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I asked 2 Japanese teachers (native speakers both) whether the sentence "カバンに本があります" was correct in Japanese. Surprisingly, one claimed it is perfectly fine, while the other claimed it is wrong, and should be "カバンのなかに本があります" or "カバンに本が入っています" instead.

Questions:

  1. Which answer is correct?
  2. How can such a basic sentence lead to such radically opposed answers?
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    Re 2, I'd guess it's because the sentence is not something naturally uttered. If you are asked what's in the bag, you'll say 本です; if where's the book, it will be カバンの中です. The sentence is perfectly correct, but taken out of context, it does look somewhat unidiomatic (hard to imagine the occasion when it's used). This may be the case with many sample sentences in language textbooks.
    – sundowner
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 8:59
  • the other claimed it is wrong, that teacher should stop teaching that way. It's the reason why people don't speak a foreign language, especially at that beginner level, students shouldn't be told it's wrong. The teacher should say it's correct, understandable but can bring confusion.
    – None
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 9:13

3 Answers 3

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At best I can guess what's going on with your teachers. (Caveat, I'm a nonnative speaker.)

I think most people will understand you quite well if you say, カバンに本があります.

However, from the perspective of the other teacher, different ideas might be going through their head. In English, we have somewhat specific prepositions to make clear what we mean. We can say "there's a book in the bag". That corresponds to カバンの中に本があります。We can also say "there's a book on the bag" (imagine that bag is placed on a table and you placed the book on top of it). This would correspond to カバンの上に本があります。

This last sentence, in English, might sound a little bit weird. It's not what you necessarily expect to hear (you expect to hear "in"). So, if your student (pretending we're teaching English) said, "there's a book on the bag", you might correct them to say "there's a book on top of the bag". Why? Because depending on one's native language, someone might say "on" when they should really be saying "in". Or, you, as the teacher, have an unconscious bias for expressing this idea in a particular way.

I suspect that, if you meant, "there's a book on the bag", it would be better to say, カバンの上に本があります。 But, even if you said, カバンに本があります, and the person you're speaking to can see there's a book on the bag, you'll be understood.

I get it, you're not asking about カバンの上に. But, I am trying to tease out why two native speakers might have different ideas of the best way to instruct the student.

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    I love the parallel answering haha
    – jarmanso7
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 4:23
  • Do I understand correctly that カバンに本があります could have either meaning according to the context? Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 6:30
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カバンに本があります

カバンのなかに本があります

カバンに本が入っています

The three sentences are correct in Japanese.

How can such a basic sentence lead to such radically opposed answers?

Teachers are human as well. A common theme among some Japanese teachers is to believe that they know better than you (of course they do, they are the teacher after all). In my experience, this is sometimes taken to the point of dumbing down or simplifying their explanation to make their point across, and there is an expectation that the student should just take the teacher at their word.

That is to say, instead of entering an intrincate discussion about the nuances between カバンに本があります and カバンのなかに本があります, the second teacher's train of thought might have gone along the lines "they are a beginner anyway and I am going to confuse them more than helping them. Moreover, they should learn the basic grammar point のなかに, so let's tell them this is the right answer so they learn it well".

As a learner I think your best course of action to take is what you've already done, i.e. not taking anyone's word at face value and asking for second opinions.

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    Jinx! lol. We posted simultaneously.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 4:22
  • That's so true with teachers... some want to teach you what 90% of the natives don't even respect. Would be funny to have natives participating to these classes, OP'd be surprised how much they'll debate.
    – None
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 9:17
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IMO you can say カバンに本があります but only if the bag is stationary and at some distance from you. It’d be similar to 家に本があります. If you are holding the bag it does sound a bit odd to me and I’d rather say カバンに本が入ってます.

Similarly if the bag is moving (in a moving vehicle etc), even if it’s away from me I’d also not say あります.

Maybe it has some geographical or individual variance.

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