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Subordinate Clauses! (第6回)

#6.  Subordinate Clauses!

by Jayna Tokie Tanaka

     One of the first things I say on the first day of a writing class is, “Do not translate! Think in English!” At first, few students understand what I mean, especially if most of their exposure to “writing” in English means “translating” from Japanese to English. However, for those who have tried to actually compose sentences and paragraphs in English, it should be obvious that Japanese sentences and English sentences have such different structures that it is almost impossible to translate a Japanese essay directly into English. Two problems that cannot be ignored exist, and they both have to do with structure. The first, and the subject of this column, is subordinate clauses, specifically the adjective clause. The other, the idea of paragraphs, deserves a column for itself (or several columns!).

     Along with the importance of verb tenses, I always emphasize the importance of subordinate clauses in English speaking and writing. To say anything of even mild complexity, it is important to learn to use these kinds of clauses. The easiest kind of subordinate clause to understand is the adjective clause, the one that is used all the time to modify nouns.

     The problem for many people is that the Japanese places the modifier for a noun before the noun itself. What happens when someone tries to translate this phrase into English is an awkward sentence that looks and sounds like a translation. In a Japanese newspaper this morning there was a typical sentence which causes this kind of problem. The Japanese was: . . . 隣接する滋賀県の住民 . . . This is, of course, the natural order of words in a Japanese sentence. However, if the sentence is translated in the same order in English, the result is: . . . neighboring Shiga Prefecture residents . . . It is not unusual at all to find student sentences written in this way. Of course, the best way to “correct” this awkward phrase is to use an adjective clause. It should be: . . . residents who live in neighboring Shiga Prefecture . . . With the clause and the addition of a clarifying verb, the meaning becomes very clear.

     A very good way to practice using the adjective clause is to make definitions. “What is a smart phone?” A definition usually includes an adjective clause like the following. “A smart phone is a mobile phone that has many functions, including the use as a phone, access to the Internet, and the ability to save large amounts of data.”  Every time we answer a question that involves a definition, we must use an adjective clause. “What is DNA?” “DNA is the material that passes on information about living things to the next generation.”  This is one of the exercises students must do in my reading classes. Being able to read means being able to understand and explain what has been read. It does not mean being able to translate the English into Japanese. Before we can discuss anything in my reading classes then, it is necessary for the participants to agree on the definitions of the expressions we will use in the discussions. We often use words of which we have only a vague understanding. Because the students must define difficult words and expressions before they discuss the subjects, the vagueness is somewhat lessened. “What is globalization?” “Globalization is the spread of information, business, culture, ideas, and people around the world.” With this definition, it becomes possible to discuss such issues as where globalization exists, how it affects our lives, and whether we should welcome it or not.

     One good way to become conscious about the English use of subordinate clauses is to count the number of clauses in a sentence. In any piece of writing, the sentences are a combination of simple, compound, and complex sentences. Becoming aware of the structure of sentences, especially when they are compound and complex, should be good practice for writing and speaking English. Becoming aware of the importance English places on the use of subordinating clauses is the first step in becoming a fluent writer.


Jayna Tokie Tanaka(ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ)

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