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Should interrogative pronouns come in the subject or in the predicate? For example:

ここ は どこ です か – "Where is this place?"

どこ が ここ です か – does this mean the same?

うみ は どちら です か - "Which way is the sea?"

どちら が うみ です か - does this mean the same?

これ は なん です か – "What is this"?

なに が これ です か – is this possible?

If both sentences in a pair are correct, is there any difference in meaning? Is either of them more idiomatic?

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These so called こそあど言{こと}葉{ば} (ko-so-a-do words) are demonstratives (or 指示語{しじご} in Japanese), and you can think of them as placeholders for things that are common knowledge between the speaker and the listener, or in your case, as placeholders for the answers to your questions.

1. What are demonstratives

Take a look at the following example sentences:

ここ から あそこ まで100メートルの距離{きょり}です。("The distance from here to there is 100 metres.")

それ は、誰{だれ}のですか。― これ は、僕{ぼく}のです。 ("Whose is that? It is mine.")

The words ここ, あそこ, それ and これ are demonstratives that refer to a place or a thing, but context is important for both sentences. You can imagine that both people know which specific location was meant by there or which object the first person was referring to as that.

Taking a closer look at ここ, そこ and あそこ, all three refer to a location or displacement and can be used as placeholders for such things. But if they're all placeholders for similar things, why have three different words?

Since these demonstratives depend highly on the shared knowledge between a speaker and a listener, the difference in usage also depends on how physically distant a location is from the speaker and from the listener. ここ refers to a place closer to the speaker than to the listener, そこ refers to a place that is further away from the speaker but closer to the listener and あそこ refers to a place that's far from both the speaker and the listener.

Person 1: リモコンは そこ にありませんか? ("Is the remote near you?")

Person 2: いいえ、ここ にはありませんよ。("No, I'm afraid it's not here.")

Person 2: あそこ にありませんか? ("Maybe it is over there? [far from both 1 and 2]")

Person 1: どこ に行{い}ったんだろう。 ("I wonder where it went.")

The last sentence uses どこ, which denotes an unknown location.

2. Types of demonstratives

As shown in your own examples, demonstratives aren't limited to just referring to locations. They can act as placeholders for nouns in general, but differ depending on what the noun represents.

2.1. Noun demonstratives

a) Locations

ここ = near the speaker

そこ = near the listener

あそこ = far from both the speaker and the listener

どこ = unknown (どちら is a polite way to express 'where')

b) Objects

これ = thing near the speaker

それ = thing near the listener

あれ = thing far from both the speaker and the listener

どれ = thing unknown to the speaker

Example 1

Student: あれ はなんですか? ("Hey what's that over there?")

Biology professor: あれ は[顕微鏡]{けんびきょう}だよ。("Oh, that's a microscope.")

Professor: これ といっしょだよ。("Just like this one here.")

Student: それ を使{つか}って[研究]{けんきゅう}するんですか? ("So you use that to do research?")

Professor: ええ、そうだよ。 ("Yup, that's right.")

Example 2

Kid: あれ が欲{ほ}しい! ("Oh I want that one!")

Vendor: どれどれ? これ? ("Which one do you mean? This one?")

Kid: うん、それ! ("Yeah, that one!")

Because the kid uses あれ and それ to refer to the same stationary item, it is implied that the vendor moved near whatever item the kid wanted to confirm their choice.

c) Directions

こちら(こっち)= over here, to here

そちら(そっち)= over there, there

あちら(あっち)= way over there, where the speaker points

どちら(どっち)= unknown (どちら can also mean "Which one?" unrelated to direction)

Visitor: ここ は何{なに}が展示{てんじ}されていますか? ("Which exhibits can I find here?")

Guide: こちら にはモネの絵{え}が展示されています。 ("Over here you can find paintings by Monet.")

Guide: そちら にはルーベンスの絵が展示されています。 ("Over there, you can see paintings by Rubens.")

Guide: そして、あちら にはダ・ヴィンチの絵が展示されています。 ("And way over there is an exhibition of Da Vinci's work.")

Visitor: すみません、ゴッホの絵は どちら でしょうか? ("I'm sorry, where can I find Van Gogh's paintings, please?")

2.2. 連体詞 (rentaisi, a Japanese part of speech) demonstratives

この + noun = this + noun near speaker

その + noun = that + noun near listener

あの + noun = that + noun over there

どの + noun = what + noun?

Example 1

Person 1: どの 国{くに}へ行ってみたい? ("What country would you like to visit?")

Person 2: やっぱりフランスだな。 ("France for sure.")

Example 2

Person 1: あの 人{ひと}はきれいなドレスを着{き}てるわね。 ("That person is wearing a beautiful dress.")

Person 2: この 店{みせ}で売{う}ってないかな? ("I wonder if they sell it in this shop as well.")

If person 2 had used ここ instead of この店, it would have implied that they are already inside a clothes shop. この店 could also mean that, but it could also mean that the two people are walking down a shopping street and that person 1 wanted to bring a particular shop to person 2's attention.

Example 3

Business man 1: その ペン、けっこう高{たか}かっただろ? ("That pen of yours must've cost a fortune right?")

Business man 2: これか? 確{たし}かに安{やす}くはなかったな。("Oh this one? Yeah, it wasn't exactly cheap.")

Notice how そのペン becomes shared knowledge between both business men, which is why business man 2 referred to it as これ, rather than repeating このペン.

2.3. Adverb demonstratives

The notion of 'distance' isn't as clear for adverbs, so I find it hard to come up with example sentences. Perhaps someone else can.

