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Recently, I came across the following phrase written on a T-shirt:「毎日が地獄です。」. I'm trying to understand the use of が in this context. After discussing with native speakers, I gathered the following insights. In the context of no leading question:

-「毎日地獄です。」sounds natural. 「毎日地獄です。」seems only natural when interpreted as a contrastive use of は.

-「水曜日地獄です。」sounds natural. 「水曜日地獄です。」seems only natural when が is interpreted for focus (e.g. answering a question etc.).

My question is, why does が seem more natural in 毎日, whereas は seems more natural in 水曜日?

I think it must be to do with differences between definite and indefinite time in Japanese (水曜日 is one specific day, whereas 毎日 inherently implies a broad, general statement equally across all days), but I cannot find anything specifically about using が with indefinite time.

Any insights or resources would be greatly appreciated!

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While 毎日は地獄です written on a T-shirt indeed looks unnatural, something like 私の毎日は地獄です or 学校での毎日は地獄です suddenly starts to make sense to me. So I think 毎日は地獄です is unnatural because saying 毎日 with no context at all is too unspecific, as you suggested, and it makes the sentence implausible as a description of a known generic fact. On the other hand, 水曜日は地獄です sounds natural on its own probably because, without explicitly saying "someoneの", it's clear that it's a description of some specific person's (usually the speaker's) known situation.

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    Your use of 「私の毎日は地獄です」 jogged my memory of a particular part of Kuno's The Structure of the Japanese Language. On page 57, he discusses the use of が after a quantified noun phrase, which seems relevant here. One example he gives is 「すべての学生独身です」, where すべて has a similar effect to 毎日, as noted by @A.Ellett's answer. Another example he provides is 「三人金持ちです」, and I assume in the case of using an identifier, as in 「 あの三人金持ちです」, は sounds natural. Does this feel like the same situation to you?
    – Patio1737
    Commented May 24 at 3:49
  • @Patio1737 Ah yes, すべての学生が独身です does seem related, but I'm not consciously aware of any rule regarding the combination of 全/毎 and が/は. If you think the description in your textbook answers your question, please share it with us as an answer.
    – naruto
    Commented May 24 at 4:46
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    done. Thank you for your help. If you wouldn't mind having a look at my answer to check whether it lines up with your own intuition, that would be great help.
    – Patio1737
    Commented May 31 at 2:05
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Please refer to both Kuno's The Structure of the Japanese Language (p.57) and Hasegawa's Japanese A Linguistic Introduction (p.107) for further reading.

The が particle in「毎日地獄です」is a special occurrence of が for neutral description.

Normally, for neutral description to occur with a nominal predicate (e.g. 学生*、地獄*: where * represents a copula です、だ、etc.), the noun must be either an adjectival noun, or generic noun (conveying class). The noun must also be used in a context where it describes a change of state. These are known as 'phenomenal sentences'.

Here, 地獄 clearly does not describe a change of state, as 毎日 does not represent something which is changing state. Therefore, this is not a 'phenomenal sentence'.

Also, while participants in a 'reported event' (another form of neutral description) need not be identifiable:

少年窓を壊した。

A boy broke a window (we don't know who).

For neutral description to occur with a nominal predicate, the entity must be identifiable (either through context or through words such as この、その、etc.):

(その)少年勝った人だ!

A boy is the winner! x

The boy is the winner! o

Note that the previous sentence has both a neutral description and focus (or exhaustive listing) interpretation for が.

So, what is special about「毎日地獄です」? It seems to be to do with 毎日 being a quantified noun phrase. Look at the sentences below:

ジョン金持ちです。

John is rich.

三人金持ちです。

Three people are rich.

As expected, the first sentence only seems to make sense when が has a focus interpretation, as 金持ち does not describe a change of state - ジョン hasn't changed.

