The (Sub)Zero Pronoun

Majorly Important Note: This is probably the most difficult section of this entire course.

I recommend reading this page at least twice, but ideally several times.

To avoid confusing people, this is also one of the very few pages in which I will be including romaji readings.


Must-Have Vocab for this Section:

For easy reference, here are the vocab we'll be using one more time.

Japanese Romaji English
watashi I
これ kore this
ピザ piza pizza
彼女 kanojo she
ニコ niko Niko (my name)
美味しい oishii delicious; tasty
日本人 nihonjin Japanese (person)
です desu [copula] (~is)
ビール biiru beer
飲んだ nonda drank

Let’s say that we have a very simple sentence in English structured as “A is B.”

For example:

A is B
I am Niko
This is a pizza
Pizza is delicious
She is Japanese

Looking at these sentences, a Japanese teacher might tell you that these are the equivalents in Japanese:

A
A

wa
B
B
です
desu

watashi

wa
ニコ
Niko
です
desu
これ
kore

wa
ピザ
piza
です
desu
ピザ
piza

wa
美味しい
oishii
です
desu
彼女
kanojo

wa
日本人
nihonjin
です
desu

Yes, these are accurate translations, but they are also fundamentally different sentences, because English and Japanese have a fundamentally different sentence structure.

The most important difference that I want to point out between these two sentence patterns is this:

  • A is the subject of the English sentences written above.
  • A is NOT the subject of the Japanese sentences written above.

Blasphemy! But before you throw your computer, books, and phone out the window in a fit of glorious grammar rage, allow me to explain, please…


The Zero Pronoun in Japanese

The zero what? Yeah, sorry, but we’re talking about linguistics now.

Oh no!

Here’s a very confusing explanation from this page on Wikipedia:

A zero pronoun occurs in some languages.[2] In the English sentence nobody knows the zero pronoun plays the role of the object of the verb, and in makes no difference it plays the role of the subject. Likewise, the zero pronoun in the book ∅ I am reading plays the role of the relative pronoun that in the book that I am reading. This is also referred to as PRO. In pronoun-dropping languages, including null subject languages such as most Romance languages, the zero pronoun is a prominent feature.

If you read about Japanese linguistics, it won’t be long until you come across the deadly zero pronoun in Japanese. People get excited talking about it because it is used so much more liberally than in English. For example, please take a look at the following dialogue…

A: Where is the beer?
B: I drank it.

If we have that same conversation in (casual) Japanese, it’s probably going to look like this:

A:ビールどこ?
biiru doko?
Literally: "beer + where?”

B: 飲んだよ。
nonda yo.
Literally: "drank + よ."

Literally translated, Sentence B, 「飲んだよ」is just:

drank (=飲んだ)

[assertive particle] (=よ)

It would also be okay to just say 飲んだ, but we add よ because it is common to add よ to the end of a sentence when we are informing the listener about something that they probably don’t know or making an assertion (often both).

So in the Japanese we can say just a single word:

飲んだ。
nonda.
I drank it [the beer].
Literally: "drank."

...and it's the same as saying this full sentence:

私はビールを飲んだ。
watashi wa biiru wo nonda.
I drank it [the beer].
Literally: “I + は (=topic marker) + beer + を (=object marker) + drank."

Let's try to figure out how many zero pronouns we have in our dialogue:

A:ビールどこ?
biiru doko?
Literally: "beer + where?”

B: 飲んだよ。
nonda yo.
Literally: "drank + よ."

(If the term "zero pronoun" is scary, think of it this way: How many words are missing from the dialogue above?)

If I'm not mistaken, the general school of thought would be that there are two zero pronouns in the dialogue listed above:

  1. 私(は)
    watashi (wa)
  2. ビール(を)
    biiru (wo)

So the "full sentence," one might argue, is getting truncated in this way:

B: (私は)(ビールを)飲んだよ。

B: (watashi wa)(biiru wo)nonda yo。
B: (I は)(beer を)drank yo。
↓ ↓ ↓
B: I drank it. // I drank the beer.

