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As far as I know, the relative clause should be placed immediately in front of the noun it modifies. For example, in sentence [木の下で休んでいる人の眼鏡], relative clause [木の下で休んでいる] modifies the noun [人]. Then why in sentence [今使っている日本語の本] relative clause [今使っている] modifies noun [本] instead of [日本語]?

In the second case [今使っている] should modify [日本語] (the noun it stands in front of) and the full translation is going be something like "Book about the Japanese language that (someone) currently using". But I'm pretty sure that the correct translation is something like "Book about the Japanese language that (someone) currently using". (Bold points the word modified by relative clause)

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    It would help us to know a) what you think 今使っている日本語の本 means, and b) what you think the sentence/clause should look like in full. Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 22:37
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    English sentences/clauses with relative clauses can also be ambiguous and the meaning oftentimes has to be determined semantically by context. Consider these: That's the mother of [the boy who I saw yesterday] or That's [the mother of the boy] who I saw yesterday. Your mind processes sentences when you read and draws mental parentheses.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 6:34
  • @EddieKal But every source I've found says that relative clauses modifies the noun which placed exactly after it. Does this mean that the relative clause can modify not only the following nouns themselves, but also already modified nouns?
    – Sousha
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 7:47
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    Non-academic sources often do not distinguish between nouns and noun phrases. How do you understand this movie title: 私の知らないわたしの素顔? See this answer: japanese.stackexchange.com/q/93061/30454
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 8:15
  • @EddieKal Thank you so much! This helped me a lot.
    – Sousha
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 8:28

3 Answers 3

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A relative clause modifies a noun phrase. In this case there is a potential ambiguity as it could modify the noun phrase 日本語 or it could modify the noun phrase 日本語の本. The ambiguity is resolved pragmatically, that is by understanding the context.

While it would be grammatically possible to parse this as 今[使っている日本語の]本 that is odd to the point of being meaningless. Therefore the understood meaning is 今使っている[日本語の本].

A similar ambiguity can exist in English and many other languages: You can say "A book about Japanese that I'm using". Pragmatically you understand that you are using the book, and the book is about Japanese. You don't interpret this as being a book about "the Japanese that I'm using". since that is nonsensical. Sometimes the placement of a modfier creates ambiguity that results in a ludicrous sentence (see "misplaced modifier). Normally, you have no difficulty parsing the sentence correctly

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  • I fully agree with you. However, we can stretch the point a little and come across scenarios where both interpretations of this sentence structure can make sense. For example, if you use keigo specifically at work, [会社で使っている日本語]の本 could mean "A book about the Japanese I use at work" (i.e. about keigo)
    – jarmanso7
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 12:32
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There are in effect, two relative clauses here, 今使っている and 日本語の. Since の is one form of the copula, there is nothing odd about thinking of it like this.

As others have pointed out there is a parsing ambiguity, identical to what we see in English with, for example, 'hot water tap'; is it [hot [water tap]], or [[hot water] tap]?

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  • Allow me to be a bit more precise—の is indisputably a form of the copula, but it is the form which appears in relativizations (nominalizations) such as 日本語の.
    – N. Hunt
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 0:16
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「日本語の」is describing what type of book it is. The only noun is 「本」, so 「今使っている」modifies the only noun in the sentence, 「本」。

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  • 日本語 is also a noun.
    – James K
    Commented Sep 2, 2022 at 16:37
  • You are correct. However, in this case, the phrase translates to "this Japanese book", where 日本語の acts as an adjective. Sorry for the late reply Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 13:24
  • It may be a modifier, but it's not an adjective, it is a particle phrase headed by の. "Acts as an adjective" only makes sense on translation to English, and Japanese isn't a translation of English.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 16:47
  • Of course Japanese isn't a translation of English. I was simply translating to English so readers can understand the concept better. Sometimes, it's better to explain it in simpler terms - I simply wanted to establish the fact that 日本語の in this case isn't a noun, and therefore can't be modified by「今使っている」 Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 18:34
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    My point is that you can't say "The only noun is 「本」" Because that is only true in the English translation. You are wrong to say 日本語 isn't a noun. It is a noun and it could be modified by a relative clause. The reason that we know that it isn't modified is pragmatic, not based on grammar - but based on context.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 21:14

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