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Counters continue to cause me no end of confusion. Consider

りんごを一個食べた。
I ate one apple.

In order to know what I'm talking about I need the object, りんご. This is because the counter 個 tells me very little about what I'm counting.

If it's clear from context that the topic is apples I assume I can omit the object and just say 一個食べた?

Now suppose that the counter is more explicit about what it counts:

人を一人殺した。
I killed one person.

Is this sentence natural? The object seems redundant in this case, since the counter already tells me I'm talking about people, and it seems as though 一人殺した may be sufficient without any previous context. On the other hand, I guess I now can't be sure whether the person is being killed or killing someone.

So what about with an intransitive verb? Is this natural:

一人だけ残っている。
Only one person remains.

Would it be more/less weird if I added 人が to the front of it?

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    I assume you chose the phrase "人を一人食べた" as an example, because you wanted an apples-to-apples comparison (pun intended). But that phrase may trigger cognitive bias and hinder one's thought process to assess whether it sounds "natural" or not. Perhaps "人を一人殺した" or something less bizarre may be better?
    – dungarian
    Feb 19 at 11:34
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    Those counters work adverbially, so they are generally independent of subject/object (and their omission). Kind of related: japanese.stackexchange.com/a/88966/45489
    – sundowner
    Feb 19 at 11:43
  • @dungarian That's a good point. I edited. Feb 19 at 11:56
  • @sundowner Thanks for the link. I understand that the counters work adverbially and are therefore in some sense independent of subject/object, but I still wonder about redundancy and the naturalness of the various construction. Feb 19 at 12:00

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If it's clear from context that the topic is apples I assume I can omit the object and just say 一個食べた?

Technically yes, but what's unclear is the definition of clear. It depends on the time, place, and occasion. There will always be people who:

Thus, it's a brilliant and respectable question which we all benefit from, but also a subjective one.


Now suppose that the counter is more explicit about what it counts. 人を一人殺した。

You're assuming that 一人 is a reserved counter for people, but what about ghosts? Aliens? With such nitpicking aside, yes our common sense tells us it's probably a human being. Then:

人を一人殺した。 I killed one person.

your translation is wrong. Nowhere does is state I killed one person. You have just joined the 主語がない people.

But, if you were to show up to your lawyer's office holding a bloody knife, the I is indeed unnecessary. The surrounding atmosphere implicitly provides the 主語.


Redundancy of 人を in "人を一人殺した"

Yes, it's technically redundant, but it's natural to add the 人を for some strange reason. This is hard to explain, but the nuance is:

- 一人殺した "Killed one (human being)" - totally natural for a sniper to say

- 人を一人殺した "Killed a person" - a bit more dramatic

The 人を doesn't simply clarify that it was a human being. Sometimes a novel would tweak 人を to ヒトを to emphasize the fact that it's a person - not just a Homo Sapiens (or vice versa).


So what about with an intransitive verb? Is this natural: 一人だけ残っている。 Only one person remains

Here's my personal opinion:

Question: "What's the situation in the battlefield?"

Answer: "人が一人だけ残っている" ← Natural

Answer: "一人だけ残っている" ← Vague, better to add 人が


Q. "How many people are left in the battlefield?"

Answer: "人が一人だけ残っている。" ← Redundant, no need for 人が

Answer. "一人だけ残っている。" ← Natural


We mustn't forget that although we choose the appropriate counter/units, it is not the counter/unit's job to clarify what we're talking about. If I were to say "I have 16GB in my PC" obviously I'm talking about RAM and this makes sense, but "I have 16GB of RAM in my PC" is appropriate and natural. Even if "GB" was a reserved unit just for RAM module sticks, I would still say "16GB of RAM".

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The omission of a subject or an object comes natural when what is being referred to is clear from the background information, or context, against which the sentence is uttered, NOT because the same sentence contains a counter that just happens to give you a hint on what it may be, however specific that hint might be.

殺す is a transitive verb. The sentence sounds more complete with a direct object unless what is killed is clear from the context. If it's clear from the context, the sentence often sounds more natural without it. That's true regardless of whether the sentence contains a quantifier like 一人. It doesn't count as context. The object determines the counter, not the other way around.

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