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If I understand correctly, the main usages of ことがある seem to be the following:

  • Verb(plain)+ことがある: There are times when (I)
  • Verb(past)+ことがある: (I) have experienced (something) before

But after this question, I'm starting to wonder when ことがある means "there is a thing/there are things" instead of "there are times when".

When looking through Space ALC and Google searches, I'm thinking ~たいことがある might mean "there's a thing I want to (do)" and ~たくなることがある "there are times when I want to (do)" based on the way they're used, but I can't be sure.

書きたくなることがあります
"there are times I want to write" (?)

書きたいことがあります
"there are things I want to write" (?)

What are the different usages of ことがある? When does ことがある mean "there are things" rather than "there are times when" and how can they be told apart?

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Thank you for this. I was just about to ask the same question. –  dotnetN00b May 30 '12 at 19:22

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The clause used in ...ことがある is structurally ambiguous between an appositive clause and a relative clause.

書きたくなることがあります
1. As appositive clause
 書きたくなる 'I become tempted to write something' is the content of the formal noun こと 'occasion'
 'There are occasions that I become tempted to write something.'
2. As relative clause
 The こと '(factual) thing' is the missing object of the relative clause 書きたくなる 'I become tempted to write'
 'There are things that I become tempted to write.'

It is just as the same in English. Depending on whether you interpret the English write in:

 There are occasions that I become tempted to write

as intransitive or transitive, you can interpret the clause as appositive or relative, and will get the two meanings.

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1  
So the only way to resolve the ambiguity is from contextual cues I guess. –  Flaw Dec 13 '11 at 15:05
    
Does using frequency adverbs like たまに resolve the ambiguity? –  Flaw Dec 13 '11 at 15:38
    
@Flaw With Yes, you are right. In principle, with たまに, it is still ambiguous. 'Once in a while, there are occasions that I become tempted to write something' vs. 'Once in a while, there are/arise things that I become tempted to write.' But maybe the first interpretation will be dominant because with the latter, as shown in my English translation, it is more natural to use a verb like 出てきます 'appears'. Yes, you are right. –  sawa Dec 13 '11 at 15:43

The following is only my understanding.

ことがある is not a fixed word/phrase. Though it can be often seen, it is formed as (...ことが)ある.

こと here is a 形式名詞 (NOTE1), which is used to convert the previous sentence into a noun phrase, and can have various meanings. According to goo, there are only two usages of こと that often (only) appear in the form ことがある:

(「…ことがある」などの形で)場合。「ときどき郵便物が返ってくる―がある」
(「…ことがある」などの形で)経験。「アメリカなら行った―がある」

The first means "occasion", The second means "experience".

These are the two forms the OP first mentioned.

However, if the meaning of noun phrase permits, "がある" can also be attached to other usages of こと to form "ことがある".

E.g. 書きたいこと means "something that (I) want to write about", and we can have

書きたいことがある have something that (I) want to write about
書きたいことを書く Write what (I) want to write about

The formation of 書きたいこと is similar with 行きたいところ (place where (I) want to go).

面白いことがある have something fun

NOTE1:I've also seen some grammar books call it 形式体言. I don't know which is official.

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