In the sentence これは大きい本を食べる犬です, I understand that 大きい本を食べる is a clause that describes 犬 as "a dog that eats large books"; and を only makes sense within that clause.

However, I'm confused about whether これは refers to the dog (これは...犬です) or the books (これは大きい本...).

Is there any grammatical standard I could follow or must it just be taken within context?

  • 1
    I would split it as これは「大きい本を食べる」犬です i.e. これは would refer to the dog, but I don't have any specific explanantion... And why does the dog eat large books (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻) – Urukann Jan 14 '15 at 2:43
  • That would be what I'd be inclined to go with too, but I'm really hoping for something tangible. Trying to diagram and I don't know where to put my line -- or rather -- WHY :) – emragins Jan 14 '15 at 2:48
  • Where was this sentence found? I am quite surprised that neither OP nor the answerers so far have mentioned the fact that a far more natural translation would be: "This is a large dog that eats books." – l'électeur Jan 14 '15 at 7:38
  • I have no idea which interpretation is more natural; the situation is equally unrealistic either way. To me, OP's interpretation sounds a bit more likely just because the adjective modifies the noun directly after it. – naruto Jan 14 '15 at 8:34
  • @l'électeur I figured I'd ask the ambiguity of 大きい in a different question and probably should have left it out of this. like naturo said, I'd assumed that if the dog were large it would have been 本を食べる大きい犬. That works... right? – emragins Jan 14 '15 at 17:52

Think about it this way.

When you have a verb, it has certain 'slots' that have to be filled with nouns. 食べる, being a transitive verb, has two slots - subject and object. である also has two slots (though it's not a transitive verb, it's a special kind of thing) - subject and predicate. We've got three nouns here (これ, 本 and 犬), and we need to figure out how they fill those four slots.

One is quite clear - 本 is the object of 食べる. But what's its subject, これ or 犬? Notice that 食べる is in a relative clause, meaning that one noun has been pulled out of this clause and placed in the main clause, filling two slots simultaneously. In Japanese, this moved noun always appears immediately after the relative clause's verb, meaning that 犬 has to be the subject of 食べる. Looking at the main clause, you can see that 犬 also must be the predicate of である, filling that slot also.

Now we've filled three of four slots: object of 食べる, subject of 食べる and predicate of である. This leaves only one place for これ to go: subject of である. The whole thing then translates as 'this is (a/the) dog that eats big books'.

(It helps to notice that if これ is somehow attached to 食べる, you end up trying to fill two slots with three nouns, resulting in something like *the dog that this eats big books.)

Edit: Noticed a thing - 大きい also takes one noun, but again because of relative clauses, that noun has to be 本. So five slots total, but still the same idea.

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