I was watching this video (it's actually a really good series, despite the odd presentation). In it, there is the example:

Ghosts are scary.

No problem there, but the series has been talking a lot about how the zero-pronoun marks the subject in a sentence, and that the default pronoun is "I" (in the absence of other context). It then goes on to say that こわい on it's own means "I am scared", i.e. we took away the subject and it has now been replaced with the default "I".

This of course means that the meaning of こわい has changed from "to be scary" into "to be scared". But is this really what's happening? In the case of just こわい, why can't we assume that the zero-pronoun is actually "it" rather than "I"? Then we have "It is scary" which basically is the same as "I am scared", and then the adjective doesn't have to change meaning?

I also wonder what happens if we explicitly write the subject "I":


Does this mean "I am scared" or "I am scary"? I suspect it is still "I am scared", so how would you actually say "I am scary"?

  • In case you're unfamiliar with the phrase, the idea is that every sentence must have a subject marked by が, but that often this subject doesn't actually appear in the sentence. This subject is called the zero-pronoun. – user3856370 Apr 2 at 8:53
  • 2
    I think こわい by itself the implication is 私はこわい not 私がこわい. – Ringil Apr 2 at 11:38
  • Related, maybe? japanese.stackexchange.com/a/56736/9831 – Chocolate Apr 2 at 13:28
  • I assume this is related to why I often see bad translations from Japanese (and Chinese) to English that say things like "don't scare of him" instead of "don't be afraid of him". – Karl Knechtel Apr 2 at 14:13

怖い indeed means both "to be scary" and "to be scared" depending on the context. You may feel this is insane, but English has similar examples, too, so let me explain about this first.

In English, "I am sad" means this person is feeling sorrow, but "The news is sad" does not mean this news is feeling sorrow. Why? Because "sad" has two distinct meanings, "to feel sorrow" and "to cause sorrow". In English, "He worries about it" and "He is worried about it" mean almost the same thing. Why? Because "worry" has two meanings, "to feel anxiety" and "to cause anxiety". In both examples, you can easily choose the right meaning from the context. But "worry" is a very confusing word to a learner like me.

Japanese 怖い works similarly to English "sad". 怖い both means "to feel fear" and "to cause fear". You have to accept this fact and learn to choose the correct meaning using your common sense.

  • 私は怖い。
    [after talking about a risky plan] I am scared.
    [in a self-introduction] I am scary.
  • おばけは怖い。
    Ghosts are scary (beings).
  • 彼は怖い人だ。
    He is a scary person.
  • 怖い人はこの映画を見なくていい。
    Those who are scared don't have to watch the movie.

Many Japanese adjectives including 嬉しい, 悲しい and 楽しい work similarly.

  • 彼は楽しい。
    [in a introduction] He is a fun person.
  • 私は楽しい。
    [in an amusement park] I am having fun.

Now, what about おばけ怖い? Now we have が instead of は. When we say おばけが怖い, it no longer means "Ghosts are scary (in general)", but there are several possible ways to interpret it:

  1. I am scared of ghosts. / Ghosts are scary to me.
  2. (Hey,) Ghosts are (now) being scary (although ghosts are normally not scary).
  3. It is ghosts that are scary/scared.

The first one is a well-known "double subject" interpretation. It's the same as 私はおばけが怖い but 私は is omitted. I would say this is the natural interpretation when there is no particular context.

The second interpretation is rather special; it is a 現象文 that is using neutral-description ga to report a temporary fact. Can you see the critical difference between these sentences?

  • ママ怖い。 My mom is (always) scary. (as a known fact)
  • ママ怖い。 My mom is scary (now, although she is usually calm)! (new information)
  • 財布ない。 I don't own a wallet. (as a known fact)
  • 財布ない。 My wallet is missing! (new information)

However, it's difficult to interpret おばけが怖い as a 現象文 because ghosts are normally scary.

The third interpretation is using exhaustive-listing ga. But this makes sense only in a certain context.

As a result, the only natural interpretation of おばけが怖い when there is no context is "I am scared of ghosts" with the omitted topic 私.

How about 私が怖い? This does not mean "I am (usually) a scary person" because it's using が instead of は. But it cannot be a 現象文, either, because it doesn't make sense to report one's own anger like this. So the only natural interpretation would be exhaustive-listing ga.

  • 怖い。 I am a scary person. / I am scared.
  • 怖い。
    It's me who is scary. (as a response to a question like "Who is the scariest person in your family?")
    It's me who is scared. (as a response to "Our kids are not scared.")

