In Japanese, a 文【ぶん】 is basically anything which is delimited by periods (マル) or question/exclamation marks. For example, let's say there is a paragraph like this in the middle of the main text of a novel.


Here, we have rather simple 体言止め expressions, which make this paragraph compact yet dramatic. Despite being 体言止め, I believe there are three 文 in this paragraph, simply because there are three periods. If I were to explain this paragraph with grammatical terms, I would say something like this: "This is a paragraph which contains three sentences. Each sentence lacks a main predicate; instead, one long noun phrase forms the entire sentence."

However, on this site, I keep seeing assertions like "Strictly/Grammatically speaking, this is not a sentence in the first place" to explain this pattern. And to my surprise, apparently many users favor this type of explanation. The most recent example is this.

So I thought, "Ah okay, grammatically speaking, sentence in English means something different from 文 in Japanese, and a sentence always needs a main predicate!"

However, I failed to find any credible source to support this. All the serious English articles I've read so far say that a sentence doesn't necessarily have a main predicate. For example, "Hi.", "Yes.", "At three o'clock." and "Two pizzas with cheese crust, please." are English sentences (categorized as minor sentences) simply because they begin with a capital letter and end with a period. Simply put, I found essentially no difference between sentence in English and 文 in Japanese.

So my question is as follows: Is 文 different from sentence? Ordinary English speakers have an idea of sentence which is different from the formal dictionary definition? English speakers who are learning Japanese actually tend to feel there is no sentence in the paragraph above? If yes, how many sentences are there in this article? I feel there are dozens of 文's, and I have never doubted that. On a website where not everyone is an expert, is it unsafe/misleading/unpractical to call the 文 above 'Japanese sentences'?

As far as I can tell, I have never seen a Japanese article which says something like "体言止めの"文"には述語がないので、厳密な文法的には文ではありません".

  • 1
    One thing I wonder about this question is whether the word "sentence" used by linguistics has strayed some distance from the word "sentence" used by (a) grammarians [as in ordinary "English" language instructors = 国語] and (b) the recipients of a standard education. As a native speaker of English but in category (b), I'd be hesitant to call "Hello" a sentence and expect that this usage would raise some quizzical looks.
    – virmaior
    Jun 29, 2017 at 5:03
  • 1
    @virmaior And as a recipient of a standard Japanese education, I never hesitated to call "こんにちは。" a 文. So that's exactly the point of this question. If what you're saying is the general fact among English speakers, I'll have to respect that on this site.
    – naruto
    Jun 29, 2017 at 5:12

2 Answers 2


When I went to school (K12 in the US during the 70's and early 80's), I was taught that a sentence had to have a subject and a predicate (usually they said verb instead of predicate). But then what exactly are things like "Hello!"

Broadly speaking, what I was taught works very well for formally written, academic, and business English. But often when I write in my journal or even when writing comments on students papers, the style I write in is a rather abbreviated form omitting subjects or occasionally verbs. Yet, what I write is still punctuated, and for want of a better word, I would most likely call them sentences despite the fact that they don't line up with what I was taught.

I think for me what I would call a sentence is something that is recognizable as a complete thought. So in grading a paper, I might write in the margin "poor word choice". I think that expresses a whole thought but I wouldn't be surprised that some would be pedantic enough to argue it's not a proper sentence.

Today I dropped by my local 紀伊国屋 and picked up a copy of マララ. First I was struck by how different it reads in Japanese from English. It made me wonder what the original text was written in. But more to the point, I noticed that many of the sentences in the Japanese translation just weren't really what I would have thought of as sentences. They just seemed to end with out a verb. Sometimes they just ended at what felt like mid-sentence. Yet, the text was perfectly understandable. I knew what the author was saying. And it gave the text a kind informality and colloquial feel to it; I felt a real connection to Malala herself on account of this narrative style. When I went back to an English copy, it suddenly seemed so much more formal and straight laced. As you said, these pseudo-sentences (my word, not yours) in Japanese created a kind of drama of their own that I felt was unfortunately lacking from the pages of the English text.

At any rate, as you can see, despite what I've written above I'm still kind of clinging to your idea of a "strictly speaking" proper sentence--that is, it needs a subject and predicate.

So, in summary, I would say that perhaps 文 and sentence aren't exactly equivalent terms.

Addendum: as I think about this some more, it occurs to me that the difference may be one of orthography too. Odd as it may sound, I thought of this when thinking of lines of Chinese poetry a written in groups of 4 or 5 characters. Yet, they seem to form a unit. Would they be called 文? I haven't studied Chinese so I can't really say. I have studied Sanskrit though, and in something like the Bhagavad Gita the defining unit is the meter of the shloka (verse). At any rate, what I'm suggesting is that the visual (or aural, in the case of Sanskrit) presentation of the text itself is perhaps what originates the meaning of the word 文 or sentence.

Interestingly, my 漢和中辞典 gives one of the meanings of 文 as ことば。また、ことばが集まってまとまった意味を表わすもの。Additionally, the Japanese dictionary on my Mac would seem to define 文 as a unit of meaning. So, I'd say again, this seems to suggest that the two (文 and sentence) are not quite equivalent. 文 seems to be defined semantically whereas sentence seems to be defined grammatically. So there will be a substantial overlap between the two, but certainly not every complete semantical unit will necessary be a so-called complete grammatical structure warranting the name "sentence".

  • The definitions of sentence found on Wikipedia and on Merriam-Webster look closer to what is written on 漢和中辞典. Perhaps there are two levels of "grammatically speaking" even among English speakers? One is what's written on Wikipedia by linguists and the other is what's taught at ordinary classrooms in the US. The former clearly permits the existence of one-word sentences. But I think I could grasp what people usually feel about the word.
    – naruto
    Jun 29, 2017 at 6:39
  • @naruto Having taught in the US at both the K12 level (high school) and having taught as a university professor, there is a deplorable disconnect between the two. In my experience, K12 teachers often define things in ways that need to be later unlearned by the students once they reach university. As a minor example, in my own area of expertise, mathematics, I cannot tell you how many times I've run across high school math teachers who continue to teach students that the number 1 is a prime number. So, that there may be two levels of definition in the US is perhaps not surprising at all.
    – A.Ellett
    Jun 29, 2017 at 6:39
  • Okay, this answer perfectly explained why my previous answer here was so unpopular :D As an adult, it's far easier for me to read articles on Wikipedia than to know what is actually taught at school in the US. By the way, number 1 is never a 素数 at middle schools in Japan.
    – naruto
    Jun 29, 2017 at 6:43
  • 1
    A sentence needing a verb is utterly incorrect. I'm European, and I was never thought such a thing. Even in literal first grade, before we had such technical terms as "verb" or "predicate", they taught us that a "sentence is a standalone unit that expresses a thought". So things like "Hello!" or "What?" could easily fit that definition.
    – Davor
    Jun 29, 2017 at 8:28
  • 1
    @Davor I'm not disagreeing with you at all.
    – A.Ellett
    Jun 29, 2017 at 15:28

Not having enough cred to just comment on A. Elliet's post, I'll add an answer.

First, relative to English, the sentence, "Hello!" can be read to have an implicit subject and verb, the object of which is the only word made explicit. Thus,

I say to you, "Hello!"

(Recursive, yes?)

There are other ways of reading the implied sentence, of course. For example,

Is anyone listening?


I greet you.

Some people will disagree with the concept of substitution, but it is why we can make sense of otherwise incomplete utterances. Also, note that I do not say the words are there, I say we can read these partial expressions as if they were intended to be there and that way make sense out of them.

Japanese tends to rely much more on implicit completion than English.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .