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I am reading an article entitled 日本の従業員が「世界一やる気がない」本当の理由 and I am having trouble translating this title. Seems like 世界一やる気がない is translated as "the least motivated in the world" so that 世界一 is an adverbial phrase that modifies an adjective やる気がない. But why is that? Why not treat 世界一やる気 as a compound noun and apply がない to that compound noun? In this case the translation would be "not the best motivated in the world". How to tell the difference? Is there any grammar rule to apply here?

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It's simply because 世界一やる気 is not a common combination whereas やる気がない is a fixed collocation. It's like multiplication getting priority over addition.

世界一 + やる気が × ない

In fact, やる気 is such an independent word that it's rarely preceded by another noun.

Unfortunately, there are no definite rules. It's just how it is.

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  • Interesting comparison. Often I see a Japanese sentence as an arithmetic expression where I know all the components, but I need to put the parentheses right to get a correct result. If I know what part of speech a particular word is I can figure parentheses out, more or less. But if a dictionary says that the word can be both this and that, this is where I have trouble.
    – Slava
    Commented May 24 at 18:44
  • @Slava - 二つ返事をする in a similar structure can be understood in two ways because 二つ and 返事 can be bound together to form one word with a specific meaning, by addition inside parentheses in the arithmetic analogy.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented May 25 at 1:07
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Even small Japanese children know how to use 世界一 adverbially, and it's odd to ask "why it's an adverb" just because English has no adverb directly corresponding to it. You need to remember it's an adverb and learn how to use it as such. 世界一 fundamentally works as an intensifier similar to 非常に, so when it's combined with a negative expression like やる気がない, it can intensify the ない part. "Least motivated in the world" seems to be a perfect translation to me. (Note that Japanese has no direct equivalent of English "least".)

Combining two nouns without の is only possible when you're treating the combination as an established concept.

世界一やる気 makes no sense as a combined concept to me. Even if you use の, saying 世界一のやる気がない would end up meaning "lacks world's best motivation", like you said. This is different from "least motivated in the world".

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    I am not a Japanese child who knows this by heart, this is why I took a look at the dictionary that says that 世界一 can function both as noun and as adverb. And there are words like 世界一軍団 that I've met in texts where 世界一 is a part of a compound noun. I have no intent of matching Japanese and English adverbs as you implied here. Very arrogant answer overall.
    – Slava
    Commented May 22 at 14:48
  • @Slava I'm sorry if my answer sounded arrogant, but it's really hard to answer a question like "Why is 世界一 an adverb". The best advice I can give you is that some kanji words like 世界一 and 突然 are adverbs by default, and you need to get used to this fact to translate your sentence correctly. Also, according to Google, 世界一軍団 seems to be an established phrase in baseball contexts, but I have never seen it or a similar phrase. Such an example does not justify using 世界一やる気 as a compound noun in book titles without defining it.
    – naruto
    Commented May 22 at 15:44
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    @Slava Before accusing people of arrogance please remember that not all contributors speak English as their native language. What may appear 'self-evidently' arrogant to you, may not be perceived or intended as arrogant by the writer. In this instance I am certain that your accusation is misplaced. Commented May 22 at 17:20
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First off, やる気 isn't simply a noun, even if it's effectively used that way. The やる part is still the verb やる, a form of "to do"; your やる気 is the spirit that you have specifically for doing things.

Compound nouns don't get to have attributives in the middle like that. So 世界一 is forced into the role of an adverb. And it can't really be modifying やる, either, because the overall result doesn't really make sense - something like "he doesn't have the energy to do things in the best way in the world"... ?

The 世界一。。。ない construction simply is idiomatic and one of the things that has to be picked up from use (there are just too many to list). Part of why it's used that way is because, as naruto says, there isn't a direct translation of "least" - so you need to work with "most un-" instead.

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