Is it possible to tell whether a word would be written in kanji or if it would be written in hiragana without actually reading it, like it is reasonably easy to tell if a word is likely to be written in katakana? (An example for katakana would be "this is an English loanword so it's probably written in katakana")

Background: The kana version of Japanese for Busy People 1 uses only kana - it doesn't have kanji with furigana, and I'm wondering if not knowing which words are really hiragana, and which are not really hiragana would be a problem.


Not per se. EDICT has "uk" (usually kana) and "uK" (usually kanji) annotations, but for the most part either is acceptable.

只今 ただいま
(int,exp,uk,abbr,n-t,adv) Here I am; I'm home!; presently; right away; right now; just now; (P)

  • Working the other way, though, you might not know whether 只今 would be read as しこん or ただいま if the context were not clear. Granted, this one is pretty easy to distinguish, but there are others that are not so clear. That said, +1. ^_^ – Robusto Sep 2 '11 at 13:15
  • 只今 is also a good example of a word where one of the kanji is uncommon/non-jouyou, and such compounds are often written in kana. Most people don't like using mixed kanji/kana compounds (although I have seen ただ今). – nkjt Sep 2 '11 at 13:48
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    I didn't anticipate this scenario (of words being represented sometimes one way, sometimes the other)! – Andrew Grimm Sep 2 '11 at 13:59

Expanding on my comment, some word types that are likely to be written in kana which haven't been covered so far:

  1. Cases where one or more kanji in the compound are considered rare/difficult (for the level of the text). Examples: 石鹸【せっけん】, where 鹸 is the sticking point. This is commonly written せっけん or 石けん, or if the kanji are used furigana may be provided.

  2. Cases where the kanji are common but being used for sound rather than meaning. Examples: 沢山【たくさん】, although it is seen both ways, 薬缶【やかん】, where the kanji 薬 is in there for historical reasons but doesn't much related to the modern meaning, and 駄目【だめ】, which is also often written in katakana.

  3. Cases where there are multiple kanji options, particularly common for verbs. Example: わかる which can be written 分かる、判る、解る。 The different kanji have slightly different nuances, but if you are unsure which is best you can get around it by using kana.

  4. Cases where katakana are used by convention, such as in scientific contexts. Example, ゾウ科【か】 for the family Elephantidae, instead of 象科。

Possible combination of 1. and 2. above: 綺麗【きれい】 uses the non-jouyou 綺 so an alternative is to write it with another, similar kanji with the same reading - 奇麗. However, 奇 doesn't fit well with the meaning of the word, and it's not uncommon to see kana used.

In some cases the choices are down to personal preference, but also audience (if you are writing for children or adults, for the layperson or the specialist), and how you are writing (people tend to use more kanji when typing than when handwriting).

Example: 歳・才【さい】, for counting ages. 才 is a grade 2 kanji, so only books for very young children would use kana. 歳 isn't taught until much later in school, though, so 才 is quite common, even though official documents will use 歳。 才 is also more commonly used when handwriting - not necessarily because people can't remember how to write 歳, it's just quicker. (see also this question )

  • ... so there isn't actually some kind of metaphorical connection between a low-quality eye and the concept of impossibility? – Karl Knechtel Sep 2 '11 at 22:49
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    駄目 was originally used for the meaning (it's not just phonetic), but that meaning was a very specific and technical one in the context of the game of go. Definitely nothing to do with real eyes. – Matt Sep 3 '11 at 7:07
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    Wait, let me clarify that: the め is almost certainly from 目, but used in the go context. The だ may well not be from 駄 (particularly because going by the odds you would expect a compound to be all Japanese or all Chinese), but there's no single settled etymology AFAIK. So, I'd say it's fair to put it in nkjt's category 2 above, since only half of the meaning can be reliably related to the kanji. – Matt Sep 3 '11 at 7:15

Words that perform a grammatical function can almost always be written in hiragana without it looking strange. Hiragana is usually the preferred way to write such words. Additionally, particles are always written in hiragana.

Giongo and gitaigo (onomatopoeic and mimetic/sound-symbolic words) will always be written in kana of some kind, either hiragana or katakana. I don't think I've seen kanji used for this purpose.

Depending on the situation, you can usually get by with writing honorifics in hiragana too, though many have widely-used kanji (様, 君, etc). Others have none (さん, ちゃん).

Can't think of anything else...

  • What do you mean by non-particle words that perform a grammatical function? – Andrew Grimm Sep 3 '11 at 1:19
  • I was thinking ~てみる, ~てあげる, ~やすい, ~にくい, ~すぎる, ~かねる, ください, こと, もの, まま, つもり, っぽい, and so on. Most words like this can be written in hiragana for a general audience, and often it's inappropriate to use the kanji (*~て見る) or it's rarely used for the word (積り, 儘). It's not a hard rule though. 以上 and 以外 are springing to mind as counterexamples. It's not often that you can label a word as hiragana or kanji based solely on word category without "reading" it specifically. I tried my best to name a few situations, but the other answers show that the kanji of the word itself plays a large part too. – Hyperworm Sep 3 '11 at 14:21
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    Incidentally, this often happens when the words have become such a part of the language/grammar that they have become "black boxes" - their original structural meaning/etymology is no longer thought of when using the word. Much like how almost no one today associates "Goodbye" with "God be with ye", さよ(う)なら is written entirely in hiragana, and the kanji which show the word's etymological meaning (左様なら) have become disassociated with the word. – Hyperworm Sep 3 '11 at 14:49
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    Wow, I didn't know about the etymology of "goodbye"! – Andrew Grimm Sep 3 '11 at 14:58
  • I'd say that writing the words with grammatical function in kanji would be strange, unlike what your phrasing suggests. – Axioplase Sep 5 '11 at 4:38

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