I think that, for the most part, explaining this type of sentence construction to students of Japanese is an obscene waste of time.

Then why are you showing it to me now?!

Well, because my explanation goes a little further.

Everything that I’ve said so far is pretty much in accordance with what all of those other boring books and articles about Japanese grammar will tell you. (As if I weren't boring you, too. ^_^) However, most materials would wholeheartedly disagree with the following sentence, which I believe to be true:

The Japanese conversation above actually has FOUR zero pronouns.

Here are the two sentences again, only this time I will insert all of the Japanese zero pronouns in parentheses*:

*(Although the は [wa] after ビール is in parentheses below, we're not counting that as a zero pronoun. Just think of it as part of the topic ビール. The topic-marking particle は is often dropped in casual sentences, which is why we wrote ビールどこ? and not ビールはどこ? )

A: Where is the beer?
B: I drank it.

A: ビール(は) (it が) どこ(ですか)?
biiru wa (it ga) doko (desu ka)?

B: (I が)(ビールを)飲んだよ。
(I ga) (biiru wo) nonda yo)

Woah, dude. There’s some English slipping into our Japanese sentences.

Wait! I can explain. So here are our four zero pronouns (=unspoken elements of the sentences):

  1. it (が)
  2. ですか
  3. I (が)
  4. ビール (を)

Let's look at them one by one.

Quick Side Note: I remember way back when I was a beginner of Japanese, I read some explanations about this type of stuff, and it was a very stressful experience. Everyone was talking about leaving out the subjects and objects of sentences, whereas I was still trying to figure out which one was which. The thing is, though, that getting a sense of these sentence constructions comes naturally.

Don't worry about this stuff when you’re trying to make sentences as much as when you're trying to understand them. You don’t have to fully grasp what I’m talking about in this section… at least, not if you’re still a beginner.

2. ですか// (desu ka)

To be honest, I wasn't even going to include this as a zero pronoun initially, because I've never had to think about it before.

Saying 「ビールはどこですか」is simply a more formal way of saying 「ビールどこ?」They both mean “Where's the beer?” We do a similar kind of shortening in English questions, too. It’s a bit more casual to say “You like pizza?” than it is to say “Do you like pizza?”

We've already talked about です a bit. In a future lesson, we'll take an in-depth look at か, too.


4. ビール(を)// (biiru (wo))

I'll quickly mention that を is the particle that comes after the object of a transitive verb. We won't discuss this here, but we'll look at this in great detail later on.

You could say that this zero pronoun makes the most sense.

If A asks a question about the beer, and Person B says “drank,” then it's not too difficult to understand that Person B is saying “(I) drank the beer.”

Although it might sound strange in English, a native speaker could probably guess the meaning:

A: Where’s the beer?
B: (I) drank.

If you spend a lot of time speaking English with Japanese people, you'll notice that they have problems using the pronoun "it." Specifically, they will not remember to include it after a lot of verbs. You ask "Where's my phone charger?" and they say "I have" although they should say "I have it.

I suspect that one reason this error arises so frequently is that it seems, to a native Japanese speaker, completely unnecessary to mention the pronoun "it" when it is so clear that it is being referred to from context.

We don't have "it" in Japanese. Unlike English, we do not need to explicitly name the object of every transitive verb:

  • I have it. → I have.
  • I ate it. → I ate.
  • I drank it. → I drank.
  • I broke it. → I broke.

If you're a Nitpicky Ricky, then you'll be dying to point out that even that list of "disappearing its" is flawed because, depending on context, it will often just be:

  • I have it. → Have.
  • I ate it. → Ate.
  • I drank it. → Drank.
  • I broke it. → Broke.

What a great chance to explain...