The second sentence also has a focus が interpretation; however, it also has a neutral interpretation as well. I have highlighted the difference below:

三人金持ちです。

It's these three people who are rich. (focus)

Three people are rich (we don't know who). (neutral)

Note that if you wanted to turn the first interpretation into a more neutral sentence, it would be:

(この)三人金持ちです。

These three people are rich.

The fact that a neutral interpretation of が can appear with a nominal predicate without describing a state change as well as with an unidentifiable subject entity seems to be a quality of quantified noun phrases.

Other examples of quantified noun phrases are すべて, 毎日, 一人一人, which refer to concepts of 'each' and 'every', as well as words like 多い, 大部分. In contrast with generic nouns, using these phrases seems to exhibit the same unidentifiability in Japanese as before:

アメリカ人の多く金持ちです。

Many of the Americans are rich.

大部分の学生独身です。

Most students are single.

すべての学生独身です。

All students are single.

Back to the original question, 毎日地獄です sounds natural because 毎日 is a quantified noun phrase. 毎日 resists being marked by は as it is felt as unidentifiable, and が allows for neutral description. On the other hand, 水曜日地獄です sounds natural because 水曜日 is a regular noun.

Note that, if 毎日 were to be made identifiable, は would then sound more natural (credit to @Naruto):

私の毎日地獄です。

(All) my days are hell.

学校での毎日地獄です。

(All) days at school are hell.

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    は and が do look interchangeable in "アメリカ人の多く{が/は}金持ちです" and the next two examples, and this is the first time I've consciously learned this! Do you happen to know other examples of "unidentifiable nouns" that resist は, other than 毎日?
    – naruto
    Commented Jun 1 at 14:31
  • Could it be that neutral-description が is used here because 地獄 is being used like an adjective instead of a noun? Kind of like the sentence 空が青い。That would imply that 毎日 being 地獄 is not a permanent state, but only for the time being (maybe because the speaker is in a rough situation, but knows it'll be over soon).
    – Siena
    Commented Jun 2 at 4:12
  • @Siena I believe 地獄 is being used as a generic noun conveying class, and that would also satisfy the first condition of being a phenomenal sentence. What disqualifies the phenomenal reading is that, given it's printed on a t-shirt, it's not supposed to be interpreted as a temporary state (i.e. it is an individual-level predicate not a stage-level one). On the other hand, this が seems to fit the grammar described above without issue. I don't want to say a phenomenal interpretation is impossible, however, I don't feel like it is the correct one in this context.
    – Patio1737
    Commented Jun 5 at 5:16
  • @naruto This idea of 'unidentifiable' quantified nouns was from me applying Kuno's explanation of が with quantified noun phrases onto 毎日が地獄です. I believe my answer above explains why が sounds natural, but I don't really have a good explanation of why は sounds unnatural here - so I extrapolated from the grammar as well as what you have said so far. I think other candidates that may exhibit similar properties would be すべて, 一人一人, etc., but otherwise I have no clue. What do you think? You said that 毎日 with no context at all is too unspecific, are there any other words you feel are similar?
    – Patio1737
    Commented Jun 5 at 5:48
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My inclination would be to look at the exhaustive nature of what が is attached to. が is used in contexts of an exhaustive listing. 毎日 is already exhaustive, so が matches well with that.

水曜日 is a particular day. So, 水曜日が地獄です sounds a bit like you're saying that it's only Wednesday's that are hell.

Regarding 毎日は地獄です as sounding contrastive, perhaps. Though I'd wonder what there is to contrast with "everyday".

I think this has little to do with the time element. I believe that the same would apply to something like

すべてが地獄です

vs

すべては地獄です

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  • 毎日は地獄です makes sense if we're talking about something like "facing the traffic jam everyday", but with absolutely no leading question/context, I don't see how that could make sense. Commented May 23 at 16:37
  • I agree, I can't think of a good example of using 毎日は地獄です, even with context. I'm inclined to edit my question to strike that bit out. @gui , could you give an example of saying something like 「毎日は地獄です」 with the context of "facing the traffic jam everyday"?
    – Patio1737
    Commented May 24 at 4:31

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