Dictionaries of Japanese Grammar

Wandering through the reference sections of bookstores out of habit pays off; the latest and final volume of the Makino and Tsutui’s Japanese grammar dictionaries, “A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar” had just come out 2 weeks ago on April 25!

The book is so new that at the time of this writing, amazon.co.jp doesn’t stock it, nor does amazon.com have it. Even the Japan Times Bookclub’s entry’s PDF preview is still a 404. However, I walked through the reference section in Kinokuniya books in NYC, and spotted 2 copies on the shelf. One copy was in my hand and at the register minutes later.

The books aren’t very expensive relative to university textbooks (though I think I’m just used to buying $150 textbooks…), they’re between $30 and $50 each. But why did I buy this book without a second thought? Because the two earlier books, Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar (1986) and Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar (1995), have been utterly invaluable to me over the years I’ve had them.

They’ve been invaluable because it is extremely difficult to find so much well explained grammatical material without either reading a huge number of textbooks, or studying the language in a linguistics course. In fact, the original methodology for writing the earlier volumes involved the authors reviewing a number of textbooks at beginner, and intermediate levels, and distilling what they believed were the most essential grammar constructs. This latest advanced book adds on a new dimension, using the Internet to find even more natural example sentences to further illustrate usage.

What makes the dictionaries invaluable for self study are the wealth of examples, including ungrammatical ones. Each given with a translation, and explanations where necessary.

As an example, I’ll pull out highlights of one entry in the advanced book, ellipses mean I’ve cut things out for length:

(to i)ttara nai (と 言)ったらない phr. – a phrase used to express a strong sensation or emotion – so, extremely, indescribably… [Rel. hontou ni, te shikata ga nai, te tamaranai ]

Key Sentences:
(A) つまらないミスで試合に負けて 悔しい (と言)ったらない。
(I’m so mortified because I lost the game due to a stupid mistake.)

[V/Adj(i) | inf. nonpast] (と言)ったらない。
腹が立つ(と言)ったらない。((I’m) so mad)
…6 more examples…

12 example sentences with translations…

To ittara nai is considered to be a shortened form of X koto to ittara iiyou ga nai “when you mention the fact that X, there’s no way to describe it” For example (1a) is equivalent to (1b) in meaning.

(1a) この辞書は使いにくいことと言ったらない.(=KS(D)) [key sentence D]
(1b) この辞書がつかにくいことと言ったら言いようがない。
(When it comes to the fact that (lit., when you mention the fact that) this dictionary is hard to use, there is no way to describe it = This dictionary is indescribably hard to use.)

Thus, to ittara nai is used when something causes the speaker a sensation or emotion that is so strong it is hard to describe.
4 more notes follow, such as how ‘to ittara nai’ can be words that represent sensations, emotions, or describe a state, event, or action that causes an emotional reaction in the speaker.

Related expressions:
1) Hontou ni “really” can be used to emphasize a senation or emotion; thus, it can be used in place of ttara nai, as in [1]. _3 example sentences followed.
2) Te shikata ga nai “cannot help feeling; extremely; so” and te tamaranai“unbearable; extremely; be dying to” are similar in meaning to to ittara nai and in some situations they are interchangeable. 3 examples again…

However, te shikata ga nai and te tamarainai are used only to express the speaker’s personal emotion or sensation (or the emotion/sensation with whom the speaker is empathetic). Thus, these phrases cannot be used for generic statements, as in [3]:
[3] a. ??大きな書類を保存するのを忘れてコンピュータがフリーズしたときは情けなく て仕方がない (cf. KS©) [contrasting with key sentence C, note, the ?? in front is linguistic notation for a sentence they’re very unsure of the ‘legality’ of, a * is when it’s illegal.)

Another difference is that te shikata ga nai and te tamaranai are used to describe a lasting state and cannot be used for a momentary reaction to a short-term state.

As you can see, it’s awesome for someone who needs clear instruction on grammar. The rich collection of examples is also exactly what helps me learn how the thing is used properly, which some dry reference texts fail to illustrate.

I care so much about these books because for the most part, I’m self taught in Japanese. I’m greatly indebted to the 2 years of Japanese I took in high school, and the 1 term I took at university. However, for the past 7 years since then, I’ve studied alone, reading, listening, translating, until I’m at the point I am now. So I highly recommend these books to others who are trying to learn on their own.

Small update (5/13/2008) – I forgot to mention, the index for Advanced, like the index for Intermediate, includes references across all the previous volumes. That way, you might be looking for one construct, and while it’s not in the Advanced, you’ll know what page to find it in one of the other books if it’s there. Certainly saves on shuffling around books on the shelf.


  1. Nekki
    05/12/2008 02:07 AM | #

    Funny. I still saw these books available in amazon.co.jp. But only Beginner and Intermediate book. I’m planning to get these books to learn japanese :D. Do you have any good japanese-english dictionary to recommend?

  2. Dagger
    05/13/2008 03:26 PM | #

    That sounds incredibly helpful. When I encountered the ったらない construction recently, I got a sense of what it meant from the sentence (and affirmed that sense by Googling my way through loads more instances of it in the wild, as it were), but obviously seeing it explained neatly like that gives me a lot more confidence about the meaning. I think I’ll pick up the Advanced book once it gets listed at Amazon.

  3. Shuijie
    05/19/2008 11:37 PM | #

    Oh, YES. I could never find anything for Japanese grammar. These sound reliable, though—you have now inspired me to acquire these books.

  4. Jake
    05/20/2008 12:46 AM | #

    You’re so lucky you got A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar! All three of them look so pretty together



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