(I'm a beginner. I just started learning Japanese about a month before I wrote this.)

The Japanese Wikipedia article 飛べない鳥, which corresponds to the English Wikipedia article Flightless bird, has the sentence


which I parse as


which translates to

Penguins are an example of well-known flightless birds.

where "well-known" modifies "flightless birds", but I think I can also parse the sentence as


which translates to

Penguins are a well-known example of flightless birds.

where "well-known" modifies "example of flightless birds", which is also the case in the English Wikipedia. I think both interpretations make sense.

If I were to translate the second English sentence to Japanese, I would write (without the parentheses)


that is, I would place "well-known" as close as syntactically possible to "example".

The questions:

Which parsing is the correct one (regardless of what is in the English Wikipedia)?

Are Japanese modifiers "greedy" (modifies as large part as possible), "anti-greedy" (a.k.a. "non-greedy", modifies as small part as possible), or do they mean whatever people choose them to mean?


3 Answers 3


Unfortunately, there is no easy and clear rule to determine which parsing strategy is correct. The general rule is "Choose the shortest and simplest parsing strategy as long as it makes sense". It depends on the context, your vocabulary, and your common sense.

But please don't worry too much — English speakers also do similar things every day. Compare "the price of the lunch I ate" and "the price of the lunch I paid". Noticed that the relative clause at the end is being more "greedy" in the latter phrase?

So let's examine よく知られている飛べない鳥の一例. The three modifiers are よく知られている ("well-known"), 飛べない ("flightless", "which cannot fly") and 鳥の ("of birds").

Technically speaking, this is one possible interpretation:

  • (よく知られている)((飛べない)(鳥の一例))
    a well-known example which cannot fly and is about birds

In general, this is not a rare grammatical pattern at all. But you seem to have unconsciously rejected this interpretation because you know it's nonsense to talk about whether 'an example' flies or not.

Between the two remaining interpretations:

  • (よく知られている)((飛べない鳥の)一例)
    a well-known example of flightless birds
  • ((よく知られている)飛べない鳥の)一例
    an example of well-known flightless birds

I prefer the former interpretation and the corresponding translation. While the latter may seem grammatically simpler, I feel the author is talking about a famous example, not about certain famous birds. But in this case, perhaps the meaning of the sentence won't change drastically either way.

Here are some more examples of "greedy" modifiers which may seem tricky at first. The only way to choose the right interpretation is to user your common sense.

  • 寿司を食べているスーツを着た男
    ("a man in a suit eating sushi" — this is ambiguous also in English, but of course you don't read this as "a man wearing a sushi-eating suit")
  • 昨日私が食べた子どもが作った料理
    (It's "the dish I ate yesterday", not "the child I ate yesterday")
  • 辞書で聞いた単語を調べた。
  • 1
    Nice answer. Is it acceptable or normal to use a comma like this btw: 寿司を食べている、スーツを着た男? In speech one would probably wait a little longer in that position when talking about a man eating sushi
    – siikamiika
    Apr 24, 2017 at 8:41
  • 1
    @siikamiika Yes, a comma or a short pause after a relative clause is often the sign of a "greedy" (or "distant") modifier, but you cannot count on them too much. People are not always that careful.
    – naruto
    Apr 24, 2017 at 9:14

Revised Edition

Are Japanese modifiers "greedy" (modifies as large part as possible), "anti-greedy" (a.k.a. "non-greedy", modifies as small part as possible), or do they mean whatever people choose them to mean?


As the beginning of my conclusion I would say that Japanese modifiers are anti-greedy. In other words, they modify as small part as possible by modifying as close part as possible.

However, when a sentence does not make sense by the first attempt of the anti-greedy modifiers, the reader would make the modifiers greedier little by little until he/she could judge the sentence becomes making sense. In this sense, they mean whatever people choose them to mean.

Even with these reader's attempt, however, his/her interpretation of the sentence may possibly be different from that of the writer's intention because there are limits of the ability and/or the knowledge of the reader besides the writer's writing skill.


The reason I judged at first that they are "anti-greedy" is that Japanese prefers simplicity of a sentence.

The second reason why I judged that "they mean whatever the people choose them to mean" is that there are fewer function words to prescribe the construction in a sentence in Japanese in comparison with English.

Function words such as relative pronouns/adverbs in English have effective functions to prevent a given sentence from being interpreted in many ways. The scarcity of the function word in Japanese may give its sentence room to be interpreted variously.

Finally, from such the property of the modifiers of Japanese language, it is necessary for the writer to devise not to let the sentence be interpreted differently from his/her intention through examining possible various parsing.

