One of my textbooks is telling me that the sentence using ながら below is incorrect…


…whilst the following sentence is correct.


Translation: That person sitting on the chair (whilst) listening to music is William.

However, a later example illustrating the use of ながら is this:

ヘンリーさんは音楽を聞きながら、ダンスをしている。- Henry is dancing whilst listening to music.

Now I can’t the tell difference between the correct use of ながら and the apparently incorrect one.

  • i don't know the proper linguistic terms but perhaps it is because "いすにすわって、音楽を聞いている人" is like a "noun phrase" (one big noun describing william), and maybe there are rules along these lines. – yadokari Jan 15 '14 at 18:49
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    "How long does it take William to sit down?" is the question you need to be asking yourself here. If the answer is "just a second", as most of us would imagine, then that would not be a long enough time for music appreciation. – l'électeur Jan 15 '14 at 22:57

The verb すわる "to sit down" is a punctual verb (瞬間動詞). The word punctual comes from the word point, as in a single point in time. These verbs have no duration—they take place in an instant, representing a transition from an old state to a new resultative state. In the case of すわる, the resulting state is being seated. (You can read more about these verbs on Taeko Tomioka's website and elsewhere).

Here's the problem: when you combine a punctual verb with 〜ながら, it's impossible to interpret it as "while" because the action has no duration. Instead, the only interpretation available is ながら's other meaning, which is a "counter to expectation" interpretation (similar to English "although").

To illustrate this, I'll borrow an example from Tense and Aspect in Modern Colloquial Japanese, p.108:

Although (he) graduated from college, (he) can't get a job.

Here, ながら attaches to the punctual verb 出る. Since this verb has no duration, it can't mean "while", leaving only the "counter to expectation" meaning. The expectation set up by 大学を出る is that the subject should be able to get a job, but in spite of that (as we see in 職に就けない) he cannot.

Unfortunately, neither interpretation makes sense in your example:


Since すわる is punctual, it has no duration and ながら here cannot mean "while". And there's no expectation set up by いすにすわる that is contrary to 音楽を聞いている, so the "counter to expectation" meaning doesn't make sense, either. For this reason, I've marked the sentence with a × and declined to translate it.

You don't have this problem with the simple connective 〜て:

The person who's sitting in a chair and listening to music is William.

Last, let's look at your example with 聞く. This verb is a durative verb (継続動詞), meaning that it has duration—it lasts longer than an instant. That means the "while" interpretation is available:

Henry is dancing while listening to music.

That's why this sentence works, but the other one doesn't. I think your book is right.

  • That makes total sense to me if we’re talking about the immediate action of sitting down as in the first example. However, what if we’re talking about ‘sitting’ in the sense of what you call a ‘durative verb’– if you can’t use 座る because it’s a punctual verb than what verb can you use to describe a durative state of sitting, maybe 座っている? Another example sentence: “He was listening to music whilst sat/sitting on the train” 彼は電車に座っていながら、音楽を聞いていった。 Perhaps it’s a case of 座る (being a punctual verb as you say) simply not being usable with ながら in the sense of ‘whilst’. – Mononoke Jan 16 '14 at 14:39
  • @Mononoke 座っている means that the subject at some point sat down, and the resulting state (of being seated) continues into the present. Another punctual verb is 死ぬ "to die", and by the same logic 死んでいる means "[in the resulting state of being] dead" rather than "[in the process of] dying". Likewise, 行っている doesn't mean "[in the process of] going to". (Although it's important to note that there isn't always an actual event in the past with punctual verbs; you could say 扉が閉まっている even if the door has never been opened before.) – snailboat Jan 16 '14 at 15:36

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