I just want to ask how people get over the vagueness of description in this language. Let me explain. Today I saw my friend say "これを見た電車の中で..." and I was just wondering... how do you deal with the lack of connecting words as are in English.

We would say "In the train IN WHICH/WHERE I watched this..." and as you can see, we have words for joining. I'm not saying our method is more correct I am saying I don't understand their method. Doesn't it get confusing when people start talking fast or with lots of pauses?

How do you differentiate "これを見た。電車の中で...” From "これを見た電車の中で”.

If it is a thing you just have to get used to, can I have some advice of how to practice it or understand it better?

  • I think it depends on the intonation and the context (like, what is said after the 電車の中で).
    – user1016
    Dec 27, 2013 at 6:35
  • 1
    Maybe it's just me, but I can't really understand the question.
    – virmaior
    Dec 27, 2013 at 8:43
  • Ok so I think I wrote it out pretty well but ok I'll explain again. In English we say "The place WHERE I went yesterday" not "Went yesterday place". Further examples: "The house WHERE I grew up" "The food THAT I ate yesterday" Whilst I'm not trying to say that English is better, I want to know how a language can function without the capitalised connecting words as Japanese seems to. "昨日会った人にまた会いたい" for example... its easy to grasp but still, without these sentence joining parts... don't sentences fall apart when they start getting long or you have lotsof these modified nouns in a sentence.
    – Nathan
    Dec 28, 2013 at 2:50
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    In English, you can often understand a relative clause without a relative pronoun. Consider "She was the one [who/that/∅] I loved." Here, the relative pronoun who could tell you about the role of the head noun one, while that could at least let you know that a relative clause is beginning. But you don't need either of those words: "She was the one I loved." is perfectly comprehensible! You can tell that the gap is in object position ("I loved ___") without any syntactic marking.
    – user1478
    Dec 28, 2013 at 16:50
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    Consider "I told her [that/∅] she was wrong." Here, you can use the word that to show that the two are connected ("I told her that she was wrong"). But you can also leave it out ("I told her she was wrong."). How do you tell this apart from a string of two sentences ("I told her. She was wrong.")? The same way as Japanese...
    – user1478
    Dec 28, 2013 at 16:55

1 Answer 1


Your main issue seems to be how Japanese can tell the difference between "これを見た電車の中で" and "これを見た。電車の中で". Well, uh, they can tell because in the latter case the two sentences are separated by a period (in writing), or by a pause (when spoken). You could just as easily come up with any number of examples in English where two phrases mean one thing when they come right after each other, and something else entirely when they are two separate sentences.

So what about the case you mention when the speaker is speaking rapidly and the pause between sentences is very short or elided entirely? The answer is that the intonation is different in the two cases. I am not a expert on intonation and do not know the correct technical words to describe this effect, but a stand-alone sentence would end with a downward intonation:


whereas when the phrases were combined, no such downward intonation would be present


Even if no pause were present, but yet the two phrases were intended as separate sentences or utterances, the downward intonation would still be there:


the listener would parse this accordingly, resulting in something like the following:

I saw it--in the train.

rather than

The train I saw it in

You may want to study the grammatical notion of relative clauses in general. The issues are whether a "complementizer" or "relativizer" or "relative pronoun" (such as "that" or "which") is used, and where the relative clause is placed (before or after what it modifies). Japanese is a so-called "head final" language, placing the relative information before the noun ("head"), and is by no means unique. Other languages adopting a similar approach include Tibetan and Navajo, for instance.

On a final note, you may have run into toy English sentences such as "The mouse the cat the dog chased ate was gray". Hmmm, that takes a while for anyone to parse. In Japanese, we have


This sentence is far easier to understand, by virtue of the fact that the head-last structure groups each actor and its action or together in a more comprehensible way.


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