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Recently I've been trying to wrap my head around the differences between 「らしい」「よう」「みたい」「そう」.

I thought I was making some progress when I gave this example to a Japanese friend.

知らない人と話しました。そのあと、友達と話す時に

If I wanted to convey what I thought of the stranger to my friend, my guess was:

 いい人みたい

However, I was also told it was possible to say:

 いい人そうだった

If you google いい人そう or いい人そうだった you will get quite a bit of hits.

Is いい人 actually some sort of compound na-adjective rather than a noun?

Or is this some sort of exception to the rule?

  • 2
    Excellent question! Ashamed it took me a while to realize how good it was because that IS an exceptional usage. – l'électeur Feb 16 '15 at 15:41
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I slept on it and still think it is a great question because you noticed something as a learner that I had never noticed in all of my life as a Japanese speaker.

We DO say 「いい[人]{ひと}そう」 quite frequently and think nothing of it.

We DO NOT, however, really say 「すばらしい人そう」、「[頭]{あたま}のいい人そう」、「[保守的]{ほしゅてき}な人そう」, etc.

Just like 「いい + 人 + そう」, all of those have the same grammatical structure 「adjective + 人 + そう」. So, what makes the difference?

It seems to me that Japanese speakers are unconsciously treating the phrase 「いい人」 as a compound functioning adjectivally in this case. The simplicity and semantic broadness of the word 「いい」 appear to be making it all possible. In short, 「いい人そう」 is an exception to the normal grammar standards.

There may be grammarians out there who insist on the ungrammaticality of the phrase 「いい人そう」 but the truth is people use it and they will understand it if you use it. It has already won its citizenship.

  • Ah, this was the answer I was hoping for! Thank you so much for clearing this up. – Razzek Feb 17 '15 at 1:09
  • what's the difference between いい人そう and いい人だそう? or is this the grammatical thing you were referencing? – psosuna Aug 17 '17 at 21:39
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漆谷 (2010) states that "noun + そうだ" was once widespread until Edo period, then gradually lost in the lead up to present-day language. While he cites actual examples 「いい酒そう」 or 「お眠気そう」 from Edo novels and play books, he says the major part of attachable nouns are those about person or place. Of course these usages have been almost perished today, but it seems that your いい人そう is one of the few relics from the past.

For what it's worth, I've also got some (quite popular) related expressions from Google:

  • いい奴そう ("good guy")
  • いい子そう ("good boy/girl")

and sporadic ones:

  • いい方そう ("good (gentle)man/lady")
  • (や/嫌)な奴そう ("mean guy")

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