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How would I distinguish ない as in the negative of ある and 無い the adjective? For example, if we have the sentence

食べ物がない

is the ない there just the negative form of ある or is it specifically the i-adjective? I always assumed the former, but recently while reading an older novel which used kanji for words that have mostly dropped them more recently, I did see 無い used in that way, and obviously the kanji made the distinction clear. I'd mainly find this concerning for polite speech, since there's a more obvious difference between ありません and ないです.

Thanks!

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    They're the exact same word. – Aeon Akechi Dec 30 '15 at 19:04
  • It is both of those things. It was once just an adjective; it has now replaced the historical negative form of ある (あらず). – Sjiveru Dec 30 '15 at 19:12
  • I cannot tell what distinction you are trying to make. The word ない as in the negation of ある is an adjective, is written as 無い when written with kanji, and has polite forms ありません and ないです (although using ないです as the polite form of the negation of ある is colloquial). – Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 3 '16 at 12:10
  • Possible duplicate of 「ある」と「ない」は動詞か形容詞か… – broccoli forest Jun 10 '16 at 14:04
  • @broccoliforest At least on German.SE if two questions (and their answers) are in different languages (over there one German, the other English) they shouldn't be closed as duplicates. I don't think we've ever had this problem, hence we don't have any policy on this. I think it would be unfair to close an English question as duplicate of a Japanese one (and vice versa). Either we leave both open, or we add a translation...? – Earthliŋ Jun 10 '16 at 14:37
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In the Standard Japanese vocabulary, the adjective ない replaces plain negative of ある (whose regular form should have been *あらない). It's the same phenomenon with the past form of "go" being "went" in English, called suppletion.

So the answer is: it is both an adjective and the negative of ある.

I did see 無い used in that way, and obviously the kanji made the distinction clear.

There's no distinction and whether they use kanji or not belongs to personal preferences. It's however true that the older the more kanji they tend to use, since the post-WWII mainstream orthography has discouraged people from using kanji for function words.

I'd mainly find this concerning for polite speech, since there's a more obvious difference between ありません and ないです.

This is a good point. Prescriptively this effect of suppletion only involves its plain form and the polite negative is regular: ありません.

However in reality, we do apply it to polite form and make a phrase ないです. The two forms are competing, and when to use which is another somewhat delicate problem.


Also see: 「ある」と「ない」は動詞か形容詞か…

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