1. it (が) // (it [ga])

3. I (が) // (I [ga])

This is the unorthodox zero pronoun. I'd like to give it a special name: The Subzero Pronoun.

The main reason I want to call it this is that “Subzero” is a really cool word & Mortal Kombat fighter. Also, this zero pronoun is different than the other zero pronouns.

Here's why:

  • *The Subzero Pronoun is in every single Japanese sentence. Sometimes it's stated (i.e. does not technically qualify as a "zero pronoun") and sometimes it's not stated (i.e. matches the grammatical definition of a "zero pronoun").
  • **The Subzero Pronoun is the subject of every single Japanese sentence.

*Your Japanese teacher might try to kill me if she reads this.
**This, too.


The Subzero Pronoun

To explain the subzero pronoun, I'll start by going back to “A is B.”

We had these sentences before:

A is B
I am Niko
This is a pizza
Pizza is delicious
She is Japanese

In this list, A is “I, This, Pizza, She.” A is the subject.
Then we have the Japanese translations:

A
A

wa
B
B
です
desu

watashi

wa
ニコ
Niko
です
desu
これ
kore

wa
ピザ
piza
です
desu
ピザ
piza

wa
美味しい
oishii
です
desu
彼女
kanojo

wa
日本人
nihonjin
です
desu

In this case, A is “私、これ、ピザ、彼女.” That is, A in these sentences is the same as A in the English sentences. However, A is not the subject in the Japanese versions. The subject is the subzero pronoun, which is, in these particular examples, unspoken:

A
A

wa
(S.P.)

B
B
です
desu

watashi

wa
(I)

ニコ
Niko
です
desu
これ
kore

wa
(it)

ピザ
piza
です
desu
ピザ
piza

wa
(it)

美味しい
oishii
です
desu
彼女
kanojo

wa
(she)

日本人
nihonjin
です
desu

That probably looks and sounds ludicrous. I agree. I'm not trying to convince you that Japanese people are imagining some weird unspoken pronoun of each sentence—because they're not. Rather, hypothetically speaking, if these sentences actually had a “subject” in the English sense, then it would be the subzero pronoun.

You might think that I’m over-complicating Japanese with this explanation, but I believe that you will find this serves as an awesome foundation for understanding other aspects of the Japanese language. Of note, it pretty much entirely clears up the widespread confusion about the differences between the particles は (wa) and が (ga).


が and the Subzero Pronoun

Generally speaking, が is referred to as the "subject-marking particle."

I used to hate this label for が. It caused me a lot of confusion. Now that I've had several years to think about it, though, my views have changed a bit. I've tracked that long-held confusion to a specific issue: The grammatical function of が is not always the same as the spoken use of が.

I do think it's (probably) fine to state that が always marks the subject of a sentence. However, sometimes the reason that we say が is to put additional emphasis on the word coming directly before it.

Ignoring how it is used in conjunctions, where it can mean, among other things, "but" or "however," we can say that が has two uses:

  1. が is a "Pointer Particle."
  2. が is a "Subject-Marking Particle.

These meanings can and do overlap. Let's start by looking at...

が the "Pointer Particle"

I was taking Japanese lessons in Bangkok way back in 2014 (long story), and I was talking to my Japanese teacher about how it's hard to teach people the differences between the particles は and が.

He held up his pen and said, We say...

これペンです。
kore wa pen desu.
This is a pen.
Literally: "this + は + pen + です."

But, he continued, we don't say...

これペンです。
kore ga pen desu.
This is a pen.
Literally: "this + が + pen + です."

(Going on a tangent, I'd like to mention that one of the first sentences 99.9% of Japanese adults learned in English was "This is a pen." Give a Japanese person a chance to say that in English and they will knock it out of the park. No problem.)

Anyway, I get what my teacher was saying. When we're introducing the topic of a conversation, we can use は. I feel kind of bad for what I proceeded to tell him, although at the time it was pretty funny.

