541 - しかない

JLPT N3: しかない (can only; no choice but to)

You may recall that we talked a bit about the phrase しか~ない way back in this lesson: [NDL #38] - Can't get you out of my head.

Specifically, we saw sentences like these:

一万円札しかない
いちまんえんさつ しか ない.
I don't have anything but 10,000 yen bills. // I only have 10,000 yen bills.
Literally: "10,000 yen bills + しか + ない (=don't have).

ビールしか飲まない
ビール しか のまない。
I don't drink anything but beer. // I only drink beer.
Literally: "beer + しか + don't drink."

In these sentences, しか~ない is being used to say "only" or "except for."

しか~ない (in the sentences above) is a bit different than しかない (this lessons' grammar point), though.

We use しかない (the N3 grammar topic of this lesson) when expressing that we have no choice but to do something.

Here's an example:

電車が止まってしまったのだから、歩いて帰るしかない
でんしゃ が とまって しまった のだから、 あるいて かえる しかない。
The trains have stopped, so I have choice but to walk home.
Literally: “train + が + stopped (unfortunately) + のだから (=since; because), + walk (and) + go home + can only.”

So we have:

ACTION + しかない
no choice but to ACTION; can only ACTION

You might be wondering why I wrote "ACTION" instead of just putting "VERB." The reason is that the word coming directly before しかない—the word denoting the action that must be done—can be a VERB or it can be a する-NOUN (i.e. a noun that can connect to する → a noun denoting an action).

In other words, these are our two options for forming しかない phrases:

VERBしかない
no choice but to VERB; can only VERB

する-NOUNしかない
no choice but to する-NOUN; can only する-NOUN


Here's an example with a する-NOUN:


この痔を治すには、手術しかないと言われた。
この じ を なおす に は、 しゅじゅつ しかない と いわれた。
I was told that surgery is the only way to get rid of my hemorrhoids.
Literally: “this + hemorrhoid + を + fix / cure + には, + surgery + can only + と + was told.”
Note: It's still hard for me to believe that a complicated word like hemorrhoids is just 痔 (じ). One syllable! Kanji-story nerds will take delight in noting that hemorrhoids (痔) are a sickness (疒) that comes from sitting in a Buddhist temple (寺) for too long.


手術 (しゅじゅつ // surgery) is a する-NOUN because we can say 手術する (しゅじゅつする // to do surgery).

When we write 手術しかない, it means "have no choice but to (do) surgery," or "(doing) surgery is the only option (left)."


You will find that しかない is frequently paired up with the phrase こうなったら.

こうなったら (literally, "this way + if [it] became") can be translated in isolation as "in this situation" or "in this case." In a sentence, though, it often goes untranslated:


お金がなくて家賃が払えない。こうなったら車を売るしかない
おかね が なくて やちん が はらえない。 こう なったら くるま を うる しかない。
I have no money and I can’t pay my rent. The only option I have left is to sell my car.
Literally: “money + が + don’t have (and) + rent + が + cannot pay. + this way + if/when became + car + を + sell + can only.”



レシートが無いのなら、返金は諦めるしかないと思う。
レシート が ない の なら、 へんきん は あきらめる しかない と おもう。
If you don’t have your receipt, I don’t think you’ll be able to return it.
Literally: “receipt + が + don’t have + の + if (it’s the case that), + refund + は + give up + can only + と + think.”


Somewhat more literally, we might have translated that as, "...I think you have no choice but to give up on getting a refund."


Listen for しかない being used in everyday Japanese.

If you watch anime, there is a good chance you'll hear it being used when a character "has no choice" but to do some thing he or she is reluctant to do—for example, "I have no choice but to use that move."

See you next time...




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