548 - ~てしかたがない

You may recall that we looked at しかない in our previous N3 lesson.

I got an email from a reader asking what the difference was between しかない as we saw it in that lesson and the phrases 仕方がない (しかたがない) and しょうがない, which mean something like "It can't be helped," "There's nothing that can be done," or even "Oh, well..."

My first thought was, "I should write a lesson about 仕方がない and しょうがない!

...then I realized that I already talked about these phrases back in this lesson: [NDL #373] - JLPT N3: ようがない.

Reading those lessons, one could easily get confused about the differences between しかない and しかた[しょう]がない. The main difference is that しかない attaches to verbs―in other words, it gets absorbed into other phrases, like this one:


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.”


しかた[しょう]がない, on the other hand, can act as a standalone phrase:

仕方がない・しょうがない。
しかたがない・しょうがない。
It can't be helped. // It's no use. // There's nothing that can be done.


This makes sense, in a way, because we can think of 仕方がない as literally meaning "There is no way." That makes sense because 仕方 (しかた) can mean "a way" or "a method."

Getting confused? If so, please go back and re-read these two lessons:

- [NDL #373] - JLPT N3: ようがない
- [NDL #541] - JLPT N3: しかない

Once you're done doing that, things are going to get a bit more confusing...


JLPT N3: ~てしかたがない

Strangely enough, attaching しかたがない (or しょうがない in spoken [more casual] sentences [or even しかたがありません in rather formal language]) to the て-form of verbs, i-adjectives, and na-adjectives means something like "extremely," "so," or "incredibly."

て-form VERB/i-adjective/na-adjective + しかたがない/しょうがない
extremely VERB; so i-adjective; incredibly na-adjective

Why?

Well, let's start with an example...


私は男ばかりの家庭で育ったので、娘が可愛くしかたがありません
わたし は おとこ ばかり の かてい で そだった ので、 むすめ が かわいくてしかたがありません。
I grew up in a house with all boys, so my daughter just seems so lovely to me.
Literally: “I + は + boy + only + の + household + で + was raised / grew up + ので (=because), + daughter + が + cute (and) + しかたがありません.”


Earlier in this lesson, we saw that しかたがない can mean "it can't be helped."

Here we have it (well, the slightly more formal しかたがありません) attaching to the て-form of the i-adjective 可愛い (かわいい // cute).

In a semi-literal way, we could say that this means "can't help but (feel that something is) cute."

Or at least, that's the best explanation I've got as to why ~てしかたがない means "extremely," "so," etc.


Here's an example with a na-adjective:


どうしてこんなところにキノコが生えるのか、不思議しかたがない
どうして こんな ところ に キノコ が はえる の か、 ふしぎでしかたがない。
It’s so strange that mushrooms are growing in a place like this. // I don’t understand at all how mushrooms can be growing in a place like this.
Literally: “why + this type of + place + に + mushroom + が + sprout + のか, + mysterious / strange + で + しかたがない.”


It's. So. Mysterious.
Brain... Can't... Handle... It...



And here is our first example with a verb attaching to しかたがない:


もう5年以上も前のことなのに、今でも思い出すと腹が立っしかたがない
もう ごねん いじょう も まえ の こと なのに、 いま でも おもいだす と はらがたってしかたがない。
It’s already been over five years since it happened, but I still get so incrediblyangry when I think about it.
Literally: “already + five years + more than + も + before + の + thing + なのに (=although), + now + でも (=even) + recall + と (=and) + get angry (and) (=belly + が + stand [and]) + しかたがない.”


Have you noticed that all of our sentences so far have been in the first person (="I")?

Since ~てしかたがない is used to express strong emotions, it would be strange to use it when describing other people... unless we use phrases that indicate we are guessing about someone else's emotions. Typically, this will mean attaching things like ~ようだ and ~らしい to the end of the sentence:


飼い犬が玄関でそわそわしている。散歩に行きたくしかたがないようだ。
かいいぬ が げんかん で そわそわ している。 さんぽ に いきたくてしかたがない ようだ。
My dog is waiting by the front door. Apparently he’s dying to go on a walk.
Literally: “pet dog + が + (Japanese) entryway + で + fidgety / restless + is doing. + walk + に + wants to go (and) + しかたがない + it seems (=ようだ).”


I mentioned this above, but ~てしょうがない is what we would use when speaking (i.e. not writing) Japanese. For instance, we might say...


飼い犬が玄関でそわそわしている。散歩に行きたくしょうがないようだ。
かいいぬ が げんかん で そわそわ している。 さんぽ に いきたくてしょうがない ようだ。
My dog is waiting by the front door. Apparently he’s dying to go on a walk.
Literally: “pet dog + が + (Japanese) entryway + で + fidgety / restless + is doing. + walk + に + wants to go (and) + しかたがない + it seems (=ようだ).”


I'm hesitant to mention this, but ~てしかたがない can also be used with reflexive verbs:


子供が産まれてから、電車やバスの吊り革が汚く思えしかたがない
こども が うまれて から、 でんしゃ や バス の つりかわ が きたなく おもえてしかたがない。
After having children, I just can’t help but think that the handles in trains and buses are dirty.
Literally: “child + が + since (they) were born (=were born [and] + from), + train + や + bus + の + handles / straps (that you hold onto for support) + が + dirty + seem (and) + しかたがない.”


If you're anything like me, you're thinking, WTF is a reflexive verb?

I feel you.

Here's a brain-melting Wikipedia quote:

In grammar, a reflexive verb is, loosely, a verb whose direct object is the same as its subject, for example, "I wash myself". More generally, a reflexive verb has the same semantic agent and patient (typically represented syntactically by the subject and the direct object). For example, the English verb to perjure is reflexive, since one can only perjure oneself. In a wider sense, the term refers to any verb form whose grammatical object is a reflexive pronoun, regardless of semantics; such verbs are also referred to as pronominal verbs, especially in grammars of the Romance languages.

The really peculiar thing is that "reflexive verbs" tend to appear in the passive form in Japanese.

One example of this would be 思える (おもえる). You may know that 思う (おもう) means "to think." If you know a lot about conjugating Japanese verbs, then you might see 思える and think it means "can think." Our translations will make a lot more sense, however, if we just say that 思える (おもえる) means "to seem." In some cases it also gets translated as "to appear likely."

I still don't quite understand why that's a reflexive verb. Maybe I'd understand why if I took ten minutes to really think about it, but that seems like a waste of time. Wasting time is something we should avoid... unless we're enjoying ourselves, that is. And if you enjoy thinking about reflexive verbs then you might be as much of a language nerd as I am. Good luck with that...




Noticed any typos we've missed or other issues?
Report them here at this link.

Have questions about something in this lesson? Something not quite clicking yet? Join our discord community and discuss any questions / comments with us and fellow students.
You can join by heading to this link.