First, I said to my teacher, imagine that you are holding a pencil, and you say:

これペンです。
kore wa pen desu.
This is a pen.
Literally: "this + は + pen + です."

I could then shake head, hold up my pen, which is in fact a pen, and say:

いいえ、それ鉛筆です。
iie, sore wa enpitsu desu.
No, that is a pencil.
Literally: "no, + that + は + pencil + です."

これペンです。
kore ga pen desu.
This is a pen.
Literally: "this + が + pen + です."

My teacher's response: Silence.

Because I had introduced a situation in which it is totally natural to say これペンです.

It was natural because が is (often) like an "identifier particle" or a "pointer particle." That's why I put the word "This" in italics in that last sentence. We are emphasizing that This is a pen. Not that thing you're holding, which is a pencil.



が the "Subject-Marking Particle"

I hope you've been paying attention because I'm asking you to keep quite a lot of information in your working memory.

Earlier, we established that (1) the subzero pronoun is the subject of every Japanese sentence and (2) the subzero pronoun is not always explicitly stated.

In this list of sentences that we saw above, the part in the parentheses (=the subzero pronoun) is the (in this case, unspoken) subject of the sentence:

A
A

wa
(S.P.)

B
B
です
desu

watashi

wa
(I)

ニコ
Niko
です
desu
これ
kore

wa
(it)

ピザ
piza
です
desu
ピザ
piza

wa
(it)

美味しい
oishii
です
desu
彼女
kanojo

wa
(she)

日本人
nihonjin
です
desu

Now, if we accept the common argument that が is the subject-marking particle, then it stands to reason that が should be marking the subjects of our sentences in these sentences. Rephrasing that, we might say:

The Subzero Pronoun is the subject of every Japanese sentence. The Subzero Pronoun is always marked by が. So our full sentences are actually:

A
A

wa
(S.P. が)

B
B
です
desu

watashi

wa
(I が)

ニコ
Niko
です
desu
これ
kore

wa
(it が)

ピザ
piza
です
desu
ピザ
piza

wa
(it が)

美味しい
oishii
です
desu
彼女
kanojo

wa
(she が)

日本人
nihonjin
です
desu

Don't forget that the subzero pronoun is not necessarily unspoken. Generally speaking, if you see が marking a word, you can assume that it is the subzero pronoun. (I suspect that there must be exceptions to this rule... but I've yet to think of any.)

For example, here's a sentence you'll rarely hear in real life:

キリンは首が長いです。
kirin wa kubi ga nagai desu.
Giraffes have long necks.
Literally: "giraffe + は + neck + が + long + です.

The subject of our English translation is "Giraffes." If we are to believe that the word marked by が (i.e. the word directly before が) is the subzero pronoun, however, then the subject of the Japanese sentence would be 首 (kubi // neck). So if we wanted to write an English sentences with a grammatical structure similar to the Japanese, we might write something like:

キリンは首が長いです。
kirin wa kubi ga nagai desu.
As for giraffes, (their) necks are long.
Literally: "giraffe + は + neck + が + long + です.

Is it necessary for us to think of these awkward translations that match up with our attempts to label the pieces of a Japanese sentence? Is it necessary to demand that our Japanese sentences have "subjects," as we understand them, in the first place? I don't think so.

Somewhere out there in the world, there is a 12-year old girl that is, by our standards, a phenom at making Japanese sentences. Probably over a million such preteens. I doubt they're worrying about any of this stuff. And as your Japanese improves, I don't think you should worry about any of it, either. For now, though, I'm hoping that all of this will help you to make sense of the oh-so-unfamiliar sentence patterns we see in Japanese.

If you're at all like me, you might also think that it's pretty fun to do word surgery on these Japanese sentences, to ponder why it is that human language has evolved in such similar and different ways across time and space. You might also feel grateful that you get to sit around thinking about all of this stuff instead of being born in prehistoric Hokkaido, hunting woolley mammoths and trying your very best not to freeze to death.




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