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It is common knowledge that na-adjectives are in truth nouns that can be used as adjectives (edit: I now see this was a false generalization I was led into believing by some grammar sources); and the commonest formula where it's obvious the na-adjective is used as an adjective is "na-adjective+な+noun". But when they are used as the predicate in noun sentences (i.e. "na-adjective+だ/です") I can never be sure if what is meant is a noun, or an adjective.

For example, below are examples where a na-adjective is used as a predicate:

これは幸せです。-> Does this mean "This is happiness" OR "This is happy (this is a happy occassion)

空はきれいです。-> Does this mean "The sky is beautiful" OR "The sky is beauty (the sky is the definition of beauty)"?

夜は静かです。-> Does this mean "The night is silent" OR "The night is silence (in a poetic sense)"

While in the above examples, the na-adjectives are grammatically nouns; most of the time in the English translation, they are adjectives. I'm assuming the first translations I've given above would be the commonest choice of meaning. However, in the case of 幸せ, what is meant is a noun; in the case of きれい and 静か, what is meant is an adjective. How does one tell if a na-adjective used as a predicate is meant to be an adjective and not a noun, or vice versa?

Is it simply a matter of how often they are used as nouns when used without な? (i.e. do we translate 幸せです as "this is happinnes" as opposed to "this is happy", simply because 幸せ is very often used as a noun?)

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    Other than 幸せ, what makes you think that きれい or 静か are ever used as nouns?
    – A.Ellett
    Nov 12, 2021 at 20:49
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    How can you tells about 幸せ? Context, much as how you can tell with various English words that can be used as either nouns or adjectives: abstract, average, sore, final, trial. 幸せです without further context would likely be taken to mean "I am happy", though 幸せ describes a very specific sort of happiness.
    – A.Ellett
    Nov 12, 2021 at 20:55
  • @A.Ellett The grammatical nature of na-adjectives made me assume all na adjectives were also nouns. But is this a false notion? Now that I've checked some JP dictionaries, some na-adjectives (like 静か) are tagged only 形動 and some (like 幸せ) are tagged both 名 and 形動. Should I learn words tagged with only 形動 to be always adjectives in every context? Or can I still say stuff like "静かの意味" to mean "the meaning of silence"?
    – Esoppant
    Nov 13, 2021 at 9:51
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    @Esoppant If your dictionary has usage guide, better first read them, but when an average dictionary doesn't tag a word as noun, it can't be used as noun. You need to say 静かさ to mean "silence". Mare Tranquillitatis is indeed 静かの海 in Japanese, but you have to perfectly know what you're doing before being creative with a na-adjective stem. Nov 13, 2021 at 13:14

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Some -na adjectives can also be used validly and grammatically as nouns. Your example sentences happen to include -na adjectives that cannot be used as nouns.

  • 綺麗【きれい】 is only ever an adjective. The noun form would be 綺麗さ.
    • Nihon Kokugo Dai Jiten (NKDJ) entry at Kotobank (in Japanese). Note that the part-of-speech marker at the top only has 『形動』 (short for 形容動詞【けいようどうし】 or "-na adjective").
    • Digital Daijisen (DDJS) entry at Kotobank (in Japanese). Note the same part-of-speech marker. Note too the 『[派生]きれいさ[名]』 line towards the bottom, showing that the noun derivative is formed by adding ~さ on the end.
  • 静【しず】か, outside of extremely rare exceptions such as 「静かの海」 as noted by @broccoli facemask in the comments, is only ever an adjective.

In these cases, even when used predicatively, we know that these words can't be nouns unless they include the nominalizing suffix ~さ, so constructions like 「あの子は綺麗です」 or 「この森は静かです」 can only be understood as [NOUN = ADJ] sentences.

In those cases where a -na adjective can also be used as a noun, such as 幸【しあわ】せ, context can help you figure out the intended sense.

  • 幸【しあわ】せ

Your sample sentence:

  • これは幸せです。
    • We don't have a lot of context here. That said, it's not that common that people talk about something being "happiness itself", so this is most likely saying that これ is 幸【しあわ】せ as an adjective: "happy, fortunate, lucky".

⇒ Beware of the pitfalls of translation, however! While it may be valid to parse this sample sentence as [THIS = NOUN], we have to think about how Japanese fits together conceptually. Considering the senses of 幸【しあわ】せ, in terms of "things coming together in a favorable way", even were we to use the noun interpretation, it's probably a better translation to think of this as "an instance of things coming together in a favorable way", rather than any kind of over-arching meaning of "the essence of favorable coincidence in any and all circumstances".

Looping back to your core question:

How does one tell if a na-adjective used as a predicate is meant to be an adjective and not a noun, or vice versa?

  1. Check the dictionary for the part of speech for the word.
    • Not all -na adjectives can be used as nouns.
  2. Check the dictionary for details on the meaning.
    • If the word can be used as a noun, does the noun make sense in your context?
  3. Check usage patterns.
    • Does the meaning you're thinking of still work when the term is used in other sentences? Google, Linguee, and other search engines can be your friend in this regard.
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  • ”きれいの” (in quote) get 2 millions hit on google. eg: きれいのヒント) Nov 17, 2021 at 12:28
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    @ThomasPetit, this appears to be part of an emerging change in usage patterns, as な and の are becoming somewhat interchangeable for certain words. Looking in the NINJAL corpus, きれいな gets 2,138 hits, and きれいの gets only 4. In Google, while きれいの gets 1.88 million hits, きれいな is still more common with 663 million hits. Nov 18, 2021 at 1:11

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