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A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar – Book Review

Posted January 27th, 2012 by Enrico in Learning Japanese, Reviews

This is the first time we’re reviewing a book on The Japanese Learner so before we get into it, here’s a small disclaimer: we link to Amazon.com’s listing of the book but this is only because Amazon.com is where Enrico buys many of his books (and, since moving to the US, many other things as well). The Japanese Learner is not an Amazon.com affiliate and is not affiliated with The Japan Times. We do not make a single penny off of you clicking on that link or buying books from Amazon.com and we have no such deal with the publisher either. We want to emphasize this because we want you to know that while Enrico definitely recommends this book, he has no financial incentive to convince you to buy a copy.

If you’re following along on Facebook or Google+, we post a new vocabulary word almost every day. On Facebook, we are starting to see more and more questions about grammar. So this week, I thought I’d review one of the best grammar books in my personal Japanese reference library for beginners: A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui and published by The Japan Times. You can snag a copy from Amazon.com or your favorite Japanese bookstore, among other places.

At ~630 pages and (by my rough estimate) a couple hundred entries with both English and Japanese indexes, “dictionary” is definitely a very appropriate term but this book is also an excellent general-purpose grammar reference. The preface of the book includes in-depth explanations of general grammatical/linguistic terms, notes on characteristics of Japanese grammar and word order that include basic verb conjugations, introductory notes on particles, and even a brief treatment of levels of politeness and sound symbolism. The first thirty of so pages of this book pack in more valuable tidbits of Japanese grammar than I’ve seen in books spanning well over a hundred pages. After the entries, there are appendices with even more in-depth coverage of verb conjugation, pronouns, counters, compound words, transititve/intransitive verb pairs, and many other important concepts of Japanese grammar.

But the real meat of this book is, of course, the entries. They are printed in alphabetical order by romanization and include all of the basic grammar you could need in your first two years of Japanese courses in college/university. Many particles and verbs that beginners have difficulty with are also included. At the back of the book, there are English and Japanese indexes, but I rarely use either. I personally find the indexes unintuitive and prefer the printed order of the entries for lookup but your mileage may vary. Each entry includes:

  • Key sentence or sentences. These sentences embody the core meaning of the grammar point and include romaji, full kanji, and translation to English. All of this is enclosed in a grid and each of the parts of speech are separated from each other and labeled, to aid beginners in parsing the sentence.
  • Formation. If there are multiple uses for the same word in sentence formation, each is covered and concisely labeled.
  • Example sentences. These expand on the key sentences by giving slightly more complicated examples using the grammar point of the entry.
  • Notes. This is where the entries really shine. While many other grammar books may give a loose translation to English and some samples and hope you can pin down the rest by context, this book gives in-depth notes about the grammar point, including descriptions of precisely what context(s) it can be used in, related grammar points (with references to other entries), and more sample sentences, very often demonstrating how not to use the grammar point by presenting purposefully awkward or outright grammatically incorrect sentences.

Really, the greatest strength of this book is also its greatest weakness: the explanations are incredibly dense. The notes are very thorough and packed with linguistic terms. To be fair, the book includes an explanation of very many of those terms, but it does incur a lot of cognitive overhead for readers who aren’t intimately familiar with linguistics (or who can’t quickly pick up the linguistic terms from their explanation at the beginning of the book). To save space, many common terms are also abbreviated, which makes reading them even a bit more difficult.

Also, while many basic particles are covered, they are not the focus of the book. If you’re having trouble with particles in particular, there are other books that are all about particles and you may find some of them to be much better than A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar.

This is not a book for simple explanations and it is probably not a book that you want to use to learn or teach yourself Japanese grammar; this is the book to go to when you need to go beyond the basic explanations of your first- and second-year textbooks and get a much fuller picture of how the grammatical structures work. But it’s for that precise reason that I strongly recommend you add this book to your Japanese reference bookshelf. In my opinion it is, no contest, the greatest basic Japanese grammar reference ever printed.

Sample content can be found here.

Do you own a copy of this book? How do you like it? Leave a comment here, on Facebook, or on Google+. Or, if you’d like to suggest other materials for us to review in the future, leave a comment or e-mail enrico@thejapaneselearner.com.

  1. One Response to “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar – Book Review”

  2. By Kimberly on Jan 27, 2012

    I personally have this book in my collection as well. I love the examples sentences that are provided with each grammar entry, however one must know enough Japanese to know that most of the entries are in the plain/casual speech.

    Also, I found that I have used this book when I need to look up a grammar point I am already studying. As Enrico said, this book is great as a supplement to your current studies and by no means should be used as a “textbook” to learn from.

    Happy learning!

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