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Given that X__ Vてある means someone did V to X, when should X be followed by は, が, and を?

The Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar says

"X" is most frequently marked by the topic marker は or the subject marker が; occasionally, it is marked by the direct object marker を. The agent is usually omitted.

but it provides no explanation about when to use each particle.

In addition, I found an example where が marks the agent rather than X: 「彼が殺してある」translated as "He has already killed someone" (rather than "He has already been killed"). This puzzles me further: how can I tell when が marks X and when it marks the agent?

2 Answers 2

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The Vt-てある construction describes the way something is intentionally left in the resulting state of an earlier action upon it. When a sentence focuses on the resulting state, the object of the action usually takes the subject’s slot followed by が.

テーブルの上に本置いてある。
A book is left on the table.

The object marker を seems to put focus more on the action than its resulting state, and the agent of the action may be specified with が in this case.

(彼が)昼ごはん作ってある。
He has lunch prepared (for someone).

If you omit the object, you end up with a sentence like the following.

作ってある。
He has it prepared (for someone).

The object or the agent may be topicalized or singled out for contrast with は.

昼ごはん作ってある。[object]

作ってある。[agent]


[EDIT]

Let me give you a pair of examples in which a person is the object of a verb in one and the agent of the same verb in the other.

  1. 中村さん[任命]{にんめい}してあります。
    We have Nakamura-san assigned (for some purpose).
  1. 中村さん任命してあります。
    Nakamura-san has someone assigned (for some purpose).

It’s hard to interpret the second sentence in the same way as the first (i.e. to see 中村さん as the object) because a person is not usually described with ある. The first sentence doesn’t describe Nakamura-san’s state as much as it does the fact that someone has assigned him/her.

It could become more ambiguous if it were about a robot. ロボットが置いてある could go either way.

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  • IIUC what you say, it seems が could mark either the person doing the action (your "if you omit the object" example) or the person who is acted upon (your first example). How then can I tell whether 中村さんが直してある means that someone unspecified healed Nakamura (in preparation for the next battle), or Nakamura healed someone unspecified (in preparation for the same)?
    – max
    Jul 5, 2021 at 8:33
  • @max: It’s basically dependent on the context, but If が marks a person, it would be pretty safe to assume that person is the agent of the action, not the object. See my edit.
    – aguijonazo
    Jul 5, 2021 at 10:52
  • Thanks! I'm curious, is there any grammar dictionary or textbook that explains the information in your edit? While I understand this point after your explanation, I'd like to have a good source to look up other grammar questions in the future. I thought Dictionary of Japanese Grammar was the best source but it completely omits this subtlety.
    – max
    Jul 5, 2021 at 12:14
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    @max: I’m a native, and what I know about Japanese, I didn’t learn from books :-) I see some parallel to the difference between が and を with potential verbs, and this answer seems to suggest that difference is explained in a book titled Japanese, The Spoken Language. You might want to take a look. I haven’t seen it myself and don’t know if it will be useful for your purpose, though.
    – aguijonazo
    Jul 5, 2021 at 12:59
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彼が殺してある He has already killed someone for him/her/something.

Or

HE has already killed someone for him/her/something.

彼を殺してある I have already killed him for him/her/something.

Or

I have already killed HIM for him/her/something.

Or Someone have already killed him for him/her/something.

彼は殺してある Someone has already killed HIM for him/her/something.

Or

HE has already killed someone for him/her/something.

XがVてある equals XがVしておいた X prepared V for him/her/something

You can look up the word しておく(present tense), しておいた(past tense, present perfect)

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  • There's probably a typo, since the two alternative translations you give for "彼が殺してある" are identical. Could you clarify which two you meant?
    – max
    Jul 5, 2021 at 8:27
  • There are two meanings. One was HE. Another one was he. I will explain in a different way. There are two meanings as he has killed and He is the one who has killed.
    – Teacandy
    Jul 5, 2021 at 10:14
  • Ahhh so there's no way to distinguish between these two very different meanings without additional clarifications?
    – max
    Jul 5, 2021 at 12:08
  • There's no way. But you can guess from context.
    – Teacandy
    Jul 5, 2021 at 12:20

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