3

This sentence is from Death Note, specifically on how to use it.

This sentence is written in-universe using English. It states, “This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in their mind when writing his/her (the victim’s) name.”

I understand that 書く is modifying 人物, which would lead me to believe that 人物 is in reference to the person writing.

However, 人物 being the owner of 顔 would imply that 人物 is the person whose name is being written.

What is going on, grammatically speaking? Is this sentence ambiguous to native speakers? Would it be any more or less ambiguous without the story context of Death Note?

4

Grammatically, this is an inherent ambiguity of Japanese relative clauses. A Japanese relative clause works by changing the word order and dropping a case particle like が, を or に, and therefore it may result in an ambiguous phrase. This typically happens when both the subject and the object are humans.

人物書く。 (Someone) write the (name of the) person.
書く人物 the person ((whose name) someone) writes / the person whose name is written
(人物 is the object of 書く)

人物書く。 A person writes (something).
書く人物 the person who writes (something) / the writer
(人物 is the subject of 書く)

For example, あげた人 can refer to either a giver or a receiver depending on the context. From AがBをCに紹介する ("A introduces B to C"), you can construct 紹介する人, which can be interpreted either as "someone who introduces B to C" (=A), "someone who A introduces to C" (=B), or "someone who A introduces B to" (=C).

See also: が in subordinate clauses

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.