broccoli forest Jan 26 at 8:15
up vote 14 down vote accepted

This sentence can technically mean both, but it usually (or almost always) means 1.

To mean 2., we normally say

来ないことを知りませんでした。 = He didn't know about the (someone else's) absense.

because 彼 is the topic of the whole sentence.

In other words, the use of が after 彼 more or less indicates that "彼がこない" is the relative clause which modifies こと.

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1  
I have taken so far 2 semesters of Japanese and I don't think I will ever understand when I should use or ... – Chris Cirefice Jan 25 at 16:24
    
@ChrisCirefice: Not to mention は for を, or constructions like には. It's tricky, to be sure. – Williham Totland Jan 25 at 19:15
    
Not quite as tricky as rocking a rhyme that's right on time, but certainly so. I don't claim to be an expert, but I think I got a lot of sense for は vs が from book-app Human Japanese and Jay Rubin's book Making Sense of Japanese. – rickster Jan 25 at 20:43

Understanding the subject of this sentence is a lot easier if we unpack it:

The sentence 彼{かれ}が来{こ}ないことを知{し}りませんでした。has an implicit subject, and since it speaks of knowledge, unless it's a narrative, the subject is probably 自分{じぶん}; the self. What has you confused is probably が looking like part of the sentence; it isn't.

Splitting the sentence up using spaces:

彼が来ないことを 知りません でした。

In truth, the first clause, everything preceding the を is not really part of the sentence, instead, こと turns a full-fledged free-standing sentence into a clausal noun.

The free-standing sentence that was nouned was probably this: 彼来ません。

In the process of turning it into a clausal noun, the は was "demoted" to が, as is the custom, and the entire clause became the object of the longer sentence.

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1 is the correct translation.

Your sentence in question,

彼が来ないことを知りませんでした。

can also be written as

(私は)彼が来ないことを知りませんでした。

or

彼が来ないことを(私は)知りませんでした。

Which, in both cases, is translated to "I did not know that he will not come."

In your original sentence, the subject is implied to be "I" (私), but not explicitly stated.

「は」is almost always used after a subject. For example,

私はアメリカに住んでいます。

彼は仕事に行きました。

日本はいい国です。

These can be translated to "I live in America.", where "I" is the subject;

"He went to work.", where "He" is the subject;

and "Japan is a good country.", where "Japan" is the subject.

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is a subject in this sentence, and it's marked by が! It's just not the subject of 知る (in interpretation 1, anyways). So, I'm not sure how your "「は」 is almost always used after a subject" rule helps explain what's going on. – Darius Jahandarie Jan 25 at 19:53

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