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Example 1




Example 2




Is there any difference between the above examples with the positioning of the quantity?

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Possibly related: Can placements of adverbs be altered freely? – Flaw Oct 18 '12 at 1:18
Your question is not about the positioning of counter words (such as 杯 and 本), but about the positioning of quantities. – Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 18 '12 at 14:33
@TsuyoshiIto: Thanks, fixed. I did not know "counter word" referred to 助数詞, but in in linguistics it looks like that is the case (I'm not a linguist). I always thought of 一本, etc. as one word. – Jesse Good Oct 19 '12 at 1:59
I see. 助数詞 in Japanese is a suffix, so probably calling 助数詞 as “counter word” is indeed a misnomer. – Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 19 '12 at 14:02
@TsuyoshiIto: Yes, I debated editing that wikipedia article to "counter suffix", but it seems in linguistics the term is correct (although very unintuitive). – Jesse Good Oct 19 '12 at 21:05

Rare poetic constructions aside, English has just one way to mark the quantity of a noun. So it's no surprise that we would be confused when we realize Japanese has no less than 3 different ways to the same thing. As you already say in the title, the only difference between the three different methods of quantifying nouns is the word order. The participants are the quantified noun (N), the quantity phrase (Q), the postposition (P) and the main verb (V). They all stay the same, but their arrangement changes (and in one of the cases an extra の is added).

The following arrangements are possible when you've got all of the participants in play:

  1. Q の N P V (一杯のビールを飲む)
  2. N P Q V   (ビールを一杯飲む)
  3. N Q P V   (ビール一杯を飲む)

Tim has already explained the difference between #1 and #2 quite well, but I will try to rephrase it again in a way that might be easier to understand, at least to speakers of English or any other language which has a definite article.

二杯のビールを飲んだ can be translated as either of the following:

  1. I drank two bottles of beer.
  2. I drank the two bottles of beer.

This means that when using arrangement #1, the bottles of beer or you've drank or the samurai you've killed can be either a definite (which usually means this specific group of bottles or samurais was previously mentioned) or indefinite (which usually means they've been just introduced into the text or the conversation).

ビールを二杯飲んだ, on the other, can only be translated as:

I've drank two bottles of beer.

This means that you cannot use arrangement #2 when you want to say that you drank the two bottles of beer, or killed the seven samurai. In fact, there's a very good reason why you can't do that: arrangement #2 puts a strong emphasis on the quantity and marks it as a new and important information (in linguistic terms we'd say that arrangement #2 marks the quantity as highly rhematic or focalizes the quantity). But when you say "the seven samurai" in English, you refer to a previously mentioned specific group of people whose number you already know, so it cannot be new information. If it was a definite group of samurai, but you hadn't known their number previously, you'd have to use a different, and much clumsier, construction, such as "the samurai, who turned out to be seven in number".

In Japanese we don't have a definite article like the English 'the', but definiteness still counts in cases such as this. So at least one rule of thumb you should keep in mind is to never use arrangement #2 if the entire noun phrase (both the noun and the quantity) is definite in English. On the other hand, it's a good idea to use arrangement #2 when you want to put an emphasis on the quantity itself or when introducing new nouns along with their quantity in your story or conversation.

The more confusing beast here is arrangement #3. It looks a lot like #2, but it's actually quite different from it. First, it can be used with definite nouns (though I'd say it's more common to use #1 in such cases). The second difference is that while #2 can be used with only after a select number of pospositions (が and を, as well as は and も, since they usually replace a が or a を), #1 and #3 can both be used with any postposition.

I assume the reason for this limitation of #2 is that in #2 the quantity phrase is actually an adverb, and not an adjective of the noun. Since an adverb describes the verb or the entire sentence, and as such can only be related to he major 'actors' in the sentence (the subject and the object, which are marked by が and を respectively) and not to the minor actors (which are marked by other postpositions such as に or で).

All in all, #3 seems to behave more like #1 than like #2. But I sense that there's still a difference between the two. I haven't researched this subject well enough to have an answer I'm fully satisfied with. I'll have to think about it some more.

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Welcome back Boaz, we've missed your detailed and insightful posts! – Troyen Oct 19 '12 at 16:58
Thank you for your comment. It seems #3 is grammatically acceptable but I am not I will use it. [Actually when I first read it I wondered if the OP had just assumed the を was really dropped from the position before the counter and had misheard #3 but could not judge myself.] – Tim Oct 19 '12 at 23:43
@Troyen: Thanks. I'm glad to see people still remember me. :) – Boaz Yaniv Oct 20 '12 at 9:14
@Tim: yes, it's definitely grammatically acceptable. I've gone through quite a few real texts trying to find some difference to put my finger on, and was surprised to realize that's actually a lot more common than I had assumed. – Boaz Yaniv Oct 20 '12 at 9:18

Although all of the example word orders occur commonly, I would personally order them in this way according to "more natural -> very slightly marked"

  1. ビールを一杯飲む
  2. 一杯のビールを飲む
  3. ビール一杯を飲む

I think counters tend to be used as adverbs when possible, which is the case in phrase 1. In phrase 2 and 3, they're used as nouns.

As stated, this is my own feeling, so others might feel differently.

There are cases, however, where the counters have to be used as nouns:


駆けつけのビールを一杯飲む would alter the meaning.

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Thanks. Looking here, it seems to be saying that #3 is ungrammatical, although I have seen the form quite a bit in practice. – Jesse Good Oct 18 '12 at 2:40

Part of this is explained quite well in Jay Rubin's "Making sense of Japanese".

Kurosawa made the film "七人の侍” (the Seven Samurai) which by virtue of this construction we can recognise as a specific group. Rubin explains that if someone killed all seven members of the group, as opposed to killing any seven samurai then he would say:


as opposed to:


when the 七人 operates as an adverb indicating the extent of the killing.

He also gives a similar explanation for Old king Cole who called for "his fiddlers three", who were also a group 三人のバイオリン弾き.

(But I'd be grateful if someone would explain how/when one would place を after the counter....as in the examples above.)

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