We've learnt that お is used for 訓読み and ご is used for 音読み. I want to know why we use お上手 and お電話. Why can't we use ごじょうず and ごでんわ?

  • 2
    My sense from my class was that the basic rule is as you describe お for 訓読み words and ご for 音読み words but that words which are used with frequency can wind up using お even though what follows is an 音読み. I am merely speculating when I say that the reason is that these words have become naturalized into the consciousness of Japanese people as Japanese words rather than as loan words from Chinese. In the case of 電話 also note that despite the 音読み this is not a Chinese loan word.
    – virmaior
    Mar 7 '14 at 8:33
  • Possibly related: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/4417/…
    – HAL
    Mar 9 '14 at 11:01

Just based on a feeling,

Native Japanese speakers seem to differentiate お and ご usage based on whether or not they feel that that word is "formal" or not and whether they feel it's "Chinese" or not.

Two examples:

1) Even though everyone knows that 電話 is a Chinese word, ご電話 would sound silly because noone feels that the phone is a formal thing. In this case...

Chinese + Not Formal = お   

2) お返事・ご返事 - When you use お to make a native verb honorific, it often turns into a noun that ends with an い sound, like お書きになる. 返事 also ends in an い sound, so maybe it's one of those verb-noun-honorific thingies, or was it Chinese? Aw, crap I gotta type this email real fast or I won't get to go home on Sunday...

Formal / Was that Chinese again? = wtf?

Just from my experience, I would also say that Japanese honorifics vary in both "formality" and "Chinese-yness".

  1. お is medium well formality hold the Chinesey (お宝・お電話・お返事・お髭・お世話)
  2. ご is well done formality with a big side of Chinesey (ご注文・ご連絡・ご返事)
  3. 御(おん) is very well done formality with some Chinesey (御嶽山・御中・御礼)
  4. 御(み) is maximum formality, hold the Chinesey with a divine respect remoulade (み位・巫女)
  5. 御(ギョ) is a melted Chinesey sandwich on toasted Imperial rye (御意・御感)
  • ご and ギョ are both 音読み of the Chinese word 御
  • お・み・おん are some form of a very old honorific word called おおむ which may be a verb meaning "I respect you big-time"

But the answer to your question, "why we can't use one with the other" is probably just because that would be going against the consensus decision of how formal or Chinesey a word is considered to be.

9 times out of 10 though, native speakers (of any language!) are just copying what they've heard or seen before.


The general rule is that if the word is of Chinese origin (e.g. uses [音読]{おんよ}み), it uses ご:

  • ご[家族]{かぞく}
  • ご[飯]{はん}
  • ご[本]{ほん} (as in a book, not the counter)

If it is a native Japanese word, it uses お:

  • お[盆]{ぼん}
  • お[手洗い]{てあらい}

Katakana words officially are not supposed to use the prefix at all, however when it is applied it's customary to use お:

  • おビール
  • おトイレ

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