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In the 2012 JLPT-official N4 sample test book, question #34, you are tested on the meaning of the word ちこく.

もんだい5 つぎの ことばの つかいかたで いちばん いい ものを 1・2・3・4から ひとつ えらんで ください。

34 ちこく
1 あの とけいは ちょっと ちこくして います。
2 じゅぎょうに ちこくして すみません。
3 10時の でんしゃに ちこくして しまいました。
4 れんらくが ちこくして すみません。

The correct sentence is 2.「授業に 遅刻して すみません。」

However, there is one other sentence choice that seems correct, and I can't figure out why it's wrong: 4.「10時の 電車に 遅刻して しまいました。」 My best guess is that 遅刻する can't apply to vehicles, since the word 乗り遅れる exists, but that seems like a stretch. Can someone explain?

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  • In my humble opinion, my proposed title is more useful to the community since it points to both terms, 遅刻 and 遅れる giving more visibility to the point at issue than your original title. Besides, it's not that you can't say 電車に遅刻する (as explained in the answer). I also don't understand why you excluded the "usage" tag: "How to use certain words, phrases, particles, endings, constructions, and their variants." I see it totally fitting to your question. But of course, you are entitled to rollback the edit.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 24, 2023 at 14:56
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    I think it's for the same reason it would be unnatural in English to say “I'm running behind schedule for the train”, as if the train is expecting you. Instead we would say “I'm going to miss the train”. miss = 乗り遅れる
    – Mentalist
    Sep 25, 2023 at 7:19
  • Crucially, the question says いちばんいいものをえらんで, not ただしいものをえらんで.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 25, 2023 at 15:28

2 Answers 2

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To be fair, if you Google that phrase you can actually find a small number of examples of seemingly native speakers using it. They may be using it as a slightly more formal variant of 遅れる, and it is not totally incomprehensible.

However, I find this collocation quite unnatural, and according to my own introspection, the reason is very clear. When you 遅刻 to some event, you will still have a chance to make it happen. For example, if you 遅刻 to an exam, you might nevertheless be allowed to enter the room, even if you perhaps only have the last five minutes...

But in a typical situation, if you are late for a train, you will automatically miss it. You might be able to take the next, but no longer the same one, so it is no more 遅刻. In this light, you cannot use 遅刻 when you are completely past the back end of a meeting, since you can never attend it anymore.

Conversely, 電車遅刻する may sound not that bad, albeit not idiomatic, because when a train comes late, most passengers would usually continue to wait, so it can transport them anyway. Absolutely nothing to do with how I've waited for a half hour late train when I visited Germany a while ago.

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    It's essentially the same thing, but I feel the criterion for determining whether you can use 遅刻 is whether or not there are people waiting for you and you can say "I'm sorry I'm late" to them.
    – naruto
    Sep 25, 2023 at 7:35
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    Not only in Germany, but usually in Spain, too... I can attest to that (and it's one of the reasons I love Japanese trains).
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 25, 2023 at 15:19
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You have some good answers to your exact question with your exact sentences at HiNative and Đáp Án. I'll quote them here.

HiNative (translation from Japanese and emphasis mine):

「授業に遅刻してすみません」is correct. If we were to say「10時の電車に遅刻してしまいました。」in natural Japanese, we would say 「10時の電車に乗り遅れてしまいました。」

Đáp Án (translation from Vietnamese by Google, shortening [...] and emphasis mine):

遅刻する is only used for people to indicate [...] being late for an appointment, something to be planned in advance. 遅れる is used more generally, to describe being late for all events, objects and people. For example, going to school late, a plane arriving late, a train arriving late, etc.

In terms of grammar, neither sentence is wrong. The same goes for semantics. However, to sound more natural, in 「10時の電車に遅刻してしまいました。」you should use 遅れる [...]. In addition, 遅れる is used more generally, so you can use it for all situations. 遅刻する is used a lot for appointments, meetings, classes, etc. In short, activities that are scheduled between you and another person.

So my take is that「10時の電車に遅刻してしまいました。」is not wrong per se, but it doesn't sound natural because 遅刻 tends to be used for appointments or scheduled activities, i.e. for being late to a place you were expected to be at a certain time.

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    Is not riding a particular train (especially if you take it routinely) considered a "scheduled activity"? By even having a schedule, the train company is essentially saying "We'll have this service for you at this particular time." I don't see how that's any different than, say, a doctor's appointment or something.
    – istrasci
    Sep 24, 2023 at 21:56
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    @istrasci Catching a train is not usually an activity scheduled between you and another person, though. I suppose you could make plans with someone else to catch a specific train, and then say you were late for your appointment to catch the 10 o’clock train… but that’s a stretch even in English. Just taking a train is not predicated on a bilateral ‘contract’ like a meeting is. Attending a class isn’t really bilateral, either, but it’s still more bilateral than just taking a train. Sep 24, 2023 at 22:19
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    @istrasci When you catch a train, it's because you intend to go somewhere and do a particular activity or endeavour beyond the act of getting on the train itself (unless let's say, you are an otaku and like to get on trains and enjoy the ride in itself without a particular destination you want to get off at, but that's stretching a point). Getting on that train is just instrumental, it's not an activity you pursue in itself with enough entity, if you understrand me. In this regard, I see it frankly different than a doctor's appointment or a university lesson.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 25, 2023 at 0:04
  • @JanusBahsJacquet "you could make plans with someone else to catch a specific train, and then say you were late for your appointment to catch the 10 o’clock train" I think in such a case it would be reasonble to say [一緒に10時の電車に乗ろうって]約束に遅刻した, but of course you would be being late to 約束, not to 電車.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 25, 2023 at 0:12
  • @istrasci to paraphrase myself, getting on the train is different from a doctor's appointment, a university lesson, a lecture, or your job, because you have no particular business in the train and there's no expectation for you to be there, but you do have business in the other cases, and are definitely expected to attend.
    – jarmanso7
    Sep 25, 2023 at 0:16

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