こう + verb = do (verb) like the speaker

そう + verb = do (verb) like listener

ああ + verb = do (verb) like third party

どう + verb = how to do (verb)

2.4. Adjective demonstratives

As with adverbs, the notion of distance is a bit vague here, but I feel like adjective demonstratives are more commonly used than adverb demonstratives.

こんな + noun = a (noun) like this one

そんな + noun = a (noun) like that one

あんな + noun = a (noun) like that one over there

どんな + noun = what kind of (noun)

Person 1: どんな [映画]{えいが}が好{す}き? ("What kind of movies do you like?")

Person 2: ホラー映画が[大好]{だいす}き! ("I love horror movies!")

If person 1 had asked どの映画, they would be asking for a specific movie rather a genre.

Parent: あんな奴{やつ}と[付き合う]{つきあう}な! ("Don't hang out with the likes of them!" [criminals, ne'er-do-wells, etc.])

I tried to come up with examples sentences for こんな and そんな, but I couldn't, sorry.

In conclusion

If you're using a noun demonstrative, for example to denote a location or a thing, it must reflect its role in your question or statement and therefore sometimes can become the topic (subject) of a sentence. For adverb demonstratives, this is out of the question as they are combined with verbs. Finally, for adjective demonstratives, it's possible that their corresponding noun is the topic of the speaker's sentence, but not necessarily.

So in the example questions, the expected answers are clear. Therefore, you can use demonstratives to fit the role of the expected answers in your questions.

ここは京都{きょうと}です。 ("This place is Kyoto.")

ここはどこですか? ("This place is what place?" or more naturally "Where are we?")

海は森{もり}の向{む}こう側{がわ}です。 ("The sea lies beyond the forest.")

海はどちらですか? ("The sea is where?" or more naturally "Where is the sea?")

これはお[寿司]{すし}です。 ("This is sushi.")

これは何ですか? ("This is what?" or more naturally "What's this?")

While technically demonstratives, the ど-branch of the こそあど言葉 are indeed used as interrogatives. But they can be used in the predicate to simply indicate something unknown.

Example 1

Student: この[問題]{もんだい}は難{むずか}しいです。 ("This problem is hard.")

Tutor: 問題の どこが わからない? ("What part of the problem are you having trouble with?")

The expression 「どちらが」almost exlusively means "which one" (or "who" when using 敬語{けいご}, the highest register of politeness) so I can't really provide any example sentences that relate to direction or location.

Example 2

Customer: 10[万円]{まんえん}[以下]{いか}のラップトップは売{う}ってませんか? ("Do you sell any laptops under $1000?")

Clerk: こちらにありますよ。 ("Yes, right here.")

Customer: どちらが [一番]{いちばん}軽{かる}いですか? ("Which one is the lightest?")

Example 3

Neighbour 1: [昨日]{きのう}の夜{よる}、大{おお}きな音{おと}がしてびっくりしたよ。 ("Last night, I was suddenly woken up by a loud noise.")

Neighbour 2: 何{なに}が あったんだろう? ("I wonder what happened.")

But as you can see, even for these cases the demonstratives act like placeholders for the expected answers. For the first example, the expected answer is the part of the problem unclear to the student. For the second, it's the laptop that weighs the least and finally for the third, the cause of the loud noise.


Sources: Japanese grammar website (I took some liberties) and the Wiki page on demonstratives (Japanese)

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  • Sorry, but I don't quite understand. Do you mean in your answer that a sentence like どちらがうみですか is grammatically correct, or incorrect? – Chocolate Jun 30 at 7:42
  • For the intended meaning, 「どちらが海ですか」is syntactically valid but not semantically. Without context, 「どちらが海ですか」can be interpreted as "Which one is the sea?" (for example near two bodies of water, of which one is a lake and the other is a sea, unknown which is which to the speaker. However, if you expect a direction as an answer, e.g. 「海は森{もり}の向{む}こう側{がわ}です。」 ("The sea lies past the forest.") then どこ and どちら can act as placeholders for 森の向こう側 and therefore are not topics, as in: 「海はどこ・どちらですか?」. – JansthcirlU Jun 30 at 8:04
  • @JansthcirlU I see you put a lot of effort into your answer, but I'm afraid it's quite convoluted and in the end, your main point is not clear. The question is not about what demonstratives are, it's about how they are used in those sentences. Demonstratives are not even needed for the OP's question to remain valid. I suggest editing your answer to make it clear what your response to the question is. – kandyman Jun 30 at 8:41
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    That's right, the particle は to denote a topic inherently assumes common knowledge between the speaker and the listener and can therefore only be used with a demonstrative that denotes a known subject, which means all but the ど demonstratives. This also extends into the 連体詞 and adjective demonstratives where you cannot have something like 「×どんな犬{いぬ}は好{す}き?」or 「×どのアイドルは有名{ゆうめい}ですか?」 . On the other hand, you can use が for new or uncertain information which means constructions like「どこが」,「どれが」,「どんな犬が~」,「どのアイドルが~」 are valid. But that's more of a particles issue than a demonstratives issue. – JansthcirlU Jul 1 at 9:37
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    So if you approach someone to ask them something like "Where am I?" or "What is this place?" both you (the speaker) and the listener (the other person) know what is meant by ここ since you are both in that location. Therefore you would ask 「ここはどこですか?」, while expecting an answer that replaces どこ in your question. – JansthcirlU Jul 1 at 9:52

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