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The phrase 心の冷たい人 (which is given by Japanese-English dictionary on OS X) looks wrong to me, but given that it's an example in a respected dictionary and confirmed by tens of thousands of Google hits, I have to assume it's correct. It's a lot less clumsy than how I'd naïvely write it, 冷たい心がある人, but its word order still doesn't line up with anything else I've seen. Is this just an idiomatic saying that I should just accept as correct, or is this a pattern that shows up a lot?

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The grammar of 心の冷たい人 is not idiomatic but it comes from double-subject construction, but I cannot explain its grammatical construction clearly. You can say しっぽの黒い猫 (a cat with a black tail) using the same grammatical construction for example. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 1 '11 at 13:51
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@TsuyoshiIto Interesting. I hadn't heard about "double subject construction" before. However, looking it up, it seems like it's just a fancy way of saying a sentence where the topic and the subject are separate. And since the topic is not necessarily the subject, "double subject" seems misleading to me. –  dainichi Feb 28 '12 at 8:42

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

This doesn't strike me as the slightest bit unusual. Relative phrases such as this are very common in Japanese. You can easily substitute similar phrases for 心が冷たい, such as 背が高い:

  • あの人は背が高いです。 ("That person is tall.")
  • 背が高い人 (lit. "A person who is tall"; "A tall person" [with the emphasis on 背])
  • 背の高い人 (lit. "A person who is tall"; "A tall person" [with no particular emphasis])

背が高い, being a complete phrase, is perfectly legal as a modifier on a noun (although the が does often change to の depending on the emphasis).

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To add a sub-question: Would I use 背の高いひと to say something like "The tall person over there..." (just some description) and use 背が高いひと rather as "The person over there is really tall." (the tallness is a point I am trying to make) ? –  Kdansky Jun 1 '11 at 14:23
    
For "The tall person over there...", you might use あそこの背の高い人は(...). Putting this before the は particle means your main point is not that the person is tall, but that what you want to say is limited to the scope of "the tall person over there". If, however, your point is that the person is tall, it would follow the は particle: あそこ(の/にいる)人は背が(すごく)高いです。 –  Derek Schaab Jun 1 '11 at 14:36
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Your answer seem to imply that あそこの背が高い人は has a meaning of "that (rather) tall guy over there". But I don't think such is the case; if used as a subject, both 背が高い人 and 背の高い人 mean virtually the same with no difference on emphasis. –  syockit Jun 2 '11 at 0:47
    
@syockit: The difference between が and の here is extremely slight and probably not worth worrying about, but if you get into the grammatical nuts and bolts of it, が puts the emphasis on the fact that the person's back is tall (as opposed to, say, his nose). 背の高い is a mere statement of fact. Of course in everyday situations, splitting hairs this finely is of little practical use. :) –  Derek Schaab Jun 2 '11 at 12:24

The first point to note is that, to say "A's B is C", it is common to say "AはBがC", especially if B is an integral part of A. So to say "That person's heart is cold", you can say either of the below

あの人は心が冷たい → As for that person, (his/her) heart is cold.

あの人の心は冷たい → As for that person's heart, (it) is cold.

Both are correct, but the former is more idiomatic in Japanese, probably because it makes more sense to make the person the topic of the sentence than his/her heart.

The second point to note is that Japanese is both lenient and inexplicit about the grammatical role that the modified noun has in a relative clause.

To put some color on that, 書く物 can mean

  • 物が書く → 書く物 something that writes (subject)
  • 物を書く → 書く物 something that sby writes (object)
  • 物で書く → 書く物 something that sby writes with (postpositional phrase)
  • 物に書く → 書く物 something that sby writes on (postpositional phrase)

etc.

Now all you have to do is to combine the above two points:

  • (あの)人は心が冷たい → 心の/が冷たい人 (topic)

So literally

  • As for that guy, the heart is cold → A guy as for whom the heart is cold

Clumsy nonsense in English, idiomatic in Japanese.

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