As for the given sample sentence (1), you may semi-literally rewrite it to (2)' and (3)' but they are not so natural. I would like to rewrite (1) to (4)', which is very natural as a Japanese sentence.

(1) ペンギンはよく知られている飛べない鳥の一例である。

(2) Penguins are an example of well-known flightless birds.
(2)' ペンギンはよく知られている飛べない鳥としての一例である。

(3) Penguins are a well-known example of flightless birds. (Wikipedia)
(3)' ペンギンは飛べない鳥としてよく知られた一例である。

(4) Penguins are well known as an example of flightless birds. (mackygoo)
(4)' ペンギンは飛べない鳥の一例としてよく知られている。

Former Edition

Are Japanese modifiers "greedy" (modifies as large part as possible), "anti-greedy" (a.k.a. "non-greedy", modifies as small part as possible), or do they mean whatever people choose them to mean?

I don't know the greediness of Japanese modifiers. But I think we would grasp the meaning of the sentence by means of readability, which would decide the sentence to be natural as Japanese language.


I read the sentence several times loudly. Then, I found I was reading it by inserting pauses in several ways like these:

  • 「ペンギンは」 「よく知られている飛べない鳥の」 「一例である。」
  • 「ペンギンは」 「よく知られている」 「飛べない鳥の一例である。」

If I consider the readability between them, the first one has the priority for me. I don't know why. I thought about the reason. In this case, I didn't think the meaning of it deeply while I was reading it. The reason the former sentence is easier to be read is that I heared 「よく知られている飛べない鳥」like sentence structures many times more than that of 「よく知られている」 + 「飛べない鳥の一例である」.

And now I found the former one is simpler than the other in a sentence structure because 「よく知られている」 and 「飛べない」, both of which are co-existing and co-effective adjectives of 「鳥」, are expressed at once, while in the other one, you have to settle the relations among 「よく知られている」, 「飛べない鳥」 and 「飛べない鳥の一例」at the same time when you hear 「飛べない鳥の一例である」.

You are not so clever to settle them at once. This is my conclusion.

If you have many modifiers in one sentence you have to express them in a simpler way. If the way is called greedy, I could say Japanese modfiers are greedy.

But I think that apart from greediness, it is important to decide what you want to say at first. Once you decide what you want to say, you should write it in the way by which it is not misread at first, and also easy to be read. For this purpose, you have to think about the sentence structure such as an word order and sometimes you have to allow the case even the sentence should be divided into two or more parts.

  • Do you mean that you also understand the sentence as "an example of well-known flightless birds" or just that the first one is more natural without considering the actual meaning?
    – siikamiika
    Apr 24, 2017 at 1:58
  • Good comparison with English. I'm guessing this Wikipedia article is related. Is 「飛べない鳥として」 more natural than 「飛べない鳥の」 when you rearrange the sentence? And btw I think you mean "Penguins are a well-known example of flightless birds." and not "Penguins are an example of well-known flightless birds" or am I wrong?
    – siikamiika
    Apr 28, 2017 at 14:28

The problem with this parsing,

Penguins are an example of well-known flightless birds.

is that it's rejected by context and is uncomfortable to read. There are plenty of examples of ambiguous sentences in both English and Japanese; and indeed in the latter, you come to expect them, especially in speech. In fact, Japanese sorts meaning by context more often than English, I think.

The second sentence reads much more comfortably.

Penguins are a well-known example of flightless birds.

If you reverse translate it so,


it sounds like a direct translation made to fit Japanese grammar and is, I expect, unidiomatic.

飛べない鳥 is a category of bird; therefore, the modifier is closely tied to the noun - like 'flightless bird' in English. We would never say 'flightless well-known bird' because 'well-known' would break up this unit. よく知られている indicates that what comes next is well known, acting like an adverb, if you will; then is completed by being tied to 一例, since 鳥 doesn't fit idiomatically.

Also, if you put よく知らている next to 一例, priority is given to the the fact the example is well known, rather than the fact that penguins are flightless is well known. The reader will infer that the penguin is a flightless bird among the well-known single examples, which is an odd reading. With this parsing, よく知らている is less a descriptor of 'penguins' than of 'single examples'. A strange thing to say.

To use your terminology, it is non-greedy to begin with; then it is greedy when the right noun comes along.

When I studied The Iliad in Ancient Greek, modifiers often worked in much the same way.

  • Did you mean to write that "well-known" behaves like an adjective (instead of "adverb" as you wrote)? It modifies a noun, right? Such as in "well-known author".
    – edom
    Apr 24, 2017 at 7:02

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