I found this sentence in Tatoeba, and, based on my understanding, the translation would be "He doesn't like", however everyone translated it as "I don't like him". Why??

The は particle indicates that the main topic of the sentence is 彼. So "好きじゃない" is something that 彼 does, not "I". It should be 彼が if the meaning would be "I don't like him".

Who is correct?

I found this sentence as is on Tatoeba, It wasn't me who created it. The culprit for the lack of context is the Japanese (or not) who created it.

  • 1
    Impossible to answer without more context. 『彼は好きじゃない』 can mean a few different things that are quite different from one another.
    – user4032
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 11:00

3 Answers 3


There are two basic argument structures for the predicate 好{す}き(だ):

 A B 好き(だ)  ←  Traditional form
 A B 好き(だ)  ←  Innovative form

   A = subject
   B = object

Of course, you won't often see sentences in this exact form:

  1. It's possible to omit one or both arguments.
  2. In a matrix clause, unless you have a good reason to use the case marker が for the subject, you'll usually replace it with something like the focus particle は (or in informal speech, simply leave the particle out).
  3. It's also possible to replace the case marker on the object with a focus particle, for example to show contrast, or to omit it in informal speech.

Based on 2, we might arrive at a basic sentence pattern:

 A B 好き(だ)

But we should keep in mind that this isn't the basic structure―it's just what we get when we apply topicalization to the subject. And although it's common to topicalize the subject, the focus particle は doesn't actually mark a subject specifically; it can be applied to other constituents, and it often is.

When one argument has been omitted, it's possible that the remaining argument could be the subject or the object. Most commonly, it will be understood as the object, and the omitted subject will be understood as referring to the speaker. But that isn't necessarily the only correct interpretation―in the right context, the remaining argument could be understood as the subject.

There are other hints, too:

  1. If the only overt argument is marked with ~のこと, it must be the object, not the subject. This happens fairly often with 好き(だ).
  2. If the only overt argument is inanimate, then it must be the object, as 好き(だ) only makes sense with an animate subject.

If you pay attention to hints like these and to the surrounding context, the correct interpretation should be clear most of the time.

For more information about the analysis of the second argument as a nominative object, please see The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Linguistics, pages 142-146.


Step by step.

What is the real correct translation of “彼は好きじゃない”?

It totally depends on context. If you talk about possibility, it could mean any of "(I/you/he/she/it/we/they) do(es)n't like him." or "He doesn't like (me/you/him/her/it/us/them)". But the probable interpretations I think without preceding context would be "I don't like him.", "He doesn't like it." and "He doesn't like them."

The は particle indicates that the main subject of the sentence is 彼.

It's but a misunderstanding. As you see, snailboat has already written a great answer that make it ever clearest. So は doesn't tell anything about whether it should be subject or object here.

everyone translated it as "I don't like him". Why??

Maybe only me, but if I were one of them, I'd definitely do the same thing. Remember, although it happens to make some weird structure and be translated into English "like", 好きだ is an adjective, literally means "favorable". Thus, the first impression we get from 「彼は好きじゃない」 is hardly different from that of 「彼は良くない」 or 「彼は親切じゃない」. If the example were something like 「彼は嫌っていない」, it'd have more chance that native speakers' judgments would split up.


Your question is impossible to answer because you have not provided any context - you have not told us what was said before 彼は好きじゃない. It could mean the following:

  1. I don't like him (but I do like someone else).

    In this case the は particle serves to compare 彼 with someone else. The fact that 私 is the person speaking is hidden.

  2. He doesn't like it.

    Here, what 'it' is is known from the context of the surrounding conversation. 'It' could be apples, you, me, anything.

Just a suggestion, Japanese is highly contextual. You have to know what was said before in order to know the 'real correct' translation of something. Using a tool like Tatoeba which gives you single sentences with other people's translations based on what they think is the surrounding context will cause you confusion.

  • It could also mean I don't like him.
    – oldergod
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 0:08
  • Great answer! So, as I could see, は have other uses beyond topic marking. I was accustomed to this meaning only, I didn't know it could also be some kind of が (object indication).
    – Yuuza
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 0:34

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