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これが私の手紙に対する彼の返事だ。 This is his answer to my letter.

自分の中の彼に対する気持ちをどう表現していいのか分からないの。I don’t know how to express how I really feel to him.

彼に対して、彼を好きという私の気持ちを、どう表せばいいか、わからない。 I don't know how to express to him that I like him.

Often when I run into 対する in colloquial sentences like these, its meaning appears somewhat extraneous. It seems to emphasize the direction of the action in an obvious way. I am tempted (mistakenly?) to think that in these kind of sentences, the meaning expressed could be sufficiently communicated with just に. Is 対する just adding extra emphasis, or I am I misunderstanding some of its meaning or grammatical purpose? How does it add to what is being communicated? Does it add a measure of gravity to the statement?

For instance, if I was to remove the 対する, would these sentences become grammatically incorrect, or would the meaning drastically change? Perhaps they just start to sound unnatural or poorly constructed...

If you see any mistakes in translation feel free to point them out. Thank you.

これが私の手紙に彼の返事だ。

自分の中の彼に気持ちをどう表現していいのか分からないの。

彼に、彼を好きという私の気持ちを、どう表せばいいか、わからない。

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To make your point clear, the crucial portions of your examples are: 手紙に(対する)彼の返事, 自分の中の彼に(対する)気持ち, 彼に(対して)気持ちをどう表すか. The rest is just making the argument complicated. It is extra. –  sawa Feb 19 '12 at 19:34
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

As Tsuyoshi Ito answers, when you modify a noun, you can put a genitive (の)-marked noun phrase, or a relative clause. Notice that 対する retains the morphological form of a verb (although it does not fully inflect as with real verbs). Thus, at least etymologically, you can consider the 対する-phrase as a relative clause.

[(それが)手紙に 対する (ところの)]返事
'a response [such that it aims against the letter]'
'a response that is aimed against the letter'  

Here, the phrase is an argument of the verb 対する. You cannot omit the verb and retain its argument. The (それが)手紙に in the following will be a strange syntactic object; it has an argument but not the predicate, and is still intended to function as a relative clause. That is why it is ungrammatical.

* [ (それが)手紙に ](ところの)返事

If you want to say it short, you can use in front of the genitive case like this:

? 手紙 への 彼の返事
自分の中の彼 への 気持ち

although the first example is awkward because can be used only against things that will be affected by the action.

In your last example, the -phrase simply functions as an argument.

気持ちをどう表すか

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thank you, that helped me understand more. in your example,what meaning does the ところの provide? –  yadokari Feb 19 '12 at 20:59
    
That is just to make it clear that it is a relative clause. It is the same as the word "that" seen in English relative clauses. –  sawa Feb 19 '12 at 21:26
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Contrary to your guess, the last example is fine without 対して whereas it is ungrammatical to omit 対する in the first two example. (I would say 彼が好き instead of 彼を好き in the last example, but that is not the main point of the question.)

The important rule here is that the case particles other than の cannot directly modify a noun. これが私の手紙に彼の返事だ is ungrammatical because 私の手紙に cannot modify 返事. Similarly, 自分の中の彼に気持ちをどう表現していいのか分からないの is ungrammatical does not mean what you want it to mean because 彼に cannot modify 気持ち. (The latter sentence means something like “I do not know how to tell my feelings to ‘him inside me’” because it is parsed as [自分の中の彼に][気持ちを][どう]表現していいのか分からないの where each of the three bracketed parts modifies 表現して. This is a totally different structure than that of the original sentence.)

対する has many meanings. When it signifies a target of an action, に対して is almost synonymous to just に. The only difference I can think of is that に対して can put more emphasis on the target than に.

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thank you. if i put a comma here, would it be acceptable? 自分の中の彼に,気持ちをどう表現していいのか分からないの . –  yadokari Feb 19 '12 at 18:56
    
@yadokari: No. . –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 19 '12 at 18:57
    
ok thanks. i think your answer is good but i'll wait and see if there are any other opinions. –  yadokari Feb 19 '12 at 19:00
    
@yadokari: I modified the answer a little, because I realized that 自分の中の彼に気持ちをどう表現していいのか分からないの is not totally ungrammatical (although it means a different thing from the original sentence). If this is intended, then it is also fine to put a comma between 彼に and 気持ちを. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 19 '12 at 19:17
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