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I often get really confused with grammar involving counters. I'm having trouble parsing the bold part of this sentence:

夕食としてテーブルにのるのが一品であることの、むなしさ、さびしさ、...彼らには通用しない。

I think it should translate as "There is one dish placed on the table". This being the case I would expect the verb ある for "there is". But instead I see である the formal version of the copula.

So literally I translate the bold to "that which is placed on the table is one meal". In English that sounds really formal. How does it sound in Japanese?

Could I have just replaced the bold with:

テーブルに一品をのる
テーブルに一品がある

I know from a previous question that number+counter can act like a normal noun but I'm very suspicious of the が I've added in the latter sentence -- the original sentence had no particle. In general I'm not sure when number+counter should take a particle.

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That である after 一品 is not "exists" but "is" (ie, it's the copula, not a normal verb). Have you seen expressions like these?

  • 食べたのは5個です。 It is five that I ate.
  • 来たのは3人だけでした。 It was only three who came.
  • それを聞いたのは1回だけだよ。 I heard it only once.

These are cleft sentences where the number part is focused. They are natural and common expressions, and can be safely used in casual speech.

This pattern works just fine in subordinate clauses in Japanese. So "夕食としてテーブルにのるのが一品であること" is a noun phrase which means "having (only) one dish on the table for dinner". こと at the end is of course an nominalizer. And this phrase adjectively modifies むなしさ・さびしさ using の (ie. "the むなしさ of having only one dish ...")

夕食としてテーブルに一品があること would be grammatical but sound awkward in this context, because it doesn't emphasize the number part, and doesn't imply 一品 is a small number at all.

一品をのる is plain ungrammatical because 乗る is an intransitive verb.

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