Is there a good historical or logical explanation why we cannot generally use 言う in the 3rd person in the past tense? Why do we have to resort to 言っている for the 3rd person part tense (言っていた), unless it happened 'just now'. Also, why is this not the case for the 1st person and the 2nd person?

Thank you!

1 Answer 1


I believe this has to do with the Japanese tendency to avoid foisting their thoughts/expectations on their conversational partners. For example, 言う expresses some level of "intention," to say something. It's not kosher to assume someone's intentions, so they avoid it by 言ってる. 言う is a stative verb in that it reflects the state of the person/thing performing the action as opposed to reflecting continuous action. Thus 言ってる means that they "have said" as opposed to "are saying." This is similar to 来る in that 来ている means "came and is here" as opposed to "coming."

  • A very interesting explanation: thank you! I am left wondering, though, why "are saying/have been saying" sounds less intentional than "says"… Is it because it is less "direct", i.e. less "categorical"?
    – Pregunto
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 9:28
  • There's a huge number of reasons, really. A lot of these intricacies stem from classical Japanese, which is another can of worms. This is almost certainly a form of indirection and, when given the choice, it's almost always preferable to be less direct than more.
    – Empty Box
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 16:36
  • gotcha… but any reason why with the present tense of 言う this phenomenon does not occur? (as far as I know, at least)
    – Pregunto
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 11:57
  • Not sure if I perfectly understand what you mean, but there are a few cases where you would use 言う in conversation: One is to talk about what someone may/may not do, or what you are going to do. In those cases it doesn't make sense to use 言ってる because, well, that's a different tense altogether. In the case of saying 言ってる to refer to someone currently speaking, you could say 言ってる but I think that something like しゃべってる or はなしてる is probably better.
    – Empty Box
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 16:36

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