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Making Sense of Japanese Grammar: A Clear Guide Through Common Problems

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BY ZELJKO CIPRIS AND SHOKO HAMANO
HONOLULU: UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII PRESS, 2002
199 PAGES. HARDCOVER, ISBN: 0-8248-2497-0
PAPERBACK, ISBN: 0-8248-2583-7

Reviewed by Raymond Stein

When using Japanese, do you hesitate to use the same verb over and over? Does the apparent complexity of lengthy, Falkneresque sentences in Japanese stymie you? Do you still struggle to differentiate between the usage of particles –wa and –ga, or more egregiously, find it a challenge to clearly explain their usage to your Japanese language students? How about the locational particles –de and –ni? Would you love to delve into a unit entitled “Reality consists of continuous-grade scales; language makes things discrete”?

Those who have studied and love studying the Japanese language will recognize and appreciate the above questions (and will look forward to discovering what the last question is all about!). Making Sense of Japanese Grammar does a masterful job of living up both to its title, and its subtitle: A Clear Guide Through Common Problems. Authors Zeljko Cipris, assistant professor of Japanese at the University of the Pacific, and Shoko Hamano, associate professor of Japanese at George Washington University, have carried the theme of clarity throughout the book, beginning with the straightforward title. Similarly, the table of contents not only organizes the book, but it is also a veritable study guide in itself. Some sample unit (authors’ term) entries:

Unit 2: Use the verb at the end!

Unit 16: The particle -wa identifies what the sentence is about and urges the listener to pay attention to the part that follows

Unit 22: Only one direct object particle –o appears per verb

Unit 47: No is for a familiar event; koto is for an abstract idea

Unit 50: Te- forms connect very closely related events

The entries are similarly informative and/or memory-jogging for all of the book’s sixty-six units.

The authors have also included an equally clear and succinctly written introduction, which begins with the following paragraph:

The purpose of this book is to explain basic principles underlying a wide range of phenomena in Japanese. We hope that our readers will realize that many phenomena which at first look idiosyncratic and Japanese-specific are closely connected to general principles which are not so exotic.

At the end of each unit they include a quick, one-sentence reference to related topics in other units, and in nearly all units there is one or more comprehension questions, with answers provided in the back of the book. There is also a glossary of fairly basic (and mostly English) grammar terms and an index. Finally, a quick leafing through the book impresses the observer with the book’s uncluttered, simple layout, characterized most notably by doublespacing between paragraphs and examples. This in itself creates a relaxed atmosphere in which frequently complex Japanese grammar concepts somehow seem more accessible.

By sheer volume, the emphasis of the book is on modeling the correct application of the grammar points. To this end, half or more of the entire book consists of sentence examples illustrating the applicable grammar concepts. These are each presented in triptychal fashion: in characters and kana, romaji, and English, making them helpful to all levels of learners. The sentences are practical and up to date, and unobtrusively add to the learning experience. Not limited to simple conversation topics, the examples touch on economics, literature, sumo, Japanese mythology, classroom situations, and many more.

Making Sense of Japanese Grammar is neither a book for an absolute beginner nor for the advanced linguistics student looking for detailed explanations using terms of art from that field. Cipris and Hamano have intentionally eschewed terms like “verbal aspect” or “modality” in favor of terms they feel are more accessible to the intermediate, non-specialist Japanese language learner. They even state that “If you have never heard of the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, but are genuinely interested in learning the Japanese language, this book is for you.”

Obviously, then, this book may leave some college or secondary instructors wishing for more technical explanations, either for them or for their advanced students who might be referencing the book, but that is not the audience the authors are targeting. As a high school Japanese teacher with fifteen years experience teaching the language, I find this book a valuable reference for myself, and a worthwhile book to consider making available to or using as a supplemental text with third-year or higher high school students (or perhaps a precocious second-year student, with judicious excerpting). Not quite as familiar with current college courses, I would nonetheless recommend the book for similar levels there, with more comprehensive and in-depth use and application.

The beauty of a book such as this is, paradoxically, both its completeness and its incompleteness. By that I mean that it cannot compare with a grammar guide such as Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui’s A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar or other such exhaustive examinations of the details and nuances of the structure and usage of Japanese. Nevertheless, in its own context, it is a thorough overview of the language. The reader can, in less than 200 pages, study the concepts the authors deem fundamental to a good understanding of beginning, intermediate, and even advanced Japanese, all rolled up into one package of steadily increasing complexity. The book doesn’t cover everything, but it does give a manageable presentation of many grammatical structures and terminology in a manner that will keep the reader engaged and looking forward to coming back for more.

When pursuing fluency in Japanese and constructing one’s own framework for coming to grips with the language’s abstruse, unique—and even peculiar—aspects, one cannot have too many tools, and Making Sense of Japanese Grammar is one of the more useful and valuable I’ve come across in recent years. I highly recommend it for Japanese teachers at any level, and for excerpting at varying levels of comprehensiveness for intermediate and advanced students at the secondary level and above.