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I noticed in an anime I watched, one of the characters said something like below:

さっき食べたじゃない。

And what I think the meaning is: Didn't you just eat a few while ago?

From what I have learned in Japanese classes, 「じゃない」, which is the shortened form of 「ではない」, must follow a noun word/phrase/clause. But in the spoken sentence above the 「じゃない」 follows a 「~た」 form of a verb. Is that sentence grammatically correct? Is this one of the many examples where colloquial language may skip a few grammar rules here and there?

I think the sentence would be grammatically correct if there is 「ん」 in between the two phrases: 「さっき食べたんじゃない」. Did I actually mishear?

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1  
Follow-up question - I've actually never heard this said by male speakers, is this expression used freely by both genders? –  Mark Hosang Jun 3 '11 at 9:02
    
@Mark: Male speakers would probably use さっき食べたじゃん. I remember hearing it in GTO, Gokusen etc, whose characters are predominantly male. –  Lukman Jun 3 '11 at 13:35
    
Are you by chance confusing Jyan that is Nagoya-ben and Yokohama-ben for Jyanai? According to my wife, it is not a distinguisher between males and females, but take that for what's that worth. –  Mark Hosang Jun 3 '11 at 15:46
    
@Mark: I agree that ~じゃない in this sense is chiefly used by female speakers, but male speakers sometimes use it, too. Perhaps ~じゃないか may be more common for male speakers, but I am not definitely sure. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 3 '11 at 16:42
    
@Ito: I'm in Nagoya so everyone here, guys and girls, says Jyan all the time which probably skews my sense on which gender it is used primalry by outside of Aichi. –  Mark Hosang Jun 4 '11 at 1:14

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I do not know if さっき食べたじゃない is grammatically correct or not, but sentence + じゃない is a common colloquial construct whose meaning is similar to a tag question as Amanda wrote: “You ate it a little while ago, didn’t you?” It is a statement rather than a question, and the じゃない part indicates either that the speaker is surprised by the fact that he/she has to say it or that the speaker wants a confirmation.

An example of surprise:

A: 冷蔵庫に入れておいたケーキがない! (I cannot find the cake I put in the fridge!)
B: あんたさっき食べたじゃない。 (You ate it a little while ago, didn’t you.)

An example of wanting confirmation:

A: さっきケーキを食べたじゃない。あれじつは1週間前に賞味期限が切れていたの。 (We (or you or …) ate cake a little while ago, didn’t we? To tell the truth, that cake was best before a week ago.)

I think that さっき食べたんじゃない has a different meaning from さっき食べたじゃない. さっき食べたんじゃない has two meanings:

  1. Without the raise of pitch at the end of the sentence, it is a negation of さっき食べた. “It is not true that I ate it a little while ago.” The usual negation of さっき食べた is さっき食べなかった (I did not eat it a little while ago), and they have different meanings, but I cannot explain it clearly.
  2. With the raise of pitch at the end of the sentence (often denoted by a question mark: さっき食べたんじゃない?), it is a question “Didn’t you eat it a little while ago?” with indication that the speaker thinks that “you” probably ate it a little while ago.
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This is about as spot-on as you can get. The only thing I would add is that じゃない is sometimes shortened to じゃん in very informal contexts. –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 13:20
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@Derek, Doesn't "じゃん" dialect dependent? –  YOU Jun 3 '11 at 13:21
    
@YOU: I don't believe it is. I regularly hear things such as いいじゃん across a wide variety of speakers. –  Derek Schaab Jun 3 '11 at 13:38
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@Derek, @YOU: According to a quick web search, じゃん is spoken in wide area of Japan including Saitama, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures, but it seems still dialect-dependent. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 3 '11 at 14:08

I'd probably say that you misheard, and that there was in fact a 「ん」 in there. The usage of 「の」 is outlined in this grammar page. I am a beginner myself, but from what I can tell, it appears that the phrase is being used for explanation. However, the phrasing seems strange to me, as the following would seem more appropriate for a question:

さっき食べなかったの? - Didn't you eat a little while ago?

If the intonation of the statement wasn't a question, then I might be inclined to think that it would have a different meaning:

さっき食べたんじゃない。 - [It's not like] I ate a little while ago.

It is an interesting question, though - I hope a native or expert can offer some more insight on this.

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The original grammar has the ん or の, yes, but it's frequently dropped in colloquial speech. Sometimes it's even abbreviated further to e.g. 「さっき食べたじゃん」 –  bdonlan Jun 3 '11 at 1:52
    
さっき食べなかったの? and 食べたんじゃないの? are different. The latter implies that the speaker has a knowledge/suspicion that the person he speaks to already ate before, similar to "Isn't it the case that you already ate? (because I can smell curry from your mouth etc)" –  Lukman Jun 3 '11 at 4:52
    
@Lukman: Is the ending の in 食べたんじゃない optional, then? Or is the meaning changed if it is omitted? I suppose it also depends on intonation when actually speaking. –  voithos Jun 3 '11 at 5:35
    
putting の everywhere is a bad habit if you're not a girl. If as a man you want to express the same thing try ~のか or just んじゃない +1 bdonlan, Lukman didn't mishear. –  repecmps Jun 3 '11 at 6:29
    
"putting の everywhere is a bad habit if you're not a girl"? First I've heard of this. If you end your sentence with の (as opposed to のだ), that's one thing, but I'm not aware of the use of の/ん being itself feminine. –  Kef Schecter Jun 10 '11 at 9:34

No, you probably didn't mishear. This is a pretty common construction in colloquial Japanese, though it is not grammatically correct.

It might help to think of the じゃない as a tag that turns the sentence into a tag question, with a tone of surprise or disbelief.

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