"Aがこわい" commonly means "A is horrible(scary)", "I am scared of A". So 私がこわい is commonly interpreted as "I am horrible(scary)". For example, 昨日、友達に意地悪をしてしまった。私がこわい.

If you want to say "I am scared", you can say "私はこわい", "私はこわがっている".

However, "Aはこわい" can mean both "A is horrible(scary)" and "A is scared", so if you clearly want to mean ""A is scared", you can say "Aはこわがっている".

  • I like this answer, in my Japanese -to -english overly literal translation "私はこわがっている" is "I am being scared" – AthomSfere Apr 3 at 21:27

First things first.

こわい means "to be scary". It's not a verb. It's an i-adjective, which means it describes a state of something, hence the inclusion of "to be".

So 私がこわい means "I'm scary" (to be exact, I think it's: "[Who is scary?] I am the scary one") rather than "I'm scared". That could be: 私はこわい which is using the topic particle は and the so-called "zero-pronoun". But the meaning of 私はこわい doesn't end here.

Let's dig into it a bit.

Most English speakers are hung up on the idea that in every sentence there must be an explicitly stated subject (it's easier on me since my native language is Polish and in Polish the subject-actor is often omitted, although words are inflected in a way that helps us understand WHO is doing something). Japanese tend to omit as much as possible, especially in casual language. That means both subject and topic (which may be the same thing) can be omitted if they can be inferred from context. This concept is difficult to understand for English speakers, since English is a language with a fairly rigid grammar structure. To help English speakers understand that the subject IS there even if sometimes you just don't see it explicitly expressed in the sentence, the concept of the so-called "zero-pronoun" is introduced. And it can be a bit confusing (Personally I don't like it).

Full sentence with こわい, without omissions, would look something like this:

SCARED PERSON は [<=topic] SCARY THING が [<=subject] こわい。


But the subject can also be the topic:

THING は [<=topic: possibly subject, possibly actor] こわい。

Who is scared in this sentence? What if the scary thing is also a "person" that can be scared"? Does this mean that:

  • I'm scared of the THING
  • someone I'm talking about is scared of the THING
  • the THING is simply objectively scary
  • the THING is scared of something
  • the THING is scared of itself

All of the above could be correct. It depends on the context: who said it, about what, what was said before this sentence.

Side note: は carries the feeling of "contrast" with it - は contrasts the thing it follows with other things. Something like: "(compered to what I was speaking of before / all the other things) speaking of THIS TOPIC...". In fact, I think this is the primary function of は, and its function as a topic particle stems from exactly this.

So what happens in the above example? How can it mean all these different things?

I'm scared of the THING

If in conversation WHO is not mentioned in the sentence or wasn't explicitly stated as a topic before, it is usually assumed that the speaker is speaking about themselves. In fact, it is considered somehow rude to constantly go 私は this, 私は that, you may sound a bit conceited. Apparently unless Japanese people absolutely need to, they don't say 私は.

So "THING は [<=topic] こわい" can be:

(私 は) THING は こわい。 = (Speaking of me) speaking of this THING (in contrast to other things), it is scary => I'm scared of this THING.

It isn't that こわい means "to be scared", that's just the way it's translated into English, because it sounds better than the direct translation.

Notice the similarity to "SCARED PERSON は [<=topic] SCARY THING が [<=subject] こわい". It's not that the THING suddenly isn't the subject of this sentence, it's just that the particle が got "swallowed" by the topic particle は. Particle は tends to do that.

someone I'm talking about is scared of the THING

Maybe we're describing someone else at the moment, and that person was mentioned earlier. We know who we're talking about, there's no need to constantly repeat it. For example, I'm talking about Kaori, and she is scared of this thing:

(かおり は) THING は こわい。= (Speaking of Kaori) speaking of this THING, it is scary => Kaori is scared of the THING.

the THING is simply objectively scary

This one is simple.

THING は こわい。= Speaking of this THING, it is scary. => The THING is scary.

For example:

クモはこわいですね。= Spiders are scary, aren't they?

the THING is scared of something

Here we can see the power of context.

THING は (some other scary thing が) こわい。= Speaking of this THING, (some other scary thing) is scary => The THING is scared.

For example 犬はこわい can both mean that "dogs are scary" and "the dog is scared (of something else)".

the THING is scared of itself

This one is interesting. Theoretically (I'd like a confirmation from someone on this)

THING は (THING itself が) こわい。= Speaking of this THING (the THING itself) is scary => The THING is scared of itself.

An example of something like this (although the が particle is used here): there's a song by Thomas Dolby "I Scare Myself". The title was translated into Japanese as "私がこわい". "I Scare Myself" can technically mean "(to mysel) I'm scary"

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