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There's something strange in the grammar when translating this sentence:

"You are skilled at tennis."

「テニス が 上手です」

In English, "you" is the subject. But in Japanese, テニス ("tennis") is the subject.

Does that mean the literal translation is "Tennis is skilled"?

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I think this could be seen as a case of a person’s ability with something being described as a property of that thing. If that's indeed the case, it's in a way related to what was discussed here. As pointed out there, something like that happens in English, too. This stew eats well doesn’t mean the stew does the act of eating but the stew is such that people can eat it in a certain way or with a certain feeling. Borrowing this sentence structure, テニスが上手です might be translated as:

Tennis plays well.

I know a translation with a noun or an adjective would look more literal, but I couldn’t find an English word that means something one does well in the way favorite works for something one likes. Substituting it with a made-up literal translation of 上手, it would become:

Tennis is an “upper-hand”.

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  • This makes sense to me, as it's grammatically consistent & consistent with what I've learned about the が (and は) particles from Tofugu and Cure Dolly. So it's exactly like how 「テニスが好きです」 / "I like tennis" is literally translated as, "Tennis is liked." So my original sentence does indeed translate literally into "Tennis is skilled," but "skilled" takes on a non-English usage of that particular word (a usage that can be found elsewhere in English). Am I following you correctly? (I steer away from "does well" since です = "is", but your translation is the bridge I needed).
    – gills
    Oct 15, 2022 at 3:22
  • I suppose another conceptual way to parse this might be via implied possessive -- "[the TOPIC's] tennis is skillful." Then again, that's also a very English parsing; with proper Japanese Topic-Subject juxtaposition, and more directly translated, we might more closely render this like "[as for TOPIC,] tennis is skillful." Feb 14, 2023 at 17:41
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The が is not a subject marker, so the literal translation is still "(The subject) is good at tennis".

It is the usage of:


2 希望・好悪・能力などの対象を示す。「水―飲みたい」「紅茶―好きだ」「中国語―話せる」

That is, it marks "what" in wanting, liking, and ability to do something.

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  • Ah, I haven't heard of that usage before. I dug more into this and found some conflicting opinions from Tofugu, Cure Dolly, and a couple other articles from Google searches. For whatever reason, the other explanations make more sense to me, but I'm glad this answer is here as another way for people to understand it; much appreciated.
    – gills
    Oct 15, 2022 at 3:22
  • @gills I'm not sure if its standard terminology everywhere, but e.g. Seiichi Makino's "Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar", calls が a subject marker, while は is a topic marker. Japanese frequently omits the topic when it is understood from context, but the topic still "exists". Something like 「彼はテニスが上手です」could be hyper-literally translated as "as for him, tennis is the thing that is skilled". "Him" is the topic, and "tennis" is the subject of the verb "skilled". I'm no expert by any means, but many sources say its very important to keep the idea of "topic" separate from "subject" in JP.
    – mbrig
    Oct 15, 2022 at 6:54
  • So, when <x>は is omitted from the sentence, even though "tennis" is the subject of the sentence, you need to remember that someone/something else is the topic. This seems subtly different than the standard english grammar meaning of "subject", but I'm not enough of an expert on either to speak confidently.
    – mbrig
    Oct 15, 2022 at 7:07
  • @mbrig - There is not really much point in analyzing which part is the grammatical subject and which is the topic. は may appear twice in one sentence, like 彼はテニスは上手です. Even が can also appear twice in a subordinate clause, like 彼がテニスが上手なことは有名です. Like sundowner says, が in sentences like 〜が上手です and 〜が好きです marks the object of skillfulness, liking, etc. That’s what’s important.
    – aguijonazo
    Oct 15, 2022 at 8:47
  • @aguijonazo well, it's important to me, as I want to understand Japanese grammar. if I'm not mistaken, no matter what language, a grammatically complete sentence or thought requires a subject (the doer) and an action (what we're saying about the subject). If "tennis" is just the object of the verb, then we don't have a complete sentence grammatically. That's fine in practical usage, but in an effort to understand the grammar, it confuses me. It means there's an implied second が which would mark the subject.
    – gills
    Oct 15, 2022 at 23:47

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